Safety Curtain 2001/2002

Inter-play. Richard Hamilton talks to Ecke Bonk.

Ecke Bonk: Mr. Hamilton. To engage with a building redolent of Mozart's divine operas must have been a daunting proposal, can we discuss the circumstances by which this project to decorate the fire curtain of the Vienna State Opera came about? We know that the seed was sown in Milan in November 1968 when you were installing your first exhibition at Studio Marconi. That date is significant because November is the season when mouth-watering aromas float above perfectly al dente spaghetti as paper thin wafers of fresh tartufi descend from the mandolins* of a thousand waiters. Is this what drew you to Milan at that historic moment? The attraction was not money because a somewhat unique relationship existed between yourself and that remarkable mercanti de arte moderna Giorgio Marconi in that nothing in your exhibitions was for sale. This arrangement continued for all the shows you created in November for the exhibitionist who became a close personal friend?

Richard Hamilton: Yes, the food in Milan is very good indeed, particularly in November, but I wouldn't call Giorgio an exhibitionist – perhaps gourmet would be a better word.

EB: Putting food to one side: Tell us, in your own words, of the discovery that you made on that first visit. You had been investigating postcards since the early sixties and had noticed, almost by chance, in much the way that Fleming accidentally discovered Penicillin (C5 H11 NO2 S), or Kekulé hit on the Benzol ring, that certain postcards found in newspaper shops in the North of England were fakes. What purported to be colour photographs were not as they seemed. The photographs were created on black and white film then doctored by hand to simulate the effects normally obtained only with colour film such as Kodachrome or Agfacolour or the later Japanese product Fujifilm. These hand-coloured impostors could be proved to be false through a lack of correspondence in the position of colour-components in the printed impression. But poor registration, a quite common fault in ordinary trichromatic reproductions of colour photographs, was evidence here of hand working. A Union Jack on a church steeple might (on close scrutiny) show arbitrarily placed red and blue brush strokes, which display the stochastic character of manual intervention. What caught your eye in Milan was an abundance of postcards of one subject: the interior of Milan's great opera theatre La Scala. Many of the postcards had a disturbing similarity, though they showed the same scene, the magnificent auditorium with an audience so numerous that it poured into the aisles. They appeared to derive from different exposures yet the miraculously embalmed multitude of opera lovers is each person frozen into an individually pose.

RH: I'm sorry, what was the question?

EB: Your suspicions were aroused by these differences within sameness, which suggested that all the postcards derived from a common source. In your writings and lectures on the La Scala project you mention that your research revealed one black and white postcard that you found particularly exciting: an old, deckle edged, vintage photographic print showing no sign of the usual half-tone-dot rosette.

RH: Yes.

EB: This sighting of such a rare fish (so to speak) enabled you to deduce that the coloured offspring were hand-tinted simulations traceable to that one source. A Darwinian revelation was it not? Can you describe your feelings at that moment?

RH: Well, the black and whites ones were not so rare. They were on all the postcard stands in Milan along with the colour versions.

EB: You then arranged, with the help of Giorgio Marconi, to take the black and white postcard to an etching workshop called Graphica Uno intent on making an etched enlargement of the postcard, including the inscription 267 – Milano Teatra alla Scala – Interna written across the bottomà.

RH: Pure vandalism.

EB: The photographic etching was editioned by Graphica Uno, but the story does not end there. The prints were shipped back to London where you continued the work with a second stage of intense creativity. This time using screenprint as your medium. Have I got this right so far?

RH: No, the prints did not go by boat: I took them home by car. I drove to Milan in my Porsche 911S. It was very agreeable to load an exhibition into the boot, famed for its capacity to carry a fairly large portfolio (which explains its popularity among artists) but no luggage, and whiz down the autobahns. The Porsche is the only automobile (apart from its progenitor, the VW Beetle) that has its boot in front rather than following up the backside. It reminds me of that amazing reference to Picabia's Bugatti in Marcel Duchamp's Green Box: "This headlight child could, graphically, be a comet, which would have its tail in front".

EB: Really? Back in England you screen-printed colour on the gowns of the ladies and also introduced red velvet curtains – the gentle men, all in evening dress, required no . The tape runs out here.

*mandolin: culinary term for vegetable slicer

(©2001 typosophes sans frontières)