James Augustine Aloysius Joyce

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The labour of love

Richard Hamilton is one of Britain's most influential artists, the man who invented pop art. Why did he spend 50 years illustrating a book? And was it worth it? Jonathan Jones reports

Leopold Bloom, hero of James Joyce's 1922 novel Ulysses and the quintessential modern urban adventurer, is credited with bringing previously censored areas of life into literature, with being one of the funniest and most lovable characters in the history of the novel, and with offering a brave and humane example of how to live a modern life. All this is true. But one thing he has not been credited with, until now, is the invention of pop art.

On June 16 1904 — the Dublin day remade in Joyce's imagination and memory and related in Ulysses — Bloom, who makes his living canvassing for newspaper ads, enters the offices of the Freeman's Journal and National Press (a pro-Home Rule paper edited by one Myles Crawford) with a nice little idea. While around him the newspapermen rant and joke and discuss big things, Bloom waits for his moment to get his proposal across to the press foreman. Amid the noise of the machinery he shouts and gestures: "Two crossed keys here. A circle. Then here the name Alexander Keyes, tea, wine and spirit merchant... Then round the top in leaded: the house of keys. You see?"

Bloom's design for an advertisement for his client Alexander Keyes is a corny masterpiece of graphic concision, playing on words with crude visual effectiveness while also making a topical allusion to Ireland's demand for home rule. And now it has been carried out to the letter by Richard Hamilton, the artist who gave pop its name when he wrote the word on an oversized lolly wielded by a muscleman in his 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Among the authoritative and witty images in Hamilton's exhibition Imaging Ulysses is a faithful rendering of Bloom's design. A black circle holds crossed keys. It has the boldness and clarity of pure pop. Before Andy Warhol, before Hamilton himself, the first bold champion of the ordinary in art was Bloom's creator James Joyce: pop has its roots in high modernism.

Pop is the most misunderstood and maligned 20th-century art movement, at once the most blatant influence on today's art and the one nobody wants to own up to, because it sounds so vulgar in comparison to minimalism or conceptualism. The rapturous reception of the Warhol exhibition at Tate Modern may mark a sea-change. But, while we pay homage to Andy, we should also make a visit to the less glamorous surroundings of the British Museum's Prints and Drawings gallery.

Richard Hamilton's Imaging Ulysses, at the British Museum and subsequently touring to the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, consists of drawings, prints and, most recently, digital images done in the course of more than 50 years. It is more than a celebration of Joyce's novel — it is an alternative history of modern culture in which pop art is not the faintly embarrassing denim-clad uncle of today's young artists, but a manifestation of the driving energy of modernism, from Joyce to today, a desire to celebrate common, humble experience.

Hamilton's Ulysses is a masterpiece. It is one of the most sustained engagements an artist has ever had with a book, marked by decades of rumination, reading and love. Hamilton wants to picture Joyce's characters, to know them as people feel they know the characters of Dickens. His prints and digital images are not intended to appear in an edition of Ulysses so much as to interpret the book. Hamilton's youthful desire to illustrate Ulysses was discouraged by TS Eliot, so he has instead composed his own visual equivalent to Joyce's novel. It is a portrait of the artist as a young and old man, as you see the strong, raw realism of Hamilton's early drawings from the 1940s give way to more sophisticated essays in graphic art.

Hamilton's Joyce images are deceptively simple — and definitive, in the same way that Tenniel's drawings are definitive of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Almost every one of the complex, richly-coloured engravings that Hamilton has developed out of the smaller, sketchier images he has worked on over the years is a classic — something that seems perfect and timeless. Like Joyce's novel, these pictures are at once real and mythological. They begin with the portrait of Bloom that Hamilton drew in 1948. Bloom is soft and strong, uninsistent yet enduring; he sits there, clothes billowing, face shadowed, a little melancholy and flaccid, an enigma, a modern hero.

Hamilton first read Ulysses as a national service conscript after the second world war. His selfless immersion in a modern masterpiece is not so unusual in the career of an artist who, when he became interested in the work of Marcel Duchamp in the 1960s, took it upon himself to "typotranslate" the mysterious notes in Duchamp's Green Box, a project that took several years; to curate a retrospective, The Almost Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, at the Tate Gallery in 1966; and to make for that show a replica of the large glass panel embodying Duchamp's hermetic mythology, The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even.

In the catalogue he has designed for this exhibition, Hamilton says that Joyce stands alongside Duchamp: "Their genius pervades my life." He argues that Joyce's concept of epiphany, a moment of profound illumination in which "the soul of the commonest _ object appears to us radiant", is uncannily parallel to Duchamp's recognition of undistinguished objects as full of an illimitable aesthetic appeal. "I sometimes wonder," Hamilton muses, "if a sudden epiphany hit Marcel Duchamp when he picked up a bicycle wheel and put it through a hole in the top of a kitchen stool in 1913. I experienced such a moment of understanding when I encountered a large button in a seedy gift shop in Pacific Ocean Park, Venice, California, with the words SLIP IT TO ME blatantly displayed across it. The greatly enlarged version which I characterised as a work of art was entitled Epiphany."

Hamilton's 1964 painting Epiphany is a homage to Andy Warhol, to the sheer dumbstruck wonder with which Warhol looked at cans of Campbell's soup stacked in a supermarket. Seeing it in the context of Hamilton's Ulysses, Epiphany also declares the impeccable origins of pop art in the most revered text of modern literature. And what Hamilton saw, when he had his own epiphany in a seedy Venice gift-shop, was the genius of Joyce in glimpsing infinite majesty in the wanderings of a canvasser for ads around a city of pubs and funerals and underwear.

Hamilton's images of Joyce's novel go to the heart of Ulysses as an everyday epic. He edits: just as he once made a painting called My Marilyn in which he adopted the role of a picture editor selecting the perfect image of Marilyn, he has thought his way to a very specific view of Ulysses — one that makes it the ancestor of pop art, and that also connects it to Duchamp, to cubism, to every modern art movement that celebrates the texture of life as it is lived. He could have chosen to illustrate different scenes, give different emphases, and make the whole thing more florid and high, foregrounding the novel's mythic power rather than its ordinariness. When Matisse illustrated Ulysses, he didn't even read Joyce's novel, but instead depicted its source, Homer's Odyssey. But Hamilton goes straight for the real, gritty world of 1904 Dublin.

Take his formidable image of the barmaids Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, who personify Homer's Sirens. "Bronze by gold, miss Douce's head by miss Kennedy's head, over the crossblind of the Ormond bar..." Hamilton's double portrait Bronze by Gold was first drawn in 1949, and engraved in the 1980s. It is a coolly monumental image, recalling an even earlier manifestation of the pop impulse in art, Edouard Manet's Bar at the Folies Berge`re (1882). The Bass beer the barmaid in Manet's painting serves is also drunk by characters in Ulysses. Where Manet's barmaid stands alone, her world doubled by the mirror behind the bar, Hamilton's Joycean barmaids are a twosome, embracing as they pull simultaneously on two phallic beerpulls. Their dresses, jewellery, well-coiffed hair andtough presence make them intimidating figures for the men at the bar. This is an image that gives reality the power of myth. There is nothing fanciful about it, yet this everyday encounter has a mystery that is a moment of epiphany.

Bloom pictures himself in the bath; it is a moment of daydreaming in which he sees himself in his mind's eye stretched out in lovely warm water. Hamilton illustrates Bloom's vision: "He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower."

In Hamilton's illustration, we see Bloom's languid floating flower and the man contemplating it, alone with his body — and we also see how intimately Joyce shared subjects with the founding modern artists. Hamilton makes us see how similar Joyce's translation of an old arcadian theme to modern times is to images of bathing in modern art — Degas's women getting out of the bath, Bonnard's portraits of his wife in the bath. A humbleness connects them.

Hamilton's sense of pop is also a sense of history: he delights in the Edwardianness of Joyce's novel, in picturing the look of Dublin people as they were then. Many of his drawings are based, with touching sincerity and nostalgia, on old photographs of Joyce and Wilde, and a postcard image of Dublin.

There is only one dramatic moment of anachronism, reminding us that we read Joyce with a knowledge of later history. In his engravings of the Cyclops character, the Citizen — a nationalist with whom Bloom argues in a bar and whose anti-semitism finally goads Joyce's hero into an articulacy he had previously kept to himself — Hamilton allows the nightmare of subsequent history to haunt Joyce. When he first drew Joyce's Cyclops in the 1940s, Hamilton made him a Celtic giant, Finn MacCool, alluding to the parody of Celtic myth in this episode. But when he engraved this subject in 1983, he made disruptive use of a contemporary image. This Cyclops is drawn, blackly and captivatingly, from a photograph of one of the Maze hunger-strikers, Raymond Pius McCartney. Hamilton's IRA prisoner, hair savage, wearing just a blanket, is a violent departure from the series, and connects it to one of Hamilton's most powerful paintings, which itself takes its title from Joyce — The Citizen (1981-3), in which a hunger-striker gazes at us romantically out of a swirling Turneresque storm of his own shit.

Hamilton says in the catalogue that Joyce taught him the value of pastiche, of playfulness, of an art that does not have the authoritarian pretentiousness of a single voice. Hamilton has paid a price for his modesty as an artist; he celebrates his 80th birthday with what might seem a quiet show of prints. But he is one of the great interpeter- practitioners of modern art. His vision of Joyce is a revelation of pop's true identity. The most accessible recent art movement, it turns out, is also the one with the most authentic roots in modernism.

Imaging Ulysses is at the British Museum, London WC1 (020-7323 8000), until May 19 and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (00 3531 612 9900), from June 7 to September 15.

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