|The three David Hockneys
DAVID HOCKNEY PORTRAITS / National Portrait Gallery / Until January 21, 2007DAVID HOCKNEY PORTRAITS / 256pp. National Portrait Gallery. £35
A YEAR IN YORKSHIRE / Annely Juda Fine Art / Until October 28
October 25, 2006
For the surprising fact is, Hockney’s work does not reproduce well. This is the case with many artists – Francis Bacon springs most readily to mind. But reproductions of Bacon’s work look just plain bad: unclear, muddy and fussy. Indeed, the paintings look so bad in reproduction that it is always immediately clear that they must be poor facsimiles. Reproductions of Hockney’s works, however, look sensational: vibrant, clear, and full of Poppy joie de vivre. They are slick and cheery, picking up and even intensifying Hockney’s great graphic strengths. “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970–71) is not just an iconic image of the 1960s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it came fifth in a recent BBC poll to find “The Greatest Painting in Britain” (as well as being the only twentieth-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.
An exhibition of Hockney’s work – let alone two at once – is all the more to be welcomed, therefore, because behind Hockney the celebrity and Hockney the poster boy is Hockney the artist, and he is much more important than his two doppelgängers would have us believe. These two shows encompass two very different elements of his work, a salutary reminder of just how wide-ranging this artist’s technical exploration has been over the decades. He has gone from realism in the 1950s and 60s to a shiny graphic world, to pen-and-ink drawings of remarkable draughtsmanship and pure line, through photocollage, experiments with Polaroids and photocopiers, and painterly naturalism, to work with the tricky camera lucida for more drawings, then on to the now rarely undertaken medium of watercolour, for both landscapes and portraits, and, finally, back to oil painting with more landscapes and portraits. He has, at various times, worked with oil, acrylic and Conté crayon, as well as etchings, aquatints, lithographs, photographic reproduction, even “home prints” made out of photocopied materials and, what sounds like an oxymoron, a still video camera. He has produced work for tapestries, sets for opera and theatre, etchings to accompany poetry.
The sitter for “The Room, Tarzana” turns up again in “Peter Schlesinger with Polaroid Camera” (1977). Here he is a lavender-suited, bow-tied flâneur marooned in green space, held – gripped almost – by a green chair, while the camera on a tripod stares accusingly at him as he stares at us, or at the artist. This stare matters. In the 1960s and 70s Hockney’s sitters share a similar point of view as they look directly at the artist out of the space he has created. One of the greatest of these images, “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968) is, unfortunately, also not in the NPG’s retrospective. Here there is a three-way conversation: from behind a firmly planted stack of books, Isherwood looks over to his partner, Bachardy, who stares out over his stack of books, even higher, if less stable, at the painter. The different heights of the books, the linked glances, are not incidental. Hockney has always been a very literary artist. He has drawn many writers, including J. B. Priestley (1973) – a beautiful if somewhat detached pen-and-ink drawing – and more resonant images of his friends W. H. Auden (1968) and Stephen Spender (1969). Literature has been a mainspring of some of Hockney’s most important and interesting pictures: in the 1960s he made a series of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems, and one of his most complex self-portraits, “Self-Portrait with Blue Guitar” (1977), came out of etchings he produced to illustrate Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar”.
That wonderfully self-referential portrait shows how many levels Hockney’s work can have: the Stevens poem itself was inspired by Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist” (1903), and the layers of inspiration are represented here by the realistic blue curtain which is pulled aside to reveal the artist, working at a table to produce a Picassoesque outline of a blue guitar, while sitting on a cartoonlike outline of a chair, poised inside a child’s outline of a house, watched over by his own signature tulips and a bust of Dora Maar. (Later that same year, Hockney took this even further, in “Model with Unfinished Self-portrait”, again not in this exhibition, where a model sleeps in front of what at first glance appears to be Hockney, intent on some work on a table. Closer examination shows the edge of a canvas: the model is in fact asleep in front of the unfinished canvas of “Self-Portrait with Blue Guitar”.) Hockney enjoys this jeu d’esprit, and its neat art-historical references. In “George, Blanche, Celia, Albert and Percy, London 1983”, a photocollage, the artist and his camera appear in a reflection in the mirror, à la “Arnolfini Wedding Portrait”. In these photocollages of the 1980s, Hockney moves from layers of reference to building up more directly obvious layers of time, an effect analogous to that in Cubist works with their depiction of a single object from multiple points of view.
And now the artist moves from the traditional place in front of the canvas, or a self-reflexive, art-historical place in a reflected image, into an even closer relationship with his sitters. They still gaze outward at him, but now he creeps in towards them: in “My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, November 1982”, we see, at the bottom of the collage, the photographer’s neatly polished brogues, tiptoeing into the sitter’s space.
Yet even thus stripped back, these images fulfil Erwin Panofsky’s definition of what separates a portrait from a genre painting: “A portrait aims . . . at two essentials . . . it seeks to bring out whatever it is in which the sitter differs from the rest of humanity and would even differ from himself were he portrayed at a different moment . . . [and it also] seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity and what remains in him regardless of place and time”. Using this definition, Hockney’s landscape paintings of his native Yorkshire, done over the past year, might also loosely be called portraits, as studies of how a specific road or field is different from the road or field next to it, and how each retains, through the different seasons, its integrity, its essential roadness or fieldness. His landscapes, for the most part – after his brief love affair with the houses and swimming pools of California in the late 1960s – are bereft of humans, although they remain landscapes that have very much been created by humans. In these Yorkshire paintings, the natural world is always a man-made one: ploughed and sown fields, paths and roads, rooftops. Over the half-century of Hockney’s career, his palette has deepened and intensified – sometimes for decorative purposes, as in the portrait of Divine, where the Matissean background of red, blue and jade-green is deployed in joyous swirling brushstrokes; at other times for emotional resonance, as in the moving portrait of Laura Hockney of 1996, where the turquoise and jades of the chair and her eyes pull the sitter towards the viewer, while the heavily impastoed browns and reds of the wall and her face ground her firmly back in the painted plane again.
In his Yorkshire landscapes, the colours are certainly there for decorative purposes – the ochre fields of “A Bigger Puddle near Kilham, November 2005” are patterns of beautiful brushstrokes, while the rhythmic whirl of “Tree Tunnel, August 2005” creates a dark- and light-green vortex that recreates the effects of walking through a dazzling, sun-dappled, tree-lined tunnel of light and shade. But it is the intensification of Hockney’s palette in the winter images that is the most daring, and at the same time the most “natural”-seeming: “Winter Tunnel with Snow, March 2006” is pure Sisley, with its lavender skies, its green and red tree-trunks and blue-and-white path. “Woldgate Mist, November 2005”, shows a path vanishing and reappearing in a winter’s mist, with brilliant pointilliste reds and greens framing the tangible intangibility of a mist tunnel.
All art, perhaps, is at heart an attempt to answer the question, How do we see? In these two shows, Hockney has a range of answers, but the one constant is the search, the gaze. The third David Hockney, the serious one, the important one, has been asking this question for over fifty years now, and his answers are consistently interesting and surprising. The body of work he has accumulated through his restless use of a vast range of media, combined with his solid technique, has given us an artist of the very first rank. Both these exhibitions set out to celebrate Hockney, and they do so magnificently: the NPG’s retrospective of half a century of his portraiture shows a depth and a breadth that is hard to match in any artist working today. There are perhaps rather too many of the very recent portraits – more rigorous selection would have made viewing easier – but there is no slackening off in quality. Annely Juda’s show of the new landscapes indicates that, if anything, David Hockney is having yet another late flowering. In a long career, he has frequently seemed to have reached a peak, only to dart off at a tangent and, in another style, another medium, surpass himself. His most recent work shows a serene, soaring mastery.•