Richard Hamilton, who died last year at the age of 89, was known as a witty and cerebral precursor of British pop art.
Even the title of the London National Gallery exhibition of his final pictures, “Late Works,” is a black joke. Hamilton may have guessed he would be a late artist by the time the exhibition opened).
Admittedly, in late years his work became not cool but heated and politically engaged. Nonetheless, it’s unexpected to find him turning in these “Late Works” to that venerable theme in western art, the nude.
Not all feature naked young women, but most include an unclothed blond or brunette taking the viewer on a sort of naturist tour through highlights of art history.
For example, “FlorVence” (2004-5) presents an unclothed blond stepping out of a monastic cell in the friary of San Marco, Florence (erstwhile residence of the 15th-century hellfire preacher Savonarola). On the wall beside her are graffiti-style sketches of the Stations of the Cross.
“The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin”(2007) finds the same blond, sprouting wings, blurred with movement and equally undressed, playing the part of the angel of the annunciation; the Madonna is a nude brunette.
The entire image is quotation of a 15th century altarpiece in the manner of Fra Angelico, the painter/monk who frescoed the cells in San Marco.
Hamilton was a great admirer of Marcel Duchamp, to whose work he also tips his hat here. “Descending Nude” (2006) is a clever inversion of Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912).
The original depicts one nude in a sequence of different positions as she walks down the steps. Hamilton’s picture consists of three walking downstairs, and another surveying the scene in a mirror.
He referred to all these works as “paintings,” but in fact they often consist of photographic imagery, edited and collaged on a computer screen, which was then sometimes painted over in oils.
Appropriately then, his last unfinished work presents three great painters contemplating a photographic nude. It took its theme from “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu,” (The Unknown Masterpiece), a short story by Honore de Balzac about the ultimate failure of an elderly painter.
Balzac’s artist Frenhofer spends decades attempting to paint a nude so convincing that looking at it would be like being in the presence of a real woman.
When younger painters come to visit him, all they see is “a mass of strange lines forming a wall of paint” from which one female foot can be glimpsed emerging.
In “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (2011), Hamilton collaged self-portraits by three great masters of the nude -- Titian, Poussin and Courbet -- into a studio setting.
In the foreground reclines a naked woman, actually taken from a 19th-century photograph. Titian and Courbet seem to be discussing her, looking slightly anxious. They could well be debating the eternal and insoluble problem of how to capture a living, breathing 3D world on a two-dimensional sheet of canvas or paper.
I wouldn’t say that Hamilton’s work, like Frenhofer’s, was a failure. It’s far too intelligent for that. Nonetheless, to my mind, there’s often an ingredient missing, which was -- ironically given the amount of flesh on display -- a sensuous feeling of reality.
To see the way a great painter of the past could create poetry in surfaces and color even while presenting a grimly funereal theme, pop into Room I, where Poussin’s “Extreme Unction” (1638-40) is on show as part of a public appeal to buy it for the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
“Richard Hamilton: The Late Works” is at the National Gallery, London, until Jan. 13, 2013. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk or call +44-20-7747-2423.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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