PRINT March 2013


Richard Hamilton’s Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu

Richard Hamilton, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu—a painting in three parts, 2011, ink jet on canvas, each 44 x 69 1/4". Unfinished.

RICHARD HAMILTON’S Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu—a painting in three parts, 2011, was left unfinished at the time of the artist’s death, at the age of eighty-nine, in September 2011. Whereas he had originally intended the work to be a single painting, it now exists as three canvases, each showing a different stage of the unfinished project. This was how it was exhibited in “Richard Hamilton: The Late Works” at the National Gallery in London this past winter.

All three versions are ink-jet prints, produced after the artist’s death, of Photoshop files incorporating found, photographed, and digitally manipulated imagery. The first shows Hamilton’s original idea; it is a fairly developed collage of digital source material worked over via digital painting. He intended to make an actual, nondigital painting based on this collage, and produced a basic digital preparatory drawing in pale pink, but when it became clear he would be unable, due to ill health, to paint over this second version, he made one further digital version to give some clue as to how the final painting might have appeared.

The scene depicted is strikingly traditional: A naked woman reclines, odalisque-like, on a divan in front of three male figures dressed in antiquated clothes. The space is tight and enclosed, and includes an empty H-frame easel and some picture frames leaning against the wall, suggesting an artist’s studio. The naked woman is evidently a model, but what of the three figures behind? We might instantly recognize one if not all of them as famous painters from the past: from left to right, Poussin, Courbet, and Titian. The latter two seem to be discussing the model; Poussin stands back a little, watching.

Hamilton referred to the painting in progress as The Balzac, and the title of the exhibited work leaves no doubt of its debt to Balzac’s short story of 1831 “The Unknown Masterpiece.” This well-known narrative describes the master painter Frenhofer and his quest for perfection in a portrait of “la belle Noiseuse,” the courtesan Catherine Lescault, on which he has been working for ten years, and which nobody, so far, has been permitted to see.

At the studio of a lesser painter, François Porbus, Frenhofer encounters the young Poussin, come to pay homage to the older master. Desperate to see Frenhofer’s masterpiece, Poussin hatches a plan of offering his beautiful girlfriend, Gillette, as a model, in return for seeing the fabled work. Frenhofer agrees to the exchange, and it is only upon comparing his painting with the unclothed Gillette that he declares his masterpiece complete, claiming his ultimate victory in rivaling nature, having created a work so perfect and vivid as to go beyond art.

Yet all his two companions can see is a mass of jumbled paint strokes, with the only indication of a figure in the fragment of a beautiful foot in the corner of the canvas, “like the torso of some Parian marble Venus rising out of the ruins of a city burned to ashes.” A comment from Poussin (“sooner or later he’ll notice that there’s nothing on this canvas”) brings Frenhofer out of his reverie and sows the seeds of doubt in his mind. The story ends abruptly with the report that Frenhofer was found dead in his studio the next morning, having destroyed all of his canvases.

Frenhofer’s doubt, along with his adventure into abstraction, were his twin legacies for artists of the next century, and not just those who publicly identified with him (notably, Cézanne and Picasso). Abstraction and doubt, however, could hardly be further from Hamilton’s take on the story, which is marked instead by a very literal identification with Balzac’s narrative—indeed, his image appears as a direct illustration of a specific moment at the end of the tale. Courbet remonstrating with Titian evokes Porbus talking to Frenhofer, while Poussin stands in for a younger version of himself in the background, looking jealously toward the nude female on the bed, presumably his Gillette.

As an exercise in appropriation, Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu brings to mind works from throughout Hamilton’s career, from those Pop pieces that took the immediacy of advertising imagery and copy as their inspiration, to the direct use of media images, such as the press photograph of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser deployed for Swingeing London 67 (f), 1968–69, and the image of Tony Blair redesignated as a cowboy for Shock and Awe, 2007–2008. In Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu, Hamilton raises the stakes by quoting directly from well-known self-portraits by Poussin, Courbet, and Titian—images that one might expect to resist being used as mere source material.

Only the origin of the nude might not seem immediately evident; it is Louis-Camille d’Olivier’s Nu allongé étude No 531 (Reclining Nude Study No. 531), an 1855 salted-paper print showing a languorous nude who perfectly embodies the exotic beauty and allure of Gillette in her competition with Frenhofer’s mystic beauty. (Given the contest of technique Hamilton stages in Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu between painted and printed images, it seems appropriate that d’Olivier, now known chiefly for his erotic photographic prints, was also a history and portrait painter who exhibited at the Paris Salon in the 1850s and ’60s.) Hamilton’s stark collaging of famous works of Western art may appear unsettling at first, giving an impression of expedience rather than of design. The figures have been well and truly appropriated: Courbet, for example, has been transformed into a strange, top-heavy creature and has lost the cello he holds in the Stockholm self-portrait, probably thanks to the Photoshop “clone stamp” tool. Courbet and Titian have new, prosthetic hands—in fact, high-definition photographs of Hamilton’s studio assistant’s hand.

Yet just as Balzac manages to insert the names of real painters into a fictional narrative, so too Hamilton compellingly reimagines museum masterpieces. This is a result of his very personal deployment of impersonal digital painting techniques. Technical smoothing joins the diverse images together. Hamilton’s trademark filmy brushwork, an effect of flou that characterizes earlier works such as Soft pink landscape, 1971–72, or the background of The Citizen, 1981–83, creates a mark suggestive both of Italianate sfumato and the soft-focus blur of a camera lens. It is a type of excrescence that clearly fascinated him, and which he rediscovered in the type of lush mark that can be obtained by the “brush” tool in applications such as Photoshop. Close attention to the scaling of the figures and their relative position in space, and to the foreground figure of the nude woman, also contributes to the strange realism of the scene.

The same can be said for the rendering of d’Olivier’s reclining female, reconstructed using Bézier curves—mathematically generated lines used in computer graphics to create perfect arcs. Developed for the automobile industry in the early 1960s, these forms, both sensual and anonymous, provide a further link between the painterly nude and the fetishized automobile design explored in Hamilton’s early works, notably Hommage à Chrysler Corp., 1957. The delicate, almost cosmetic application of layers of digital color to the face of the nude in the first version brings the antique sepia photograph to life. A line sketched around her hand suggests the beginning of her transformation into a designed (rather than found) image. In the final concept illustration, her body has been rendered in pinup pink, smoothed, curved, and flattened into pure Hamiltonian Pop, bringing to mind the artist’s Pin-up, 1961. The left foot remains blank, like the bodily forms in Pin-up; in this case it was to have been replaced by a photograph of a supermodel’s foot, a part of the project alas not realized. (Here we encounter an ambiguity about the identity of the female—where at first we may have taken her to be Gillette, posing nude for Frenhofer, the projection of her foot as a defining element identifies her more strongly with la belle Noiseuse herself.)

Most striking, however, near the middle of the image, is the nude’s left hand, resting languorously on her hip. Notably different—tenser, more closed—from the hand of d’Olivier’s original reproduced in the first canvas, it appears on closer inspection to be a photograph, much like those superimposed onto the portraits of Titian and Courbet. These photographic fragments mimic the foot protruding from Frenhofer’s abstract surface; for Hamilton the photographic detail itself becomes an antique fragment in a digital world. The nude’s hand has been smoothed, filtered, touched up so that it looks not quite natural. It appears as a tantalizing glimpse of how the finished painting might have looked, as a moment of doubt hovering between the printed and the painted image, striving for something beyond both—like the woman’s hand holding the gas lamp in Duchamp’s Etant donnés, it is an index of life in an otherwise cadaverous figure.

The paint-covered photographic hand, incorporated in a digital montage, thus becomes the focus for a rivalry between the marvels of technology and the virtues of the painted mark. This would surely have constituted the basis for the finished painting, had Hamilton been able to complete it. Wolfgang Tillmans, in the September 2012 issue of Artforum, described the extensive use made by contemporary painters of ink-jet printing, noting the “unprecedented equality” among media, the “leveling” that has taken place. For Hamilton, there was no question as to which medium would get the laurels in this twenty-first-century paragone—paint must always triumph over print. Yet, surprisingly, for him it was not a victory based on the physical, tactile qualities of oil paint, but rather achieved because, even in the face of high-density, continuous print surfaces, paint demonstrated the “highest standard of resolution,” as he wrote in a letter to the art historian Max Seidel (paraphrased by Michael Bracewell in his insightful essay in the catalogue to the National Gallery’s exhibition). Paint might triumph, but the terms are dictated by the new technical parameters of digital imaging.

Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu therefore remains a startling question mark at the end of Hamilton’s long and varied career: a work about technique and history, but also about the contemporary possibilities of genre. It is also, quite wonderfully, a self-portrait comprised of self-portraits. Hamilton’s own deep trace within the work emerges not only in the way it connects with many key moments in his own oeuvre, but also as a summation of much of his own thinking about art. It is a dialectic of plenitude and emptiness, of life and death, which is evoked nowhere more poignantly than in what we might read as Hamilton’s own hidden signature: the empty H-frame easel at the center of the composition.*

John-Paul Stonard is an art historian based in London.

* Michael Bracewell suggested this interpretation in a public conversation with Christopher Riopelle and Roger Malbert at the National Gallery, London, November 30, 2012.