The annunciation 2005 (fig.1) is one of the few prints by Richard Hamilton that in its faithful simulation of a real, or potentially real, place comes close to the effect of the photographs that are its source. Like many of Hamilton’s recently editioned works, The annunciation is a digital ink-jet print. It was created from a number of photographic sources on a Macintosh G5 using Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, and published as an edition of sixty, with six artist’s proofs, in Hamilton’s home-based digital studio at Northend Farm.1
In Painting by Numbers, his 2006 London exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery, Hamilton displayed his most recent editions, which included The annunciation and the related Chiara & Chair 2004. In the accompanying catalogue he explored the relationship of photography to digital printmaking, a long-time preoccupation of his. In the introduction Hamilton tells the anecdote of one loyal collector who had declined to purchase The annunciation. When asked why, the collector replied, ‘It’s just a photograph.’2
Hamilton describes The annunciation as a ‘direct response to Fra Angelico’s great annunciation fresco to be found in the corridor of San Marco’ (fig.2). 3 The print is as much a critique of the photographic and digital media with which it is made, as it is an examination of an art work and theme that have long obsessed Hamilton. In allaying and aggravating our uncertainties through an abstruse exploitation of its medium, this image begins to assume some of the numinous qualities associated with the work of fourteenth-century century painters such as Fra Angelico.
In The annunciation Hamilton renders a gallery interior with a secondary image displayed within it. This internal image, which appears to be a photorealist painting of a seated nude female, hangs on a wall. The wall is parallel to the plane of the print, a spatial construction that evokes the sensation of standing within a gallery. Indeed, much of the visual information supplied in the print (the white painted walls and the industrial lighting and flooring) reinforces our conception of the space as such. That Hamilton’s annunciation should be located in the pristine, but minimalist, interior of a gallery seems a deliberate choice: the ‘modern art space’ may be thought of as a contemporary parallel to the unembellished chambers of the San Marco monastery. Hamilton invites us to practise our secular rituals of reverence, just as Fra Angelico intended his viewers, the resident Dominican friars, to genuflect in imitation of Gabriel while repeating an ‘Ave’ before the sacred image.4
In the Painting by Numbers catalogue, Hamilton discloses the origin of the gallery space depicted in the print. He describes his process for generating seven pieces (one per wall) for a 1995 show called Five Rooms held at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery in London. 5 His suite of seven photograph-derived works (called Seven Rooms) represented as many rooms in Hamilton’s house. He first photographed each of the exhibition walls in the Gallery (including floors, spotlights and beams) and scanned them into his computer. He then digitally placed the cropped and modified photographs of his own home onto the scans of the gallery walls. Each resultant four-foot high Cibachrome print was laminated onto canvas and installed on the gallery wall it depicted.6
Both the photograph of the wall that appears in The annunciation and the photograph that formed the basis of the figurative ‘painting’ on that wall in the print were derived from the d’Offay exhibition. The wall photograph represents the d’Offay wall onto which Hamilton had previously placed an image of his bathroom; the final piece, Seven Rooms – Bathroom, was shown in Five Rooms as part of the Seven Rooms suite. The image used for the ‘painting’ in The annunciation was a photograph taken of Hamilton’s bedroom, which he shifted to another wall for the Five Rooms exhibition.7
The original photograph of the d’Offay Gallery underwent a computerised process that changed everything – and seemingly nothing. Hamilton laboriously deconstructed, then reconstructed, the interior space of the gallery in The annunciation; nine state proofs were generated during the manipulation of the walls alone. 8 (figs.3a–i). First, Hamilton used what he refers to as Adobe Illustrator’s ‘vocabulary of vector description’ to adjust the quality of the spot lighting and subtly alter the gradation of the walls, which he described as ‘reminiscent of an early Renaissance perspectival space’. 9 Each component of the photograph (excepting the grate, light fixture, floor and window) was contained in a separate ‘layer’ in the computer program and thus modified in isolation. These layers could be switched on and off, allowing the artist to assess in detail the harmony between the parts. The changes realised at this stage focused exclusively on the gallery interior; Hamilton here strove to replicate the nuanced effects he had achieved in his screenprint TiT 2002.10
To create The annunciation two images were merged or ‘collaged’ together: 11 a 1994 photograph of the bedroom with an empty chair, and a 1997 photograph of a model sitting in the bedroom in the same chair.12 Once Hamilton had isolated the seated figure from her original context, he resolved her scale and, crucially, the shadows her shape engendered (paying special attention to the colour of the shadow – at once the articulation of her weight and the proof of it – across the chair’s seat).13 He eliminated the ‘unnecessary’ visual information of light sockets, cord and radiator. Then he softened the contrast, which, at the final scale of the print, lends the work its central element of ambiguity. Is that a photograph on the wall? A painting? A photorealist painting? At this stage Hamilton printed out his image and painted over the figure. He gave her an electric-yellow shock of hair where the light source would illuminate it and carefully blurred the paint around her head, thus dulling the digital crispness of her silhouette and suggesting a halo. Then he simplified, and made more graphic, the highlight beneath her brow, made the contour of her nose more prominent and, finally, smoothed the geometry of shadows cast across her body. Most striking, perhaps, is the treatment of the figure’s expression: Hamilton transformed her countenance from passive to wide-eyed. Her eye, eerily blue, glistens, and her mouth is caught in speech, lips wrapped around a word. She does not seem, like Fra Angelico’s Virgin, to be idly reacting to the news of her fate, but then, in Hamilton’s print, Fra Angelico’s winged messenger has been reincarnated as a cordless telephone.
Prior to his adoption of digital media, Hamilton spoke of the usefulness of ‘incorporating photosensitive techniques into the artist’s range of media,’ but concluded that the ‘attendant difficulties’ were such that the
least problematic, and certainly most permanent, solution is to paint simulations of photography for those passages demanding it. Print, in its many varieties, can give all the desired advantages but reduce the technical problems. Integration between hand-drawn and photographic elements can be total; collage assumes another meaning when material unification of the pictorial components is absolute. 14
This predilection for a fully integrated picture plane, where disparate images and sources are manipulated into a single medium, prompted Richard Field in Print Quarterly to suggest that the computer is ‘a modern technology tailor-made for [Hamilton’s] enterprise.’ 15 Using this new technology Hamilton can feed in whatever ‘input’ and be ensured harmonised ‘output’. One of the paradoxes of digital printmaking – because it is possible to layer image upon image infinitely without risking technical failure – is that the resulting prints so often appear flat; in digital printing the act of impression is elided.
While printmaking techniques have been fixed in traditional processes, digital printing is constantly evolving; its techniques quickly become outmoded with the development of new software and updated hardware. Despite his programming skills (and his dedicated acquisition of hardware), it was not until 1987 that Hamilton claimed to have conceived of using a computer as an artistic tool:
It was not until I was asked to participate in a series of programmes made in 1987 for the BBC that I saw the potential of using a computer to manipulate images. Six artists were invited to contribute to a series called Painting with Light. The ‘Paintbox’ computer, developed by the British company Quantel, was designed to be operated by an artist to draw and paint on a cathode ray tube as freely as with brush and pigment on paper. I owned and operated a Quantel Paintbox (1992–99) and a later model called Printbox. All the prints and paintings I made subsequently utilided, in a variety of ways, digital image processing equipment.16
The Quantel Paintbox, which Hamilton has described as allowing the artist ‘to combine the manipulative ability of the painter with the instant creativity of photography’, required an auxiliary Apple Macintosh to convert the completed image to a printable file. 17 For this reason, and in the interest of keeping abreast of new technologies, Hamilton eventually replaced the Paintbox with a Macintosh computer.
Throughout the period of his engagement with digital media Hamilton has often referred to the problem of ‘resolution’. He describes resolution as ‘the fineness of detail that can be distinguished in an image’. 18 The ‘resolution problem’, then, is that modern technologies cannot concentrate enough dots in a square inch for an image to conceal and belie its digitalness. Hamilton describes the trajectory of both his experience with, and expectations for, digital resolution:
The first printer I was able to plug into my computer was a simple dot matrix device limited to printing each alphabetic character composed from a group of dots on a 9 x 5 regular grid. A modern inkjet printer’s specification enables a resolution of 2880 dpi [dots per inch]. The benchmark hard copy that digital output is up against is both difficult to achieve and impossible to beat. It is the 100% resolution that any painting possesses without much effort. How many dots to the inch are required to simulate matter?19
Yet, the computer’s intermediary role between artist and art work requires that its product be simulation of substance rather than substance itself. Inasmuch as the computer is a technology designed to create and modify information and not material, it will never allow the creation of matter as it is conveyed, feelingly, from artist’s brush to paper.
The question of ‘resolution’ is central to The annunciation, for the print’s creative process necessitated the translation of visual information from photographic emulsion to pixels. Pixels are, in turn, subject to the aesthetic violence of dots per inch. Yet, the completed ‘wall file’, having been sufficiently altered from its photographic precursor, looks as though it achieves an unnerving hyper-reality, the ineluctable consequence of the refinement of digital printing. For this reason resolution remains its weakness; in approaching seamlessness, the appearance of the print undoes the ambition to totally disguise its origins. In 1998 Hamilton envisioned the computer-crafted future of virtual reality: ‘It is now possible for computers to provide a visual experience of a three-dimensional kind in real time – they can create a virtual reality analogous to our perception of the real world … Understandably, resolution is somewhat limited at the moment … But it won’t be many years before the experience will be something like real life.’20 A decade after this initial prediction, the capacity for computers to generate a likeness to reality is upon us. Although grounded in it, the digital image is gradually supplanting the traditional photograph’s role as the lens through which we represent, and apprehend, reality.
While The annunciation does not require an actual or sculptural context to mirror its internal one – as did the Seven Rooms pieces installed in Documenta X – much of the intellectual motivation for that series is evident in the print. The image relies on false illusion; it posits a never-existent reality that capitalises on our trust in the photographic image. Hamilton has acknowledged the photograph’s capacity to deceive: ‘Photography is a medium with its own conventions though we treat its products as a truth less flexible than hand-done art. Yet photographs of a given scene can be as unlike each other as each might be from a painting of that scene.’21 In The annunciation Hamilton employs photography to convince us of what we are looking at, much as a film camera’s lens can convey reality as long as it does not stray from the confines of the set. The idea of the constructed set (of multiple levels of unreality) has always interested Hamilton and many of his works have addressed this preoccupation.22 Throughout his career he has explored the strata of visual deception inherent in many of his photographic source materials. Here, he deconstructs a still from the 1949 film Shockproof starring Patricia Knight:
A very wide-angle lens must have been used because the perspective seemed distorted; but the disquiet in the scene was due to two other factors. It was a film set, not a real room, so wall surfaces were not explicitly conjoined; and the lighting came from several different sources. Since the scale of the room had not become unreasonably enlarged, as one might expect from the use of a wide angle lens, it could be assumed that false perspective had been introduced to counteract its effect – yet the foreground remained emphatically close and the recession extreme.23
Though this observation was in response to a film still, it could equally apply to the space in Hamilton and Fra Angelico’s Annunciations; both compositions affirm and subvert rational space. Despite Fra Angelico’s meticulous trompe l’œil effects in creating an illusionistic, orthogonally chamfered ‘frame’ around his composition, the internal space is dominated by a drastically different, much higher viewpoint. The same is true of Hamilton’s annunciation; where the ‘frame’ of the surrounding gallery space is articulated in rational perspective, the floor of the internal composition cants downward, thereby elevating the horizon and placing the viewer below the Virgin Annunciate.
In the San Marco monastery, relatively little space exists between the top of the stairs and the wall on which The Annunciation (fig.2) is painted. Fra Angelico’s decision to undermine the perspective to which he had vigorously adhered in rendering the frame may have been in the interest of extending the space within the fresco beyond that of the architectural surface underlying it. In the gallery space of Hamilton’s annunciation, Mary’s worshippers would find themselves similarly confined to a narrow strip of floor, their gaze drawn deeply into the space of the composition, beyond the Virgin even, and into the wilds of the artist’s hortus conclusus. The Fra Angelico Annunciation looks most similar to Hamilton’s print when seen from the stairwell opposite. In providing context, this vantage point evokes the tension between architecture and art that must have influenced Hamilton’s vision for his print as much as, or more so than, the fresco itself.
The annunciation was conceived as part of a group of works intended for an exhibition in Florence, where Hamilton envisioned his subjects in dialogue with the Angels and Virgins in the frescoes at San Marco. Although the exhibition never transpired, Hamilton uses the term ‘nude angels’ to collectively describe the subjects in these works, and has subsequently applied it to the majority of the figures featured in his Host of Angels exhibition.24 However, this term requires clarification. In traditional Christian iconography there can be no confusing the Angel for the Virgin; the two are made distinct by their separate roles and opposite genders, as in Fra Angelico’s fresco. Hamilton concedes that ‘some theologians would argue that angels are male, but I lean to Milton’s view that they are pure spirits without substance or gender. Since pure spirits without substance are difficult to configure, the female form is my preferred option’.25 With this statement, Hamilton makes less controversial his depiction of Gabriel as a nude woman in The Passage of the Angel to the Virgin 2005–7 (fig.4); the Angel featured therein is, however, the same model used for the Virgin in The annunciation. Nonetheless, it is unlikely that the figure in The annunciation is meant to be the Angel, or a conflation of the two Biblical characters. A comparison with Fra Angelico’s Annunciation strongly suggest that she is the Virgin: she is seated in an identical orientation, with the window to her left, as she receives a communication.
The annunciation does not merely reference the space and content of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation; it repeatedly references itself through the various relationships between its own interiors. The spotlight, borrowed directly from the original d’Offay photograph, would illuminate the hanging art work just where the lamp in the bedroom generates its own glare, and the print would, in turn, be lit externally if ever hung in an exhibition. Similarly, Fra Angelico’s Annunciation depended on the conditions of its environment; the flare of divine light streaming from left to right in the composition would have been intensified by real light from the small east-facing window to its left. In Hamilton’s version, the nude figure, situated in her spatial duality, creates yet another ‘interior,’ albeit a psychological one, between herself and the initiator (or recipient) of the telephone call.
Hamilton more faithfully adapts other pictorial elements from the original fresco. In the background of Fra Angelico’s painting, to Mary’s left, a barred window admits the daylight and a hint of foliage.26 Fra Angelico imbued his composition with light, intended more to signify divinity than to suggest a passing of the daylight hours, but its orientation, east to west, left to right, suggests the rising sun.27 Hamilton’s multiple-paned window, while more prominent, similarly frames the outside vegetation yet retains an ambiguity regarding time of day. The significance of Hamilton’s window is augmented by its compositional counterpart: the parallel gallery window, through which the ‘real world’ ostensibly exists. Although nothing is visible through its foreshortened frame, it seems to retreat like the ‘painted window’, creating a disorientating volume between the panes; Mary hovers in spatial limbo. Moreover, the window functions iconographically as the point of entry of God’s spirit in the form of a dove or, simply, as the Word. The latter would seem particularly apt in the case of Hamilton’s annunciation, where neither angel nor God exists but in a plastic, cordless conveyor of words – or the Word, as the circumstances suggest. That the Virgin is indeed receiving the news of her fate via modern technology makes this piece an intuitive sequel to Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 1956, where the housewife pictured in the collage is seemingly liberated by the addition of a few extra feet of cord to her new vacuum cleaner. Here, Hamilton’s Virgin reclines, receiving the Word wirelessly.
This little piece of humour is consistent with Hamilton’s characteristic wit (and occasional flippancy), but the success of this work is more profound: the craft and subtlety of the image and fluency of technique make it startling to behold. It has a lustre and vibrancy that most digital prints have not achieved. It is this frequent shortcoming of digital printmaking that led Field to demand: ‘Where is the resistance, the noise and the physical materiality of the digitally-driven ink-jet spray that migrates an image into the fibres of a sheet of paper without leaving a trace?’28 Yet the digital precision and flatness that have disquieted critics contribute significantly and crucially to the material purity of the print, which, in turn, bolsters the symbolic purity of its narrative content.
The photograph into which Hamilton places his female nude in The annunciation is a photograph of his bedroom, a detail he discloses in the accompanying catalogue Painting by Numbers and that hints at his omnipotent role as creator. With the power of technology at his disposal he can make his subject look lamp-lit or sun-lit, brunette or blonde, slim, even pregnant. The finished print, however, projects the sleek impregnability of a product of computer technologies. Hamilton is evidently aware of his digitally amplified abilities; the computer, unlike any other creative tool, offers the artist the ability to create and distort within the language of verisimilitude. The tension that arises in The annunciation derives from Hamilton’s deft wielding of this vocabulary. What ‘noise’ we have come to expect from him, based on a career brimming with painterly flourish, is here eliminated. In its stead we have something pure: a virginal image, untainted – or so it seems – by the artist creator. His is a perfection coaxed imperceptibly from photographic realities; a sublimation of impulses, a masking of manipulations. That the print itself might serve as a place holder, or substitute, for the Virgin may have been a peripheral intention of Hamilton’s; the print is not, after all, The Annunciation, but The annunciation – a patent avoidance of a capital and, possibly, a subtle disavowal of religious association.29 Perhaps the print is not at all what the title suggests (a variant of the Christian miracle), but a meditation on the act of creation, be it biological or technological. Much as the seminal collage, Just what is it …, brought together a group of cultural metonyms as a critique of a changing post-war society, The annunciation is a coalescence of those same concerns, re-aestheticised for a new era, one rife with technological advances.
Hamilton admits he would not have been opposed to the comment made by the aforementioned sceptical collector had the latter phrased his assessment differently: ‘We would have been in complete agreement if [the] client had said ‘It’s just like a photograph.’ The question ‘in which way does this differ from a photograph?’ is well worth the asking’.30 In the same passage, Hamilton expands: ‘The task of recreating a photograph (for example, the background of The annunciation) in such a way that it is more like a photograph than the lens-generated original is interesting, even to the extent that its lack of flaws is what differentiates the simulation from the photograph.’31 Hamilton’s effort at explanation is a sort of confession; by attempting to disentangle his digital ambitions from photographic ones, he effectively confirms the involution of the two media.
The annunciation is not the first of Hamilton’s prints to redefine and exploit photography; most of them do.32 But it is the only one that does not make the exploitation completely evident. Almost every one of the artist’s photograph-derived prints is obviously mediated by his hand; he typically makes such generous use of his brush that the viewer is never left doubting the provenance of the print. Only with The annunciation has Hamilton so absolutely, or willingly, subjected a print to the possible approximation of, and confusion with, photography.
Nonetheless, Hamilton’s frustration at the remarks of the collector is understandable; the closer one gets to The annunciation, the more complex it becomes and the more worthy of examination. For all the advances of digital imaging, the product remains a traditional artefact: an image on a piece of square or rectangular two-dimensional paper, to be judged by standard visual criteria. Yet its content and form present a challenging critique of the nature of the photographic and the digital. Perhaps The annunciation does not offer the critique of photography with which we have come to associate Hamilton, but, in somehow exceeding photography, it may herald a new vision for printmaking. In attempting to understand this print as both a contemporary and historical object, we are suspended between the illusory and the real, just as, in Christian theology, the Virgin has been suspended between God and man.