- Richard Hamilton
- Still Life?
- oil on canvas
Marian Goodman Gallery, New York
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
London, Tate Gallery; Dublin, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Richard Hamilton, 1992-93, p. 70, illustrated in colour, p. 147, illustrated
Barcelona, Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona; Cologne, Museum Ludwig, Richard Hamilton Paintings and Drawings 1937 to 2002, 2003, no. 68, p. 26, illustrated in colour
Hal Foster and Alex Bacon, Eds., Richard Hamilton, London 2010, p. 22, mentioned
Richard Hamilton is rightly acknowledged as one of Britain’s most influential artists; a pioneer in the development of British and international art. Whilst reflecting the social changes that Post-War Britain encountered, be it through the medium of paint, typography, collage, printmaking or photography, Hamilton’s extensive body of work has shaped our understanding of what art was, or what it could be, in the Twentieth Century. Still Life? is an exceptional exposition and an early masterwork of Hamilton’s conceptual pictorial dialogue, in which he examines the question of spectator movement, commenting on the painter’s own role in making two-dimensional analogy for three-dimensional facts. In Still Life? Hamilton brings his growing need for pictorial expression to the fore.
In 1912 when Hamilton’s friend and mentor Marcel Duchamp submitted Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2) to the Salon des Indépendants, it was rejected for not conforming to Cubist credentials; it was deemed too Futurist for them since it contained movement. Although his seemingly cubist motif of oil and turpentine bottles can be compared to that of Juan Gris, Hamilton, much like Duchamp, has in fact produced a serial image more akin to the notions of Futurism, preferring a systematic, analytic notion of movement to that of analytical Cubism. The result follows Umberto Boccioni’s statement that, "A profile is never motionless before our eyes, but it constantly appears and disappears" (Umberto Boccioni, ‘Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting’, 1910). Because the bottles are below eye level on a table, there is an apparent progressive tilting of the surface on which they are standing, as the eye moves in three stages towards the subject. Images are superimposed on image so that the linear drawing comes close to the idea of multiple exposures on a single photographic plate, which then produces the serial image.
In 1950, American scientist James J. Gibson wrote the book The Perception of the Visual World based on wartime research into human visual perception. In it was a stress on the visual reading of the entire environment often from an aerial vantage point, scanning for depth and meaning or what Gibson called ‘the totality of cues’. Still Life? was executed four years after Gibson’s manifesto, but the significance that "Gibson’s wonderful book" had on Hamilton is clear to witness in the present work. In 1954, whilst a lecturer at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Gibson’s theory on visual reading was very much engrained in the artist’s memory as he was comparing and contrasting Futurist and Cubist approaches to the problem of representing a mobile object, and the different graphic means adopted to communicate the complexities on an eye moving relative to a subject. As a result and as Still Life? demonstrates, Hamilton’s work at this point was "… a mixture of Cubism and Futurism… taking a static subject and moving in relation to it but not in the way that the Cubists did it, in the way that the Futurists would have approached that" (the artist interviewed by John Tulsa, BBC Radio 3, 5 May 2002).
Still Life?’s overlapping views created by the motions of the observer and the continued use of superimposition as a more overt examination of movement, are a result of Hamilton’s keen interest at the time in Futurist devices. As David Mellor notes, Hamilton’s explorations, ‘reflect an attitude of intense curiosity – a determination to understand what is happening and to know how things work, yet continually ask whether things have to be as they are’ ( David Mellor, ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Modernity: Vision Space and the Social Body in Richard Hamilton’in: Exhibition Catalogue, London, Tate Gallery, Richard Hamilton, 1992, p. 24). As such, we can more readily see the significance of the question mark that Hamilton employed in the title of this work, begging the poignant question; is this a still life?