David Hockney, once again, with feeling

I’ve just been to see the David Hockney show at the Royal Academy, which is amazing. Some of the (more idiotic) reviwers are praising with faint damns, I think because he’s popular, therefore they’d better look austere and elite. Tuh. (Noise of contempt.)

An iPad drawing, 'The arrival of spring in Woldgate, 2 January', courtesy the artist/RA

I am slow to praise, and my friends tell me I carp too much. Yet my considered response yesterday was ‘The man is a fucking genius.’ The work on show at the Royal Academy is almost entirely work from the last few years, but in 2006 the National Portrait Gallery had a retrospective which was a revelation. My review from that, and from a concurrent gallery show, from the Times Literary Supplement, below:

David Hockney

A Year in Yorkshire: Annely Juda Fine Art (to 28 October)

Portraits: National Portrait Gallery (to 21 January 2007)

 There are three David Hockneys, I think, and only one of them matters. The first one, and the least important, although the most intrusive, is the public David Hockney, the 1960s owl-bespectacled mop-top turned 21st-century curmudgeon, the one who writes letters to the newspapers and fusses about what the modern world is coming to. He is amusing or irritating, depending on one’s own personality, but he is also easily pushed aside. The second David Hockney is more difficult to overlook. This is the David Hockney of reproductions, the Hockney of A Bigger Splash and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy – not the paintings themselves, but of postcard and poster reproductions. This David Hockney is troublesome, because he stands in the way of the real David Hockney – and more worryingly, he stands in the way of a clear view of the real David Hockney’s work.

For the surprising fact is, David Hockney’s work does not reproduce well, does not give a good idea of the real thing. 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. Unless one is of the ‘all modern art is a scam’ school, 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. They are vibrant, clear, and full of Pop-y 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 60s and 70s. It is also one of the Tate’s best-selling postcards, and it was number 5 in the BBC’s poll of ‘The Greatest Painting in Britain’ (as well as being the only 20th-century image to make the list). The image, almost certainly, is far more often seen in reproduction than it is in reality.

Without access to the actual artwork, therefore, one can easily lose sight of the fact that the reproduction is only a pale reflection of the reality. Even when one knows Mr and Mrs Clark well, and knows how reduced it becomes in reproduction – how the whites, from Clark’s cigarette, forward to the cat, back to the balcony railing, forward to the white table and lilies, back again to the white line on the wall, how these whites, that in the painting hold the composition in a tension of combatative planes, vanish and flatten completely in a photograph. Then there are the fluctuating proportions (a telephone nearly half the size of a lamp, and the same size as Mr Clark’s head, Mrs Clark’s hand and head) which fight to occupy the same plane in different dimensions in the painting itself– even these, which should stay stable in a reproduction, somehow become inert. The handling of the colours and planes also surprises on each re-viewing, as does the scale, only slightly smaller than life-size: they surprise because the image that is in all our minds’ eyes is that of the postcard.

An exhibition of David Hockney’s work – much less two at once – is all the more to be welcomed, therefore, because behind Hockney the celebrity, and behind 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 1960s to a shiny graphic world, to pen-and-ink drawings of remarkable draughtsmanship and pure line, through photocollage, experiments with Polaroids and photocopiers, painterly naturalism, then on to work with the tricky camera lucida for more drawings, then to the now rarely undertaken medium of watercolour, for both landscapes and portraits and, finally, a return to oil-painting with more landscapes and portraits. He has, at various times, worked with oil, acrylic, 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 illustrate poetry.

And yet this wide range of experimentation has encompassed a rigorously orthodox range of art-historical subjects: Hockney has concentrated, for the most part, on landscapes and on portraits – he has even reinvigorated that rather stilted, quintessentially British genre, the conversation piece, for goodness’ sake, and idea as quirkily old-fashioned to the po-mo zeitgeist as his extraordinarily beautiful draughtsmanship is. (Oddly, the only time Hockney loses his beautiful, easy line is when he works with a camera lucida, that 18th-century tool for copying images, which Hockney believes was widely used by many artists from the Renaissance onwards. This is not the place to rehearse his theories, but it is notable that his Portraits after Ingres in a Uniform Style (1999-2000), done with a camera lucida, are the only drawings in the show that have no great individuality or life to them, that are, in fact, dull.) In a similarly traditional vein, Hockney references both directly and indirectly many works of art which have clearly influenced him strongly: one can find reproductions of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Vermeer’s Young Woman standing at the Virginal, Piero’s Baptism of Christ (at least twice), the Demoiselles d’Avignon, a Matisse cut-out, and a portrait of Dora Maar. Portraits of Divine and of Celia Birtwell (both 1979) reference Matisse, while The Room, Tarzana (1967, not on display in these shows) directly paraphrases Boucher’s Mlle O’Murphy.

The same Room, Tarzana’s sitter turns up again in Peter Schlesinger with Polaroid Camera (1977). Here he is a lavender-besuited, 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 the artist. This stare matters. In the 1960s and 1970s 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, not in the NPG’s portrait retrospective. Here there is a three-way conversation: from behind a firmly planted stack of books, Isherwood looks over to 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 painter. He has drawn many writers, including Priestley (1973), a beautiful if somewhat detached pen-and-ink drawing, and more resonant images of his friends Auden (1968) and Stephen Spender (1969).

Literature has been a mainspring of some of his 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’ poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’. This 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 Picasso-esque outline of a blue guitar, while sitting on a cartoon-like 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, not in this exhibit, 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, much as the Cubists did in 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.

But after these few early excursions, the space created by these meetings between artist and sitter vanishes. The photocollages crop in ever more tightly on the sitters, and in the painted portraits the recurring elements – the glass tables, the tulips, water and its reflection on glass – are no more. Gone are the Chardin-esque props of My Parents (1977), with its structure of A-framed wooden chairs, its angled purple rug that substitutes for Chardin’s table-edge, its green trolley with tulips, swivel mirror, and book (carefully labelled ‘Chardin’, in case we miss the point). The watercolour portraits of 2002 and 2003 radically simplify the surroundings to wooden floorboards and a coloured backing wall, with the subjects all sitting on the same plain typists’ swivel chair. The 2005 oil portraits might have a single element – a table, an upholstered chair, a tiled floor – but some, Richard Schmidt, for example, or a portrait of Gregory Evans, have the subject starkly isolated in front of a white wall, on a white tiled floor, with barely a shadow for context.

Yet even thus stripped back, these images still fulfil 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 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 essential integrity, its platonic ‘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 his Yorkshire landscapes, similarly the natural world is always a man-made one: ploughed and sowed 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 his palette in the winter images that are 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. More than that, his accumulated body of work, his restless, questing use of a vast range of media, combined with his rock-solid technique, have given us an artist of the very first rank. Both these shows set out to celebrate the greatness of David Hockney, and they do so magnificently: the NPG’s retrospective of half a century of one element of his work, 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 – a more rigorous edit would have made viewing easier – but there is no slacking off in quality. Annely Juda’s show of the new landscapes indicate that, if anything, Hockney is having yet another 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. Now his most recent work shows a serene, soaring mastery. At nearly seventy, it’s good to see that there’s a dance in the old dame yet.