The Choice of Hercules

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? by Richard Hamilton. Collage, 1956.
Hercules at the Crossroads, by Annibale Carracci. 1596

RICHARD HAMILTON ONCE DESCRIBED THE TWO PRINCIPAL FIGURES in his 1956 collage, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?, as being contemporary versions of Adam and Eve, placed in an American consumerist paradise.

It occurred to me some time ago that the bodybuilder figure (in fact a photograph of Irvin ‘Zabo’ Koszewski, as I wrote in the last post on this collage), is not so much Adam as the figure of Hercules. In Hamilton’s version, he doesn’t have his lion skin – one of the traditional attributes of Hercules – but he does have a club – in the form of an over-sized lollipop. 

Hercules is famous for his twelve labours: including stealing the apples of the Hesperides (which appear on the television in Hamilton’s collage); capturing the Cretan bull; killing a lion and a hydra; and also, in a subsidiary set of labours, carrying the heavens on his back – hinted at by the image of Earth visible through the ceiling.

But there is another Hercules story, first told in antiquity, and popularised during the Renaissance, known as The Choice of Hercules, or Hercules at the Crossroads.

When Hercules was a young man, two women appeared to him: Vice, offering a short road to pleasure, and Virtue, indicating the more arduous route to wealth and renown. The best-known painted version of the subject was made by the Bolognese painter Annibale Carracci in 1596, which now hangs in Naples.

Carracci’s Hercules seems lost in the process of making this very tough decision. His body inclines to the figure of Vice on his left, but the all-important club sides sides with Virtue, who gestures up the long incline, the path to fame and fortune. 

Hamilton’s Hercules is offered a very similar choice, between the easy pleasure of a burlesque pin-up girl, and a steep staircase, at the top of which his paragon of virtue has just finished hoovering.

‘Ordinary Heroes reach only this far!’ you might rewrite the arrow label half-way up the staircase.

Unlike Carracci’s Hercules however, the body of Hamilton’s hero inclines to Virtue, but his pop-club points eagerly towards Vice. 

We can only guess what Hamilton would have thought of such an idea. Yet it does seems natural that an image so much about fame, made by an artist who was obsessed by the image of male heroism, and the legacy of antiquity in the modern age, should be open to such an interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s