Tag Archives: Pop art

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.

Just what is it….?

Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that make today’s homes so different, so appealing? 1956. Collage of printed materials and gouache. 25.7 by 25.4 cm. Kunsthalle Tübingen.

IT HAS BEEN FIFTEEN YEARS since my article ‘Pop in the Age of Boom. Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’, appeared in the September 2007 issue of The Burlington Magazine.

It was, in a sense, the first part of a longer article that was never completed. The article was commissioned by Richard Hamilton late the previous year to settle a strange dispute over the authorship of his 1956 collage, often cited as the first great work of Pop art, which had been raging for some time on the edits page of the wikipedia article about Just what is it… The son of the artist John McHale was arguing that his father, who had collaborated with Hamilton around the time the collage was made, had in fact designed the collage, and Hamilton had merely assembled it.

I spent a long time talking to Hamilton, or rather, listening to him, at his home in North End, over leisurely lunches, after which I had the chance to consult his personal archive. It was easy to dispute McHale junior’s claim, but it seemed to me there was a much more interesting piece of work to be done, which was to discover which magazines had been used as a source material for the collage. Hamilton had no idea where the images had come from, as they had been found by his then-wife, Terry Hamilton, and the artist Magda Cordell, working through a list compiled by Hamilton.

I spent the first half of 2007 searching through magazines, in the British Library and the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris, as well online, which was still then a rather new way of conducting research.

It was in Paris that I discovered the advertisement that Hamilton had used as the basis of the collage, for Armstrong Royal Floors, in the June 1955 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal. You can see why Hamilton was attracted to the image, a perfect piece of mid-century art direction and photograph.

Advertisement for Armstrong Floors, reproduced in The Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1955.

It was also from this ad that Hamilton had taken the title for his collage, a fact that he had forgotten some fifty years later.

Detail of above.

In searching for other sources Ebay was helpful, as were some quite niche websites, such as the detailed archive of vintage ‘physique photography’, created by Tim in Vermont, which yielded the source of the muscle man in Hamilton’s collage, cut either by Terry or Magda from the September 1954 issue of Tomorrow’s Man, a body-building magazine.

Irwin ‘Zabo’ Koszewski. Photographed by Bruce Bellas. Reproduced in Tomorrow’s Man, September 1954.

The period of around six months searching for the source material was pretty exciting, and took me not only to Paris, where the national library has an excellent collection of vintage magazines, such as The Ladies’ Home Journal, and Saturday Evening Post, but also to New York, to the John McHale archive at New Haven (which wasn’t greatly revealing), and also to meet Magda Cordell, in a care home just outside of Buffalo. It was a very interesting, very long meeting, during which she chain-smoked, spoke at length about her younger life, berated me for not having been interested in her work before, and also spent a lot of time watching television in silence. After a number of hours she managed somehow to call the Canadian Mounted Police, whose arrival amused her greatly, and ended our meeting.

I also spoke to the artist Jo Baer, but could never quite corroborate her story that she was the pin-up model in the collage, having posed for nude photographs while a struggling artist in New York in the early 1950s, although it seems to me highly likely.

After an intense period of work, I realised that I would have to publish the article with a number of the sources unidentified, as they would take too long to find. The most surprising of these was the portrait on the back wall, obviously not John Ruskin, as was previously thought — but who?

I’ve often thought that others might have wanted to pick up the hunt, but nobody seems to have done so.

There is much more to say about the research for this article, and what happened after it was published. More posts to follow.