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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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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.

***

Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”


Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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