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Richard Hamilton helped define the 1960s but they don’t define him

Unlike Warhol or Lichtenstein – overexposed and often in London – or the more instantly accessible Caulfield or Blake, Hamilton flies slightly under the radar: a hugely influential ideas man but not quite a household name.

Richard Hamilton
Tate Modern, London SE1; ICA, London SW1

In 1957, Richard Hamilton sent a letter to architect friends that inadvertently became a manifesto. “Pop art,” he wrote, “is Popular … Transient … Expendable … Low Cost, Mass Produced, Young … Wicked, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business.” The note marked a turning point in his career and, for the art world, prefigured the flood of bright, brash, jokey, plasticky postmodernism that was to dominate for the next 40 years. But as Tate Modern’s new retrospective shows, it is too neat to package up Hamilton as pure pop.

London has gone Hamilton crazy this month but it doesn’t feel like overkill. Unlike Warhol or Lichtenstein – overexposed and often over here – or the more instantly accessible Caulfield or Blake, Hamilton flies slightly under the radar: a hugely influential ideas man but not quite a household name; a major artist who straddles different genres and schools and has no one signature style, yet who was nevertheless responsible for a handful of joltingly familiar images.

Coming two and a half years after Hamilton’s death, aged 89 – though planned with his involvement – Tate Modern’s retrospective, as well as the ICA’s reconstruction of some of his 1950s rooms for the Independent Group of artists and the Alan Cristea Gallery’s exhibition of his prints, is a timely canonisation of Hamilton, putting him on the podium with his feted contemporaries in Team Figurative (Bacon, Freud et al).

The Subject (1990)

As the Tate’s 17 rooms show, it’s no surprise we don’t see more of Hamilton’s work reproduced on mugs and tea towels, à la Andy or Roy. He was simply too various, spanning surrealism, abstraction, conceptualism, installation and political satire. Much of his work, while wryly satirical of modern media, is still a celebration of shiny design and commodities, of Chrysler and the space race, Braun and brawn.

The Tate exhibition opens with a re-creation of Hamilton’s 1951 ICA show “Growth and Form”, which he put on after he’d left the Slade. This is the 1950s of the Festival of Britain, in which aeroplanes intersect with biological shapes, sea creatures, eggs and bones. It’s a cross between a biology lab and Ernest Race’s sitting room.

It is with the reconstruction of Fun House, originally shown as part of the Whitechapel Gallery’s 1956 show “This Is Tomorrow”, that Hamilton explodes into pop. Now a clichéd time capsule of the rock’n’roll era (the installation incorporates film, music, distorted architecture, op art and imagery of B-movie robots and Hollywood pin-ups), at the time this was wholly fresh and subversive – a send-up of Americana, as well as a celebration of new youth culture.

Elsewhere, we see his Towards … paintings (1962), explorations of male beauty, masculinity and sportsmanship in a fast new era, and his two 1964 Interior pictures, which combine blocks of acid colour with Eames furniture and a cut-out film still of the actress Patricia Knight. One has the assassination of JFK playing on a TV in the background – the atmosphere is jokey but tinged with Hitchcockian claustrophobia.

Interior II (1964)

Two much later room sets, Treatment Room (1983) and Lobby (1985), revisit such stifling interiors: the former a DHSS waiting room-meets-doctor’s surgery, with a muted Maggie on a TV monitor ticking off an NHS patient for ever; the second a disorienting green-carpeted hotel with mirrored columns, white stairs and a painting of the same scene beyond, showing how fine the line is between postcard idealism and nightmare.

Also from 1964 is Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland, a reaction to the Labour leader’s refusal to support nuclear disarmament. Here, his face is a bloated, monstrous mask, with a definite touch of Francis Bacon in the paint palette.

Later rooms show Hamilton at his most playful. One is dominated by his series of works celebrating the design of Dieter Rams for Braun. For Hamilton, the German industrial designer was the Jonathan Ive of his day. Hamilton puts his own name on a shiny toaster, also writing a tongue-in-cheek paean to toast; it’s more absurdist than a satire on advertising. The Critic Laughs (1968) elicited the appropriate reaction from this critic, though I’m always easily tickled by an electric toothbrush oscillating a set of dentures.

Portrait of Hugh Gaitskell as a Famous Monster of Filmland (1964)

By the 1970s Hamilton had moved on to wonderful piss-takes of Andrex adverts, with their euphemistically floral imagery and soft-focus sylvan maidens. In the bloom-laden Flower-Piece series (1973), Hamilton swaps the pastel loo rolls for turds.

Hamilton kept working until his death, when he was reworking some of his earlier interiors-centred pieces. In the interim, much of his work was more political, some of it more successful than others. A few of his 1990s and 2000s paintings seem lefty-art-by-numbers, pieces such as Maps of Palestine (2009) or Shock and Awe (2010) – with Tony Blair as a cowboy – lacking the wit or innovation of his earlier work.

A slightly earlier triptych (1982-93), depicting the Irish Troubles, is much more successful: the three paintings, of Bobby Sands, an Orange marcher and a British squaddie, powerfully combine Hamilton’s pop sensibility with stark news footage and innovative technique. It’s pop art grown up and punched in the guts by reality.

The exhibitions run at Tate Modern until 26 May and the ICA until 6 April

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.