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from Richard Hamilton's Swingeing London series (1972)
cover art

Richard Hamilton: Swingeing London 67(f)

Andrew Wilson

(MIT Press; US: Jan 2012)

When you listen to “We Love You” by The Rolling Stones, it opens with the sound of a jail door slamming shut. When you look at the cover of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles—guided by art director Richard Hamilton—included, at the suggestion of his art dealer, Robert Fraser, a sweater with “welcome” for the “good guys” the beleaguered Stones, knitted across the chest of a Shirley Temple doll.


In that jail sat Fraser, who would be sentenced to six months in the summer of 1967 for cannabis possession. Keith Richards faced the same term; neither he nor Mick Jagger, also charged with Fraser, would serve time as they appealed. Meanwhile, Jagger’s looming three-month sentence (reduced to a “conditional discharge”) earned more attention, sympathy, and opprobrium.


William Rees-Mogg’s famous editorial on Jagger in the London Times ran with the leader “Who Breaks a Butterfly on the Wheel?” Fraser merited, Judge Black reasoned, a stiffer penalty as the Eton-educated, King’s African Rifles veteran came from a good family, and the court sought to make him an example of “swingeing” London. The pun, obscure to non-British eyes and ears, depends on “swinge”: to beat or scourge. The media martyrdom of Fraser, and by extension the flamboyant Jagger, compelled their “friend and collaborator” Hamilton to make the pair’s gesture—hands flung before faces as the camera intrudes on their mobile incarceration, uneasy speed shuddering to a flashbulb’s halt—into Pop Art.


On 27 June, Fraser and Jagger had both been found guilty in court. After a night in Lewes Prison, the pair, handcuffed together (Jagger also being shackled to a policeman), were photographed by John Twine for the Daily Mail. This snapshot became the basis for a dozen images manufactured by Hamilton over the next five years.


Andrew Wilson, a curator at the Tate Museum, places Hamilton’s series in the context of “history paintings” created out of photography and collage. As a noun and verb, collage centers Hamilton’s work. The titular painting’s “source is a reproduction of a photograph from a newspaper, and the painting describes a passage from photographic emulsion to screen-printed half-tone, and then to authorial marks using paint.” Wilson locates in the result “a collage made up of the associated shifting codes, intentions, meanings, and readings-in of different materials, and it demonstrates the ways in which these materials can be manipulated and presented.”


In the ‘50s, Hamilton pioneered Pop Art: the “expression of popular culture in fine art terms”. His definition, for Wilson, expands into political critique and ethical assertion. The outrage by those in the conservative sector at drug use compelled the court to crack down and repress the stimulants that fueled sexual license and immoral indulgence. The outrage by those in the counterculture contingent sparked the media and celebrities to speak out and acclaim these same stimulants, in the Summer of Love.


The police raid at Redlands, the Sussex country estate of Richards, involved 20 officers in an early morning bust that revealed “Miss X”, Marianne Faithfull, clad in only a fur coat. Lurid tabloid headlines followed. News of the World campaigned to take the Stones down, and after the home invasion in February 1967, it appeared their publicity might have worked—only to backfire as sympathy spread for Mick and Keith.


Richard Hamilton, The Citizen (1982-3)

Richard Hamilton, The Citizen (1982-3)


These tabloids, cut and pasted, entered Hamilton’s collages. Wilson documents Hamilton’s career before and after the Fraser-Jagger images, and his work for The Beatles (aka The White Album) represents well his insight into the fragmentation of that band rooted in the recording of that double LP, and how the remote, austere cover and title played off against the accessible poster inside, framing four separate individuals rather than the Lonely Hearts Club Band (and wax figures) of the previous year.


This contrast of distance and familiarity continues throughout Hamilton’s painting. While the Stones did not fall apart under their own pressures, they courted excess and danced with their own devils. As a sympathizer, Hamilton supports their stance, and Wilson sustains it as an art historian of the period.


While most of the book attends to the context of the painting series itself, peering into the larger display reveals telling details. Wilson makes asides that deserve study; he compares Swingeing London 67(f) to historical paintings of tormented Renaissance figures and religious works of persecution. Conflating martyrdom with a drug bust may seem, at a critical distance to conjure up its own overheated rhetoric, even as Wilson places the works within an “ethical purpose”—but for this curator, the serious nature of Hamilton’s ideological mission overrides the satire or mockery in the Stones, the counterculture, or for that matter, any assault by those seeking liberation against the state.


Wilson presents a scene of entrapment as he reads Hamilton’s photo-painting collages. Emulsion breaks down and the images melt into instability even as they are frozen on the canvas. Fraser and Jagger in the police van suggest the speed beloved by rock music, by Pop Art, by the ‘60s sounds and looks and attitude. The courthouse nears. The van slows, and the policeman beside the pair overshadows them. Behind the van, one window shows a tree and a glimpse of nature. The other, a wall. Freedom contrasts with detention. Those who celebrate celebrity as part of the sex and drugs culture must be captured. As the decade intensifies, the dream of liberation meets its waking moment.


Later works explore similar clashes. Wilson includes and comments on two political paintings of particular note. In 1983, The citizen depicts Hugh Rooney, an I.R.A. prisoner at Long Kesh (aka The Maze) in Northern Ireland, during the “no-wash blanket” protests demanding that the British grant Irish republican inmates political status. The feces smeared by such prisoners on their cell walls, as they refused to wear uniforms for criminals or to leave their cells due to beatings by guards, work themselves into grimy, textured swirls, recalling patterns in the medieval Book of Kells or the ancient Newgrange spirals etched into neolithic stone.


Treatment room, in the next Orwellian year, shows a television with intransigent Margaret Thatcher’s face beamed on a television, perched and glowering over an empty hospital bed in a mixed-media installation modeled on a radiography room. An orange blanket, half-folded, half-discarded, drapes one corner of a cheerless cot. Wilson does not mention this, but I envision a veiled reference to the prison protests by the blanketmen, and the deaths of hunger strikers a few years before, echoed in this desolate display.


Similarly, although Wilson ends his short study with a quick look at the Joycean epiphanies (as the Cubist depiction of the “Oxen in the Sun” chapter shows deftly in the artist’s etching-engraving In Horne’s house) within Hamilton’s works, he does not address the understated, suggestive title of the more politicized Northern Irish-themed painting. If, as Wilson asserts, this artist seeks to capture how “the ephemeral has become eternal” then the ambiguity of naming a painting about a rebellious, perhaps quixotic, struggle against Thatcher’s state and the British crown 15 years after the drug case of Fraser and Jagger appears evident.


Richard Hamilton, Treatment room (1984)

Richard Hamilton, Treatment room (1984)


Wilson looks back at the angry anti-nuclear protests which roused Hamilton to work earlier in the ‘60s, and his artistic incorporation of the “later consciousness of a depressed society” after the end of the hippie dream. But the Tate’s interpreter blurs the bonds between Hamilton’s work preceding and following the images that cohere in Fraser and Jagger as the foundation for his analysis of this Pop Art provocateur.


An I.R.A detainee who stands up defiantly in a filthy cell invites a defiant reaction from a British audience. In Ulysses, James Joyce distrusted Irish nationalism and its republican extremists; his portrait of a rabid Irish-Ireland predecessor to the bearded rebels and shackled convicts who filled Her Majesty’s prisons earlier and later last century in that modernist epic did not give the parochial rabble-rouser any name but “The Citizen”. Placed alongside the titular sequence from the Swinging Sixties, the aftermath of revolution not confined to the mind or body but against the state appears to demand more connections drawn, within Hamilton’s works over his career, beyond those centered in 1967.


Hamilton took on Kent State’s shootings a few years later; one is left wondering about the man behind the works depicted to, alluded to, or noted in passing. This book attempts to cover Hamilton’s career, yet its editorial adherence to analyzing one work draws an uneven perspective upon its 111 pages.

While you learn nearly nothing of the artist as a young man, and you are left wondering about his roots and earliest influences or later life, the concentration of focus on an iconic work is intended as part of a series designed to single out an artist’s signature creation as shaping history. End notes and a sample of Hamilton’s oeuvre may entice readers to learn more about this culture clash embodied in his series on another version of jailhouse rock. This title should remind viewers of popular culture how much contemporary musicians and artists owe to the marriage of these two genres in documentation made representation by such keen-eyed participant-observers as Richard Hamilton.

Rating:

Born in Los Angeles but should have been born in my parental Ireland. Find me at:"Blogtrotter".


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