Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Richard Hamilton, 'Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?'

This collage was created by a British artist, Richard Hamilton, in 1956. Called ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’, it is arguably his most famous and recognisable piece. It was created for the London art exhibition, ‘This Is Tomorrow’, which featured work by a variety of artists who concentrated on the ideas of living spaces and the people that live within them. Rachel Cooke, for The Guardian Online, described the show as “a quasi-anthropological, semi-ironic look at the mass-market imagery of the post-war age.” (1) Hamilton has often been regarded as the ‘father’ of pop-art, although the art genre eventually became most associated with American artists. However, his decision to use images from mostly American magazines for this collage is significant as it suggests that Hamilton believed that the typical 1950s household in Britain was largely influenced by the progressions in America at the same time.

The best way to analyse the individual elements of the collage is to consider Hamilton’s question, which acts as the title for the piece. The collage is made up of all the aspects of 1950s life that supposedly made life so different and so appealing. John MacTaggart has commented that British pop artists of the 1950s…

“…viewed the seductive imagery of American popular culture and its consumerist lifestyle with a romantic sense of irony and a little bit of envy. They saw America as being the land of the free - free from the crippling conventions of a class ridden establishment that could suffocate the culture they envisaged[.]” (2)

Hamilton’s collage does exactly this. Each individual magazine cutting has been included because of the impact it would have on the collage’s overall message. Therefore, every object within the scene holds some significance and makes a statement about American identity. As MacTaggart suggests, Hamilton’s collage depicts American culture as a source of envy and desire. The images included are designed to show an America that Britons would want to see and experience, rather than an America to resent and avoid.

At this point, it is worth analysing particular images within the collage and speculating over their inclusion and representation. While much can be said about every object, one image (for me at least) stands out more than the rest. Considering the date of the collage, the image of the naked woman immediately suggests liberation and scandal. The production of better household appliances made work around the home much easier and, as a result, women in particular began to set aside time for leisure. This image in the collage could be seen as a representation of the growing freedom that women were slowly achieving after the Second World War. This is supported by the image of the woman with the vacuum cleaner, which shows how technological advancements made housework less time consuming.

While MacTaggart’s comments suggest that Hamilton’s collage demonstrates the difference between Britain and America in the 1950s, I think that it could also be argued that the collage suggests that the 50s was the decade when Britain began to undergo ‘Americanisation’. Rather than envying what America had, British households were fascinated by the technological and social advances that were being made overseas. As a result, it was common for British people to imitate the images of America that they saw in magazines and films. Therefore, while the collage features mostly American images and suggests a typical image of an American living space, it could also act as an advertisement to British households who were looking for a new way of living after the Second World War.

Either way, the 1950s saw a change in both Britain and America, with consumerism becoming a key aspect of society and lifestyle. ‘Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?’ creates a collection of just some of the objects that would eventually define the era.

(1) http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/feb/14/richard-hamilton-interview-serpentine-cooke

(2) http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/art_movements/pop_art.htm

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