David Hockney at Tate Britain

I have to confess, I used to be very sceptical about David Hockney. What was all the fuss about? Acidic colours, rigid portraits, an unexplained hunt for realism – and that splash. Whatever I  associated with Hockney left me frankly rather cold. As naïve and cheesy as it may sound, though, the retrospective running at Tate Britain until 29th May changed my mind.

The exhibition is enthralling from the very first room. In a playful manner, the exordium of the retrospective is a collection of Hockney’s artistic interests and obsessions. The room is packed with philosophical stimuli, which found my unconditional approval. From meta-pictorial reflections on the power of representation to witty mockery of abstraction, the philosophical depth of the works is worthy of Plato. My favourite piece from this room was ‘Model with unfinished self-portrait’ (1977), where the subject matter of painting is “more real” than the snapshot of reality behind it. In addition, the work features magnificent colours and a brilliant command of perspective (especially in the drapery of the model’s garment). The first room at once appeases and engages the visitors, leaving them immensely fascinated with what they see and willing to know more.

Model with Unfinished Self-PortraitDavid Hockney, ‘Model with unfinished self-portrait’ (1977)

Jus as in the Paolozzi exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, where the theme of ‘aggregation’ cropped up over and over again, here the fil rouge seemed to be ‘observation’. After experimenting briefly with abstraction, Hockney turned resolutely to representation, focusing his artistic endeavours to explore the unending ways we have to ‘observe’ reality.

The first instance of this emerges clearly in the room entitled ‘Sunbather’, which gathers several of his most famous paintings. Hockney got interested in rendering textures and surfaces such as glass and water, but also bushes and grass. ‘How could a painter capture the transparent qualities of glass, or of water which was constantly in motion?’ (from the exhibition guide). We see his efforts to depict the reflection of light on the water surface, which might look like a game of abstraction, and yet is firmly grounded into observable reality. Similarly, his depictions of buildings may remind one of Mondrian’s minimalist grids, as in ‘Savings and Loan Building’ (1967). And yet – Hockney seems to imply – they are real buildings. The artist was keen to satirise the abstract experiments that were dominant in the late ’60s, especially in America, where he moved in 1964. And even his famous ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1967), when seen against Pollock’s drippings, can be read as Hockney’s will to anchor all the seemingly spontaneity of abstract expressionism to the real world. Everything that can be splashed onto a canvas is in fact originated from and deeply rooted into reality.

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David Hockney, ‘Savings and Loan Building’ (1967)

Once Hockney decided to stick to the real, and to its close observation, his art developed its most distinctive traits. The following rooms of the exhibition focus on his famous portraits, in which he tried to capture the psychological and emotional features of the sitters, as well as their physiognomies – somewhat like Roman portraits, the Classicist in me would be tempted to say. In addition to psychological depth, though, Hockney’s portraits are remarkable for two further reasons. First of all, they are largely painted in acrylic, a pigment that dries quickly and demands a great deal of planning. Once again, Hockney demonstrates unparalleled observational skills, by scrutinising the sitters with the utmost attention and impressing their traits rapidly on the canvas. Secondly, the sitters are often accompanied by the symbolic everyday objects: tulips, books, lamps, and fruit, despite being taken from ordinary life, give an aura of emblematic solemnity to the works.

My Parents 1977 by David Hockney born 1937

David Hockney, ‘My Parents’ (1977)

Among his portraits, a special mention should be made to his drawings, collected in a room suitably entitled ‘Close looking’. Incidentally, the room demonstrates a renewed curatorial interest in drawings, championed in recent years by several Ashmolean exhibitions, including the forthcoming ‘Raphael: The Drawings’. One delightful detail of this room are Hockney’s two self-portraits. The first dates as early as 1954 (probably the earliest work in the whole exhibition), the second is from 1983. Placed facing each other, on two opposite walls of the room, the two portraits testify Hockney’s attentive observation not only of other people, but also of himself.

David Hockney, ‘Self-Portrait’ (1954 and 1983)

The other paradigmatic subject matter of Hockney’s are landscapes, dominating the rest of the exhibition spaces. Key is his play on perspective and viewpoints, and his focus on the experience of looking. Hockney builds upon the legacy of Cubism: he observes reality with new eyes and presents it in a new form to the viewer’s eyes too. ‘These are paintings through which the eyes dances’, the exhibition guides explain. We are invited to observe the paintings and to re-inform the way we observe reality. In some cases, a Romantic recollection based on observation interweaves with the notion of place and space. Hockney engages with the visible to create something new, something “more glorious”, as he has it. In his paintings of American canyons and Yorkshire hills, for instance, the illusion of spacial depth is taken to the extreme, creating roller-coaster-like sceneries. In other paintings, it is the choice of colour that hammers this glory home: his palette vibrant, warm, spicy, and dynamic – way more so than the tones of British countryside. Improving reality through observation seems to be his ultimate mission, carried on right up to the years 2000s.


David Hockney, ‘Going Up Garrowby Hill’ (2000)

Celebrated for his paintings, Hockney engages also with other media, from photography to video art, to tablets. His photographs adopt a cubist-inspired methodology, assembling collages where several points of view changes are provided for the same the object. I particularly enjoyed ‘The Scrabble Game’ (1983), where several face expressions and gestures of the players are presented as co-terminous, as an enhanced version of reality. In a similar fashion, the video work ‘Four Seasons’ (2010), celebrates the miracle of seasons, by filming a road in Woodgate, near Bridlington, Yorkshire in four different moments of the year.

Finally, his interest in technology is demonstrated by his drawings using iPads, which have become almost a substitute for his sketchbook. The medium allows for a refreshed usage of lines and colours, as well as instant sharing of his works of art. The theme of art and iPads was investigated perhaps a bit too abruptly, but at the same time it made me feel that representation is more alive than ever. And indeed the exhibition proves Hockney the unequalled master of it.


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