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  • Pop ModernRichard Hamilton’s Ulysses Illustrations
  • Kristine Somerville and Speer Morgan

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Richard Hamilton Exhibition in London, © Rune Hellestad/Corbis

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In 1947, while doing National Service with the Royal Engineers, the future founding father of Pop Art, Richard Hamilton, read a two-volume paperback of James Joyce’s Ulysses published by Odyssey Press. “I had heard it was a book that only six people in the world had managed to read. But I thought it was wonderful—it was funny, the language was magical.”

Hamilton became an abiding Joyce fan and recalled that the novel liberated him, allowing him to see how to paint without self-conscious gesture and use parody and pastiche while mixing styles. He was also struck by Joyce’s facility with language—his ability to borrow styles and tones of voice from everywhere. [End Page 141]

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Bronze by gold II, 1985–1987, soft-ground, lift ground aquatint, engraving, scraper and burnisher, © R. Hamilton, DACS and ARS 2013

Representing Ulysses in a different medium became a lifelong project. He found the novel wildly vivid but strangely nonvisual, which captured his imagination even more. While Leopold Bloom, the book’s central figure, is never physically described, there is plenty to characterize his mental state. Hamilton had an intuitive sense of what Bloom looked like: a thickly built, balding man with a world-weary air. Other scenes and characters—two coquettish barmaids, Bloom lying in the bathtub [End Page 142] and Leopold and Molly dreaming in their brass bed—were equally vivid in his mind’s eye. He simply had to translate the images to the blank canvas.

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The transmogrification of Bloom, 1984–1985, soft-ground etching and aquatint, © R. Hamilton, DACS and ARS 2013

While a student at Slade School of Art, he began to work rigorously on the series, eventually taking the sketches to T. S. Eliot at Faber and Faber. The poet-turned-editor was discouraging. He told young Hamilton that the project would be too expensive and that no publisher would be [End Page 143] interested in the work of an unknown student. Hamilton kept working on his illustrations but never showed them to another publisher. Often frustrated, he stopped and restarted the project a number of times over a nearly sixty-year period.

In 2002, Hamilton’s labor of love was ready for public showing. Imaging Ulysses: Richard Hamilton’s Illustrations to James Joyce opened at the British Museum in February for a double eightieth anniversary: of the publication of the novel and of Hamilton’s birthday. Viewers were delighted by his seriocomic approach to a novel that since its first serialized publication in 1918 has become iconic.

Bronze by gold II depicts two flirty barmaids of Ormond Bar, Joyce’s sirens of seduction from chapter 11. Flame-haired Miss Lydia Douce and blond Miss Mina Kennedy with their bedroom eyes seductively handle the beer pulls. He foresaw his pale body renders Bloom lying in the bath from chapter 5: “He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved.” The transmogrification of Bloom, with its crowded, packed forms that free-float and overlap, plays with the transmutability of character as Hamilton captures Bloom in a number of impersonations and guises. In The heaven tree of stars, Molly and Leopold slumber sweetly in their bed with the jangling knob while constellations float above their heads.

Hamilton, who died in 2011, had a long and illustrious career. His 1956 time-capsule collage titled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? is considered by some critics and historians to be the first work of Pop Art. He came to be known as much for his prints as his paintings and as much for conceptual art as for Pop. His series Swingeing London 67, based on the arrest of his art dealer Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger for drug possession, captures the spirit of the times. His association with the pop-music scene continued...


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