POP goes Newcastle
After the angsty splatterings of the abstract expressionists in the 1950s, pop art would usher in a grand return to figuration, even, you might say, landscape painting. But the landscapes the pop artists were capturing had a distinct 20th century slant. Out went rolling hills, church spires and moody skies, and in came film stars, comic books and Campbell’s soup tins. Our new horizons were demarcated by cinema screens, supermarkets and advertising hoardings. The ephemeral was being put on a pedestal and the ringmaster at the centre of this movement was Andy Warhol, ensconced in his silver studio in New York. He didn’t start making his pop artworks until the early 1960s however, but, years before he made his first forays into screenprinting, artists in the UK were already way ahead of the curve. Indeed Eduardo Paolozzi’s I was a Rich Man’s Plaything was a collage he made in 1947 that featured many of pop’s central tenets: sex (a pulpy image of a stocking top flashing pin-up girl), violence (a gun firing the word ‘POP!’) and mass produced consumerism (a Coca-Cola bottle). But it was Richard Hamilton – one of the great thinkers in UK art, and a key figure in the development of pop – who came closest to codifying the movement when he said in 1957: “Pop Art is: popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and big business.” And Hamilton is just one of the big hitters of the Pioneers of Pop exhibition which is set to open at the Hatton Gallery after its £3.8million redevelopment.
The gallery itself has played a unique role in the development of British Art, with its history intimately entwined with some of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and Hamilton’s significant achievements in the region include the ground-breaking exhibitions Man, Machine & Motion and an Exhibit. He also developed the Basic Design course of art teaching at Newcastle University alongside Victor Pasmore, arranged the rescue of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn Wall, and re-created Marcel Duchamp’s iconic sculpture Large Glass. The high ceilings and spacious dimensions of the Hatton Gallery offered Hamilton the chance to explore the innovative exhibition practice that he was developing with his colleagues in the Independent Group at the newly formed Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London.
It’s hard to put your finger on how British pop differs from its US counterpart, but I suppose you might say that it is less hard-edged, less brash, with perhaps a more questioning attitude to the cultural flotsam and jetsam that surrounds us. You’ll be able to find out for yourself at Pioneers of Pop which includes around 100 works by some of the leading British artists associated with both pop and abstract art including Eduardo Paolozzi, David Hockney, Richard Smith, Ian Stephenson, R. B. Kitaj, Joe Tilson, Mark Lancaster (work pictured) and, of course, Hamilton himself.
Julie Milne, Chief Curator of Art Galleries, said: “Many people think Pop Art started in the USA with Andy Warhol – but in reality, a lot of the thinking behind it was happening in the UK, and not just in London but also Newcastle. With the important redevelopment of the Hatton and Richard Hamilton’s strong association with the gallery Pioneers of Pop presents the opportunity to explore Newcastle’s role in the origin of this pivotal art movement.”
Key redevelopments in the gallery have included conserving the architectural and historical elements of the building, while modernising the gallery to allow for flexible exhibition facilities, a dedicated multi-purpose learning space, improved lighting, a new picture store, plus the conservation and reinterpretation of Kurt Schwitters’ culturally important Merz Barn Wall.
Eric Cross, Dean of Cultural Affairs at Newcastle University: “For almost one hundred years, the Hatton has been a major cultural resource, important not only for the north-east but also nationally and internationally. Unfortunately, the gallery had become tired and no longer fit for purpose; this welcome redevelopment now allows it to resume its rightful place as a significant gallery of modern and contemporary art.”
Pioneers of Pop, 7 October-20 January, Hatton Gallery, Kings Road, Newcastle University. hattongallery.org.uk