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John McHale Interview (cont.)
page two

selfportrait

John McHale (Sr.) with Self-Portrait
(Photo: Sam Lambert)

8. How was the Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing collage created?

My father had been working in collage off and on since the late 1940s. He had met [Tristan] Tzara in Paris and was aware of the Dadaist and Futurist collage experiments, as well as Picasso's formative Cubist collage experiments. He was also familiar with the Bauhaus and Schwitter's collage work from the post-war days when my father frequented the numerous art groups up in Hampstead. McHale had produced a series of three dimensional abstract painted masks with collage elements back in the 1940s. I remember his collage and paint masks being displayed along the picture rail at our house at 36 Kilburn Priory. He exhibited some of them at an art show in London during that era.

In the early 1950s when McHale became a founding member of the ICA group, he used to go up to Highgate, next to Hampstead, and visit Roland Penrose at his house and view his extensive Surrealist collection of collages. From his knowledge of Penrose's collection he later teamed up with Lawrence Alloway and used some of the Penrose collage collection as the basis to design and mount the Collages and Objects exhibit at the ICA in October 1954. Among the works exhibited, along with McHale's own collages were those of Ernst, Picasso, Magritte, Paolozzi, Henderson and Turnbull.

My father produced several formative Pop Art collages in this period including Transistor, which is full of media cuttings alluding to his wartime experiences, and his re-programmable finite state collage book, Why I took to the washers in luxury flats. Why I took to the washers in luxury flats contains many autobiographical elements and is conceptually structured in a similar manner as Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?. The title of the earlier collage contains numerous interrogative bylines just as his title for the "Just what is it..." collage is in the form of a question. Both titles are similar, grammatically. Both of McHale's collages show a proclivity for scantily clad women models although in "Just what is it..." his spotlit scantily attired supple stripper is linked in the Pop collage to the subtle image of Minsky's burlesque via "Warners" spotlit in the window. The female burlesque performer is also linked to the male bodybuilder's famous live burlesque performance. The positioning of the performing burlesque artist and the bodybuilding artist in McHale's Pop Art collage design are both visually linked to an earlier well-known Renaissance painting and, in part, to the historic development of the corset industry in New Haven where my father studied at Yale.

From what my father told me, he did most of the collage design over the Christmas holidays of 1955 when he had some spare time from the demands of Albers' graduate classes at Yale. The impression I have is my father was thinking of the "Just what is it..." collage design since arriving at Yale in August 1955. He told me the theme of his collage design and how it cross-relates to the Forbidden Planet as well as to one of his earlier girlfriends and Shakespeare and a series of natural disasters that swept Connecticut on his arrival in New Haven.

9. It is interesting that the titles to both collages - Why I took to the washers in luxury flats and Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? - are so similar and unlike the titles of any other work that Richard Hamilton was producing at the time. Did you father tell you that he actually provided Hamilton with a detailed diagram to use in the creation of the work or was it just general ideas?

What my father said was that he provided Hamilton ahead of time with a detailed design mock-up for the layout of the "Just what is it..." collage and specified precisely where he wanted the individual collage pieces to be positioned within the collage. No deviation from McHale's original written and sketched design was expected or intended. My father told me that he was surprised that Hamilton, for some unknown reason, had substituted the photo image of the moon with another picture of the moon when McHale had provided him with a perfectly good version and had actually pre-measured it to make sure it would fit into the tight dimensions of the "Just what..." collage.

10. Did your father tell you of any other changes that Hamilton made to your father's original design?

If I recall correctly, he also said to me that Hamilton, for some unexplained reason, changed the texture of the carpet that McHale had specified, but Hamilton did not alter the dimension or the position of the carpet.

11. Where is the "detailed design mock-up" that your father provided to Hamilton now?

In the mid-1960s I asked my father if Magda [Cordell] had retrieved the design and he said not to his knowledge and that Magda seemed to have overlooked it. I asked my father what he thought had happened to his original design and he replied, "I think Hamilton destroyed it." I asked Magda to go through her personal letters from McHale when he was at Yale and she says there are no instructions relating to the This is Tomorrow poster in the personal correspondence from McHale to her. Magda recalls in the MIT document, "During John McHale's absence, he sent me instructions for exchanging ideas with Richard Hamilton. After my own short visit to America (as I recall, the last two weeks of January and all of February, or thereabouts). I brought back magazines and bits of material for the show, including a rough sketch for an exhibit poster by John. I can't recollect if the poster was ever used, but I still have it."13

12. In the quote was Magda referring to the "Just what is it..." poster?

The rough sketch referred to by Magda is not the same in content or specificity as the measured design that McHale sent to Hamilton for the collage. But Magda's account shows that McHale was in the practice of sending over material, design ideas and poster designs from Yale to members of the Team 2 Group in London.

13. Didn't Hamilton do a later collage which was to similar to "Just what is it..."

Yes, there is one where Hamilton has tried to copy McHale's Pop Art collage, but he has turned the bodybuilder into a circus performer and there is almost no receding perspective and no celestial canopy of the moon - just a large ball and so on.

Hamilton's collages usually involve, at maximum, about three layers of collage material and have no subtle "edge" effects, whereas McHale's collage involves up to seven or eight layers of highly sequenced lay-up, positioning and pasting. Because McHale studied with Albers it also has a number of subtle overlapping, perceptual edge effects that are absent in Hamilton's works. Also, there is the visual dynamic of multiple human figures in McHale's collage that is absent in Hamilton's "Interior Study" collages depicting a solitary clothed figure in a semi-enclosed living room space. This structural and analytic iconography work should have been done years ago by the art experts, but they were all dead at the switch.

It wasn't until the 1960s that Hamilton would begin expressing space and perspective in his collages and he still had to rely on my father's formative work plus some reliance on Velasquez' Las Meninas, which he also copied. Most of Hamilton's pieces depict one solitary individual whereas in McHale's work there are various people - the TV personality, the three featured on the comic book and Mr. Sideburns - and they are all interrelated. Hamilton seems to think that the collage is based on Velasquez' Las Meninas when, in fact, it references both Van Eyck's The Betrothal of the Arnolfini (the comic/mirror on the wall) and The Tempest by Giorgione.

14. In what way does the collage/poster reference Giorgione's The Tempest?

In terms of the disposition of the bodybuilder and the reclining burlesque woman. The Tempest resides in Venice and the bodybuilder, Zabo, in the collage actually works out in his famous gym in Venice, California. McHale was born in Maryhill, Glasgow known as the "Venice of the north" and his artistic studio was at #8 Randolph Mews which is located in Little Venice in Maida Vale, London.

The visual link is through the position of the bodybuilder and the burlesque artist that reflects the same position as John the Baptist - the standing shepherd to the left - and Mary Magdalene reclining to the right in Giorgione's painting. Giorgione, you will recall, was the foremost colourist experimental painter in the Renaissance. Likewise, McHale performed an intense study of the optical properties of paint and colour and perception during his Constructivist and Pop Art investigations.

15. In his book, Collected Words, Hamilton writes that "John McHale went to the US for a year and returned to London to make himself available for work two weeks before the show was due to open in Whitechapel, too late to add creatively to the few acrimonious contributions which arrived by post."14 But one wonders where so many American images came from if not from your father. Did Hamilton ever say where he got the images or why he chose them?

Hamilton can carp on about being "too late to add creatively to the few acrimonious contributions which arrived by post." However, the documented record is clearly a stronger indicator of Hamilton's lack of creative design integrity and a testament to the actual truth about McHale's contribution to Pop Art with his poster design and installations at This is Tomorrow.

Hamilton claims in his interview with John Tusa on BBC3 Radio15 that,"... having made my list I then looked for a suitable man..." Tusa asks, "An idealised Mr. Superman type man, lots of muscles?" Hamilton responds, "Yes, a Superman type... because I thought that I must avoid any dating and if he had clothes, he could have dated much more rapidly than a nude. Same with the woman. I feel it's always necessary if I'm going to have a symbolic man that he doesn't have clothes on because that makes him too specific..." Hamilton then goes on to say "What is the past going to be represented by? I found a little picture of a Victorian gentleman and stuck him on the wall."

Thus we have Hamilton publicly claiming in constructing the collage he looked for a suitable man without clothes because it avoided dating and the same with the woman. But if he was avoiding dating why did he also include a fully clothed woman lugging a contemporary vacuum cleaner? Why did he include a so-called "Victorian gentleman" obviously dressed in a pre-Victorian stock if he was avoiding dating?

Although Hamilton says that he chose images in a way to "avoid any dating" the vacuum cleaner image was of a unique U.S. design whose product launch date in the UK coincided closely with the date of the opening of This is Tomorrow. The product name of the vacuum cleaner depicted in McHale's collage design conceptually links both to the moon image in his collage, and links also to McHale's readymade from the US film, Forbidden Planet which also opened in the UK in August 1956, precisely at the same time as the This Is Tomorrow exhibition. So are we avoiding "dating," or are we avoiding the artistic truth?

Moreover, if he was seeking nude figures and avoiding dating, then why did Hamilton include a fully clothed Al Jolson Jazz Singer, along with two fully clothed male and female figures on the balcony of Warner's that are specifically from the film opening of October 6, 1927? Particularly from a film he is purported not to have seen. Why did Hamilton include a so called "Victorian gentleman"obviously dressed in a pre-Victorian stock if he was avoiding dating? Why did he include three clothed figures in a comic launched in October 1947 if he was trying to avoid (non romantic) dating? There seem to be some inconsistencies in Hamilton's account.

16. Did your father tell you why he included a bodybuilder or the so-called "Victorian" gentleman?

According to what my father told me in the mid 1960s he (McHale) chose the bodybuilder for a number of specific reasons. He said he had selected the particular image of Zabo, the bodybuilder, for inclusion in his collage design and told me it was related to a very similar named person as one of the sources of a lecture he gave at the ICA before leaving for Yale. McHale identified the bodybuilder to me over forty years ago, whereas Hamilton in the last fifty years has never identified the name of the bodybuilder or his precise location.

McHale also identified specifically who the burlesque artist was, and her relation to the theme of his collage design, and the link to the bodybuilder theme. Furthermore, McHale identified who he intended Mr. Sideburns [the pre-Victorian gentleman] to represent, since he could not find an image small enough of the exact likeness. He also said that Mr. Sideburns was a symbolic surrogate connected to a famous contemporary at the ICA. The surrogate image is also connected to the name of one of the authors on ambiguity and perception that McHale based the collage design on. It is poetically linked as well to the location of 52 Cleveland Square depicted in the collage.

17. Were there any other discrepancies in what Hamilton said his images represent and what your father told you they actually represented?

In another citation Hamilton claims that The Jazz Singer, depicted in the Warner's collage image, reminded him of The Singing Fool which he saw when he was eight. So the question arises why did Hamilton not include the image of the The Singing Fool in the pop collage if he purports to have created it? Why use an image from a completely different movie?

18. Perhaps he was referencing both The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool.

Then the question becomes what relation, if any, does Hamilton have to The Jazz Singer? The Jazz Singer was released on the Day of Atonement and The Jazz Singer is the story of a young Jew. It contains a synagogue sequence where Al Jolson sings Kol Nidre. So what was Hamilton's pre-1956 connection, if any, to the Jewish scene depicted in the Jazz Singer? Is Hamilton Jewish?

19. Did McHale have any Jewish connections?

McHale had fought during the war in the Middle East region, and his This is Tomorrow exhibit assistant Magda Cordell was Jewish. Magda met Frank Cordell in Palestine during the war, and he was one of the last of the British military officials to leave Palestine on the very day it became the State of Israel. Both McHale and the Cordells shared the living room atelier depicted in McHale's collage design. Furthermore, McHale had other Jewish connections linked to the Whitechapel area where the This is Tomorrow poster was to be distributed. In the immediate post-war era McHale taught school in the east end of London and many of the school parents were Jewish tailors from the surrounding area who mobilized on countless occasions to supply his Clerkenwell school with chalk, pattern paper and art materials that were in scant supply after war. In rememberance of this, and the fact that McHale knew the Whitechapel Gallery and its environs intimately, he included the Warner's image that also subtly reflects some similar architectural features such as Townsend's design of the Whitechapel Gallery. The other reference to Warner's is the humourous link to the ICA members' exhibit in the basement of Warner's.

Hamilton did not chose the Warner's image. It was pre-selected and provided to him by McHale in his black metal trunk located in his private studio. The Warner's [Jazz Singer] image has links to Yale and is conceptually interrelated to several of the other iconic images in McHale's Pop Art collage poster for This is Tomorrow.

20. You mention the Cordells - Magda and Frank. Did Frank Cordell, who shared your father's atelier, have any input into the design or construction of the collage?

Frank Cordell had no input into McHale's original design for the collage and no input into the mechanical paste-up and production process subsequently undertaken by the Hamiltons and Magda Cordell. However, Frank Cordell did play a crucial role in helping McHale formulate his initial Pop Art theories, particularly in the formative period between 1952 and early 1955. Through his extensive contacts in the media industry, Cordell assisted McHale in accessing and assembling all the Pop Art readymades at the This is Tomorrow exhibition. These items included Robby the Robot (with assistance from Cordell's wife, Magda), the Marilyn Monroe poster, the Marlon Brando poster, the electric motors and installation of the Duchamp Rotodiscs that McHale had obtained directly as a gift from Marcel Duchamp in New York, the oversized Guinness beer bottle, the juke box with an endless selection of popular records, including Frank Cordell's pop hit, Sadie's Shawl, the film projector for the Royal Navy endless reel of tape. Frank Cordell on his own initiative installed the open microphone and electric amplifier intended as an audience "happening" to cybernetically feedback ambient sounds and audience reactions at the portal of This is Tomorrow.

to page three

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