‘Pioneers of Pop’: a faultless inaugural exhibition for the newly renovated Hatton Gallery

By Holly O’Brien

It has been a busy first week for the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle as it reopened after a £3.8 billion refurbishment. The building now boasts a fantastic space for art displays, right in the centre of Newcastle University, as well as an education space for seminars and visits from local schools ensuring the continued participation in art of the surrounding area.

Speaking to one of the curators, the opening night last Friday was a fantastic start to what promises to be a successful renovation for the Hatton. Ex-art students of Newcastle University who attended in the 1950s and 1960s were invited to the opening event. The familial ties of the gallery were evident in the form of a video on display of these ex-students dancing from 1958.

Without a doubt, the current exhibition ‘Pioneers of Pop’ is well worth visiting. Richard Hamilton was at the centre of the network of artists, activities and ideas that this exhibition is based on during his teaching time at Newcastle University (1953-66).

One personal highlight was Hamilton’s series of reliefs based on the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Having visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain this summer, I could see the resemblance between some of the exhibitions I saw there and the style of work Hamilton was fulfilling here.

The exhibition as a whole argued that Newcastle was the heart of pop culture in Britain. This is true to an extent; there is a consistent history of Newcastle as a centre for folk and pop art references. One notable example of popular culture in Newcastle in the gallery was some Newcastle United Football Club programmes from 1966 on display, reminding me of the city’s reputation for its football-mania as an expression of community and culture.

Kurt Schwitters’ work was prominent in the exhibition, funded from government indemnities which the gallery was evidently very proud of and grateful for. His piece de resistance was the Merz Barn Wall. This was the last piece he produced and in the Hatton, you can see the progress from his 2D works, to relief works, to the spectacular collage on the wall.

He described it himself in October 1947 as “better and more consistent” than anything that had come before. At the gallery there is only a fragment of a larger, unfinished project; his original idea was to take 3 years to complete the whole inside of his barn in Ambleside in the Lake District. He settled here with his wife in 1945 after a turbulent time travelling from Germany to Norway then being taken as a prisoner of war in Britain in 1940.

His intention was for a small roof light to hang from the top right corner. This developed the overall composition and the display in the Hatton has successfully tried to fulfil this, emphasizing the light and dark of the three-dimensional collaged wall, making it a truly impressive construction. Linking back to Hamilton, he was integral in the moving of the wall from the Lake District. In this way again, Hamilton really was the ultimate advocate and pioneer of pop art at this time thus it is necessary that so much of the exhibition is attributed to him.

Overall, the renovation at the Hatton gallery coupled with its opening exhibition ‘Pioneers of Pop’ comes highly recommended for anyone interested in exploring how the North East was making its mark in the broader national culture of pop art and liberated expressionism.

Photograph: Holly O’Brien

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