On the tombstone of Marcel Duchamp his epitaph reads: “D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent.” Even in death, the great French Dadaist and Surrealist felt the need to confound the limits of reality. In English, the inscription translates into: “Besides, it’s always other people who die.” Ever the iconoclast, Duchamp perhaps wanted to believe in something more than just nothingness, art being one’s religion.
It is left to the imagination to ponder whether Richard Hamilton considered the above words of his friend as he worked on what he understood to be his final exhibition, and indeed, his swansong work of art. Aged 89, Hamilton, though incredibly active, knew he was ill. He saw the Sunset Seine of life lingering poetically in the not so far distance. Can you beat it, he may have inquired, meditatively.
Duchamp was, after all, a huge influence on Hamilton’s ideas of what purpose art served, and of course, why he himself engaged with it. Credited with coining the term Pop Art and thus making possible one of the most visually stunning and provocative movements in art, Hamilton has, beyond the grave, realised Duchamp’s philosophical tombstone musing. This autumn, the exhibition he was working on, of which his unfinished work will figure as the showpiece, will be launched at the National Gallery, poignantly titled The Late Works.
Most famous for, though not defined by in a limiting way, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?”, dry British wit articulated through collage in a most refined sense, Hamilton was one of the most important artists of the post-war period, gifted with a superb mind and a polite detachment from his contemporaries.
It is this intelligence – described by Roxy Music’s Brian Ferry, a former student of Hamilton, as frightening – and unwillingness to be defined by any given movement, however important, that sets him apart from the likes of Andy Warhol and David Hockney, the latter being the last of the great pop pioneers.
“I do whatever I feel like,” he told the Guardian’s Rachel Cook in 2010. “People don’t seem to understand that an artist is free to do whatever he wants, and I’ve always relished that possibility.”
He added that, like Duchamp, he was keen on originality, to constantly push the envelope, at least to his own understanding of what it was he was creating: “In art, it’s the mind, not the eye that should be active.”
It is therefore erroneous to class his work as Pop Art. Though we understand this generalisation, it is not sufficient enough to describe his oeuvre. Though kitsch, would Pop Surrealist be more applicable? Certainly, his upcoming show explores various themes that emerged during his long and illustrious career, including single-point perspectives, and the power of female beauty and renaissance artists. All can, from an informed perspective, allude to Surrealist sensibilities.
With that in mind, his last work gives some indication of such leanings. As the gallery notes, the painting, which is based on Honore de Balzac’s short story Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece), shows three seminal historic figures – Titian, Gustave Courbet and Nicolas Poussin – pondering over a female nude. It is believed to be a response to Etant donnne, which was, coincidentally, Duchamp’s final work.
“Your labour of love has produced a monster of veracity,” wrote Duchamp in a letter to Hamilton, after the first of his Green Books had been published. Though unfinished, the echo of that line might find itself reverberating in the gallery come October 2012. It is a monster of work.