This highly personal exhibition by one of Britain’s most influential artists traces an intriguing path leading to his unfinished and unseen final work, '"Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu"– a painting in three parts'.
Up until his death at 89, Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) was planning this major exhibition of recent works conceived specifically for the National Gallery and including work never before seen by the public. The exhibition as a whole encapsulates many of the significant directions Hamilton’s art had taken over recent decades, when his international reputation soared.
'"Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu"– a painting in three parts'
Just before his death, Hamilton was at work on a major painting based on Honoré de Balzac’s short story 'Le Chef-d’œuvre inconnu' ('The Unknown Masterpiece'). When it became clear he would not live to finish the work, Hamilton decided that the National Gallery exhibition – the first significant one since his death – would culminate in the initial presentation of the large-scale variations on this work, using computer-generated images over-painted by hand.
The artist and the National Gallery
Hamilton had close ties with the National Gallery throughout his career; as a frequent visitor, a teacher guiding his students to its treasures, a curator, and an exhibitor.
Many of his later works reflect the inspiration he took from the Gallery’s collection of Old Masters. These include, in addition to '"Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu"– a painting in three parts', a recent painting not shown in Britain before, based on traditional Annunciation iconography.
The exhibition traces several themes of the artist’s career; his exacting attention to single-point perspective; the theme of the beautiful woman and desire; his later interest in space and perspective in works by Renaissance artists; and his pioneering use of the computer.
The show also surveys Hamilton's engagement for over half a century with the art of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) whose master themes he re-addresses. Indeed, '"Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu"– a painting in three parts' can be seen as the artist’s long-considered response to Duchamp's 'Étant donnés', the secret installation now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, that was the French artist’s final work too, and his most enigmatic masterpiece.
Image above: Photo © Rita Donagh