The reopening of the Hatton Gallery, following a twenty-month £3.8million redevelopment funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has been eagerly anticipated across Newcastle. Nestled within the historic buildings of Newcastle University’s city centre campus, the gallery has a special relationship with the university’s Fine Art department that stretches back more than one hundred years. It is fitting then, that the Hatton’s inaugural exhibition pays homage to British artist Richard Hamilton, who both taught at the university and played such an important role in the gallery’s history. Using Hamilton’s groundbreaking work as its foundation, Pioneers of Pop draws together around one hundred works by some of the leading British artists associated with pop and abstract art to firmly position Newcastle as the true birthplace of Pop Art.
The exhibition begins by taking the viewer on a journey through the significance of Hamilton’s work, influence and legacy in radicalising art making. The first space, which explores the period the artist taught at the university (1953-1966), greets the viewer with a large steel structure from Hamilton’s ‘Man, Machine and Motion’ (1955). When this piece was exhibiting at both the Hatton and the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in the 1950s its focus on the body as a centre of movement established new ways of creating work. Shown here alongside posters advertising Hamilton’s inspiring lectures, one can imagine the renaissance in art making that students were experiencing.
Perfectly capturing the ethos of those years is a student film from 1958, which shows staff and students in and around the art department, dancing, laughing and enjoying their studio spaces. It seems special that this is situated so the viewer can look out over the picturesque grounds as they watch the reminiscent scenes. These elements, alongside the bold and inescapably colourful works that dominate the space, such as Joe Tilson’s ‘Nine Elements’(1963) and Terry Frost’s ‘Red, Yellow and Blue’(1962), create a vibrancy and energy that makes the new gallery feel as fresh as it would have been in Hamilton’s days of teaching.
The next space illustrates how popular culture fed into art making more than ever before. Taking centre stage is Eduardo Paolozzi and R. B. Kitaj’s ‘Work in Progress’ (1962). Its lucidly orange wooden frame, which was designed to look like an altarpiece, is filled with images and small collages that deal with consumerism, religion and time. The entire gallery space here is filled with kitsch images, assemblage works, and a variety of materials, including sand, metal and steel, among many others. It creates a linear three-dimensional journey through the space and prepares the viewer for one of Hamilton’s most treasured legacies: Kurt Schwitters’ ‘Merz Barn Wall’ (1947-8). Part of the Hatton’s permanent collection, this iconic piece was saved by Hamilton when he helped relocate the three-dimensional collage from a dilapidated barn in the Lake District to the Hatton Gallery in 1966, where it has resided ever since.
As the works become increasingly more representative of the Pop Art era we are directed to the last space, which is screaming with the iconic. Screen-prints such as Peter Blake’s ‘Beach Boys’ (1964) and Hamilton’s ‘My Marylin’(1965) develop a conversation between the artists’ legacy and the outburst of pop, reinforcing Hamilton’s status as the founding father of Pop Art, and placing Newcastle as one of the pioneering cities of the movement. It can be taken quite fondly that the space exits into the centre of Newcastle University’s Fine Art department, directly leading on to new radical art making in a period where Newcastle, again, seems to be undergoing a renaissance of culture.
Pioneers of Pop, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne
7 October 2017 – 20 January 2018.
Michaela Hall is an artist and writer and at the time of writing, is studying for a BA Hons Fine Art degree at Newcastle University.