Olafur Eliasson, Little Sun, Tate Modern

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project (2003) was one of the most successful of the Tate’s Turbine Hall grands projets. Two million people came to stare at Eliasson’s big sun, many sprawling beneath the installation as though it really were a sun and the Tate had suddenly transformed itself into a public park. This is Eliasson’s gift: his art is incomplete until it elicits a physical response from viewers. With Little Sun, viewers carry individual “little suns” – 11cm daffodil-yellow flowershaped plastic lamps strung from lanyards – and walk around a specially opened gallery after dark, their “sun” picking out each artwork.

The lamps become our eyes. No longer passive, we are forced physically to engage with the works in front of us. No longer can we automatically find the best viewing spot in front of a work. We must make conscious decisions – caption or painting? – about things we rarely think about in daylight.

The space the Tate has chosen is its Surrealism galleries, where pieces like Joseph Beuys’s Campaign Bed, or Jannis Kounellis’s Untitled (1979) – all 5 metres of charcoal drawings and stuffed birds – can no longer be encompassed in one glance: viewers must establish, section by section, the artists’ intentions. (And if the artists intended that their work be encompassed in one glance, well, that too must be pieced together.) That is Eliasson’s intention, at any rate. The Tate has, however, underestimated how much light the lamps cast, and overestimated how many people each room can hold and still remain dark. When I entered on the first blackout night, although the warder told me to turn on my lamp, there was no need: the number of lamps already lit meant that I could not only see the art, but even read the captions, with ease. Thus can artistic aims be subverted by practicalities.

Mundane necessities such as ticket sales or health and safety often win over art in contemporary galleries. The Weather Project was a simple concept, perfectly realized. By contrast, the execution of Little Sun is closer to Ai Weiwei’s notorious Sunflower Seeds (2010), where millions of porcelain seeds were spread across the Turbine Hall. There, too, visitors were supposed to interact with the piece as they walked across the crunching seeds. Then, when it was discovered that this was releasing toxic dust, the seeds were corralled behind barriers, like those public parks with “Do not walk on the grass” signs.

Eliasson’s  has a second intention, and a more important one. The 1.6 billion people worldwide who live without access to electricity pay on average 300 times more for their light than we do. These solar-powered lamps provide ten times more light than the kerosene lamps most people are forced to rely on, at one-tenth of the cost. Kerosene, as well as being a fire hazard, produces emissions which are the equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. And so Eliasson established a business, the Little Sun company with the engineer Frederick Ottesen to create safer, less costly renewable artificial lighting.

Few are more fervent than I in the belief that art fills an essential need. Yet however fervent that belief, some things are more important than going to a gallery on a Saturday night. If Olafur Eliasson can enlighten those of us who have time and resources to devote to art, well and good; but if he can literally enlighten places of darkness, that must be more valuable.

Robert Hughes: The art critic with a dash of the streetfighter

The passing of Gore Vidal and Robert Hughes within days of each other feels like the death of the Titans. Both were masters of the epigrammatic put-down, but while Vidal presented himself as the last aristocrat, Hughes’s image was that of a street-brawler, a thug. (His love of motorbikes, and his penchant for being photographed in leather jackets added to the persona.)

The Shock of the New, his television series and book, which traced modernism from the Impressionists to Andy Warhol, made him the only art critic even non-specialists might have heard of. But it was not the subject matter, it was how he approached it: he had no patience with restraint, or charm. He admired artists who wrestled, as he did, with questions of purpose, of ethics, of art as morality – and it was expressed in a hold-on-to-your-hats, take-no-prisoners style.

Hughes loved – liking was too sterile for him – such artists as Lucian Freud: Freud, he wrote, “takes nothing for granted and demands active engagement from the viewer”. Hughes, too, demanded active engagement. If you weren’t willing to fight it out, he wasn’t interested. This made him thrilling to read. It was exhilarating to watch him lash out, devastating the wastrels and slackers. An essay on Jean-Michel Basquiat was entitled “Requiem for a Featherweight”, while Julian Schnabel’s work – or was it Schnabel himself? – was dismissed as a Sylvester Stallone-like “lurching display of oily pectorals”.

This was enormous fun. It could also be destructive. The positive was that Hughes cared, deeply, passionately, and he was able to make his readers care too. Cézanne was his hero, the artist who created an art based on “the idea that doubt could be heroic”. Doubt is heroic, but Hughes had none himself. And in a way that corrupted him, because instead of writing great criticism to enable his readers to see better, to understand better, he began to write criticism to enable his readers to see that Robert Hughes was right.

Being a critic nowadays, he once said, was more “like being a piano-player in a whorehouse; you don’t have any control over the action going on upstairs”. This remark was both very funny and very revealing. For since when did critics have any “control” over the “action”? It is artists who have always been in control. A critic is merely a facilitator. A great critic – and Hughes on form was a very great critic indeed – is just like the man in the petrol-station who cleans the car’s windscreen. At his best, Hughes knew this. Curiosity in an artist was what he loved, and no one described better the work of artists who ventured, failed, who tried again and, in Samuel Beckett’s phrase, succeeded in failing better. As they did, Hughes was standing right there, making sure we could see it happen.

Early modernism, the art of the early 19th century, was filled with “ebullience, idealism, confidence”, and those qualities were what Hughes’s own writing conveyed so vividly. He had little interest in theory, which made him a welcome (if secret) relief to specialists, and a joy and delight to the general art-lover. Yet he had no tolerance at all for the un-nuanced – or, as he would have described it bluntly, the ignorant. You could trust your gut response, he told us, but only if your gut had been fed for decades, as his had, on a steady diet of looking at, and thinking about, art.

It might be that Hughes, Australian-born but a US resident for much of his adult life, found his perfect subject in American Visions, which starts when “the New World really was new”, at least to its conquerors and settlers, then goes on to explore the usually overlooked genre of social-utopian folk-art in the early 19th century, and yet ends, in bitterness for Hughes, with Andres Serrano’s notorious Piss Christ of 1987.

And maybe that is the clue. Hughes was, ultimately, an American in spirit, searching for that lost sense of manifest destiny, reading the art world as a morality tale, a replication of the fall of man, chafing restlessly as art stopped being about heroic struggle and became instead an entry to the market for buying and selling commodities. He yearned to recreate that “American power to make things up as you go along”.

He was, in fact, the 20th century’s Huck Finn, the great American archetype, who, at the end of his adventures, bids his readers farewell: “I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

The Hughes of the thuggish put-down never mattered. Instead it is the Hughes who is constantly searching for new worlds, the writer who through his lucid, lambent prose carries us, oh so joyously, with him, who will survive, and be treasured.

Daily Telegraph, 8 August 2012

William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow

William Morris has been in and out of fashion so often that the sympathetic watcher can get whiplash following his reputation. Lauded by his contemporary, the great critic John Ruskin, by 1904 he was merely “a great man who somehow delighted in glaring wallpapers”.

Yet Morris, the forerunner of the Arts and Crafts movement and pioneer of furniture and fabric design, was never only about design. As a pioneering socialist he wrote: “I do not want art for a few, any more than I want education for a few, or freedom for a few.”

And in this ebullient, confident reopening of the William Morris Gallery, we see his life and work spread out for the many, as he would have hoped. Morris grew up in Walthamstow, and lived in this splendid Georgian villa as an adolescent (an indication of his background is that the three-storey Grade II building was where his mother downsized after his father died).

The building has been sensitively restored, with its features respected and enhanced. The curators have opened a world, moving from conception through creation to the sale of the goods.

Morris opened “the Firm”, as he called Morris & Co, to produce well-designed objects of daily life, be they wallpaper, textiles, glass or furniture, for the middle classes.

There is a splendid interactive game where you can “be” Morris and try various business plans to keep the Firm afloat. (I swiftly bankrupted the company.) Then the workshop techniques of printing, dyeing, weaving and tile design are explored (with more excellent interactives), where many of Morris’s designs are on display, followed by a room dedicated to end-products – jugs, stained-glass windows, curtains, chairs.

There is a “book” room, showing Morris’s vast contribution to both the art of the book and the art of the woodcut, and a final space, dedicated to his campaigning work. Along with socialist causes, he also established the world’s first conservation movement: the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (known to his family as “Anti-Scrape”), one of the main influences in the formation of the National Trust.

The gallery’s renovation, undertaken by Pringle Richards Sharratt Architects, is not only sensitive to the original fabric of the building but has also created an equally sympathetic surrounding for temporary displays.

The first is Grayson Perry’s Walthamstow Tapestry (2009), all 15 metres of it. For our consumer world, Perry’s tapestried cavalcade transforms the Seven Ages of Man into the Seven Ages of Shopping, beginning at birth, following along a red river – of blood? – waltzing through adolescence alongside Topshop, before ending in old age with “grey-power” brands: the National Trust, the Post Office, PG Tips and the Duchy of Cornwall.

It is fitting that these rooms face Lloyd Park and William Morris Gardens, community spaces in keeping with Morris’s belief in art and craft not simply for the elite, but for the population at large.

The gallery was for decades a place for Morris enthusiasts to visit once. Now, with this attractive new face to show the world, the gallery is likely to become a place for enthusiasts and locals alike to revisit regularly, once more situating the old socialist in the middle of the people he served.

Sue Bradbury: Joanna, George and Henry: A Pre-Raphaelite Tale of Art, Love and Friendship

Of the making of books about the Pre-Raphaelites, it appears, there is no end. Like the Bloomsberries, most of the PRB are more interesting to read about than the study of their work would suggest: a few towering talents stalk the mountaintops, while many lesser ones lurk in valleys and foothills.

George Boyce was one of those lesser talents – a watercolourist of some small fame among his colleagues (although he was 52 before he was elected to full membership of the Old Water-Colour Society). His friend Henry Tanworth Wells had more worldly recognition, if not the esteem of the avant-garde: as a portraitist he painted the great, the good, the socially eminent or the just plain rich. The two men were also connected through a third painter, Boyce’s sister Joanna. She too had some contemporary success, exhibiting a few pictures at the Royal Academy. But much of her work has remained in private collections, and, apart from a sketchbook in the British Museum, is not available to the general public.

All the more welcome, therefore, is Sue Bradbury’s retelling of the trio’s story. Boyce’s diaries, heavily abridged and apparently redacted, have long been published, giving his thoughts on painting, and, more interestingly, his many artistic friendships (until Rossetti’s late decline, they were close, sharing views on art and women – and possibly even sharing the women). These are now supplemented by the hundreds of letters the three exchanged.

Boyce and Wells met in 1849, at Betws-y-Coed, in Wales, where students clustered around the landscape painter David Cox. In 1853 Boyce’s father, usually described as a silversmith, but in reality a successful pawnbroker, died, and his grown children came into handsome inheritances, which ensured that Boyce could travel and socialize without any need to earn a living by his art. In 1855 Wells proposed to his friend’s sister. Joanna, however, feared that marriage and work could not coexist for women, and that her art would be lost in wife- and motherhood. She turned Wells down, although the three-way correspondence continued. In 1858 the couple did, finally, marry, but had only a few short years before Joanna’s death in childbirth.

The light their correspondence shines on the more famous painters of the period is delightful – Millais, wrote Boyce, was ‘Somewhat egotistical and little real’ – even if the passing of time has altered more than somewhat – Ingres, says Joanna firmly, was ‘An execrable draftsman’, Delacroix ‘full of the most daring and glaring imperfections’, and neither could compare to Paul Delaroche or Thomas Couture.

Even more illuminating are the details of daily Victorian life, whether it is the mesmeric ‘passes’ Joanna learns to make over her ailing younger brother, or the instructions sent to a seaside lodging house regarding Mrs Boyce’s bedding: it must be linen, Joanna instructed, for ‘She cannot sleep with calico.’

But the core of the story elaborates what so many Victorian novels only hint at: the struggle between unmarried daughters and their mothers. In her early letters Joanna felt ‘it is my plain duty to give up all hope of improvement in painting, rather than in any way neglect Mamma’. Before her husband’s death Mrs Boyce had approved of Wells’ courtship of their daughter, but afterwards she performed a radical volte-face. First she rejected him for having insufficient income. After he had satisfactorily proved his solvency she fell back on rumours of unspecified immoral conduct, then objected to his lowly family origins (although, as Bradbury fails to point out, Wells’ family of yeomen farmers was more than a match for that of a pawnbroker, however wealthy).

It took Joanna four years to break out from under her mother’s sway as accusations were hurled back and forth, letters were copied and handed around as ‘proof’ of one side or the other, family alliances were brokered and traduced. This section of the book is gripping, and Bradbury allows the characters one by one to come to the fore.

For, despite the large number of fine reproductions included in the book, it is still not possible to summon much enthusiasm for the work of these minor painters; the diaries and letters they left behind, however, are social history at its most fascinating.

Visions of Mughal India, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The artist Howard Hodgkin has been collecting Indian art since he was at Eton. For some years now his collection has been on loan to the Ashmolean, and a rotating selection of pictures from it are frequently on display. Yet to see all 100-plus works together is a revelation, as viewers get a sense not only of the collection, but also an insight into the collector’s personality: what speaks to him.

Miniatures from the Mughal empire often depict tiny, enclosed spaces, with figures delicately placed among painstakingly reproduced textiles and carefully detailed flora and fauna, the layers of pattern deftly weaving themselves into magically perfect worlds. Hodgkin is drawn to these depictions of what he calls “a whole world”, one that’s both “completely convincing” and “completely separate” from Western tradition. But Hodgkin also appears attracted to more open compositions, to works that integrate the white paper as an element in the image.

He obviously also has a passion for elephants, perhaps because they too are most often displayed against flat coloured backgrounds – though the animals’ combination of majesty and charm as painted by these Indian masters would beguile anyone. However minimal the composition, the personalities of these royal beasts shine through. One even appears to have his eye slyly on the viewer, almost smiling with shy pride at the splendour of his flowered saddle-cloth.

Other works head towards abstraction: Sultan Ali Adil Shah II hunting a tiger (1660) shows a gloriously gold-gowned bowman taking aim, but the eye focuses more on the elaborate textile folds and greyed-out background than on the action, the tiger merely snarling quietly at the edge of the page.

Some are quirky curiosities, such as Maharaja Balwant Singh and a goose, a drawing of a courtyard flattened out schematically, like a blueprint, while in the centre, staring solemnly at each other, are a goose and a man, the latter a stark black-pencilled silhouette adorned with a pair of pink shoes. What is this a picture of? An omen, a dream, a legend? Or just the ultimate odd couple?

As well as these works from the major artistic centres of Mughal art, there are also a number of pictures from smaller Rajput courts. Particularly beautiful are the tiny works created to illustrate the subjects of musical modes, or ragas (currently the subject of a smaller, less refined show at Dulwich Picture Gallery) .

While it’s easy to find analogies with Western art, the uniqueness of these works always fights back. The colour-world, for one, is inconceivable in the West before the 20th century, filled as it is with hot pinks, dazzling oranges and acid blues that make even the Fauves look tame.

Bright colours do not necessarily signify a cheerful world, though. Bhadrakali, the Destroyer of the Universe, is a blue-skinned four-armed goddess who literally consumes the dead, and here the intense colours highlight Kali’s power as she defies both time and death.

And that, of course, is what great art does: it defies time and death. In the end, the labels “Western” and “Eastern” do not matter. As these two shows allow us to discover, a “shot to the heart” is there for anyone who has the will to look, and the desire to learn.

The world of Mughal enclosures, diamond-bright and bejewelled, could not be further away from our own; and yet, like the goddess Kali, the art it produced devours time and space, defying the centuries to continue to move move us today.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to Apr 22; www.ashmolean.org

This review also appears in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph

Johann Zoffany, Royal Academy

Laurence Olivier once showed some visitors around the Garrick Club, pointing out the fine collection of paintings and ending with: “And now we’ll go to the dining-room to see the Zoffanys.” “Oh no,” protested his kind-hearted friend, “don’t disturb them if they’re eating.”

For this probably apocryphal story to work, it has to be about Zoffany – an artist great enough that Olivier wanted to show off his work, but with a public profile that since his death has never quite matched his amiable talent. For amiable it is: Zoffany has the extraordinary ability to take the rich and powerful, and, while never hiding their wealth, add to it an aura of everyday pleasure, giving the illusion they’re one of us.

Born in 1733, near Frankfurt, the painter originally named Johannes Zauffaly worked for a series of princely courts in Germany, and some of his bland and rather pretty-pretty early work is here. It is only when the young Zoffany arrives in Britain and comes into contact with the actor-producer David Garrick that he finds his own pictorial language.

Zoffany almost single-handedly resurrected the old-fashioned art of the conversation piece – paintings of fashionable people enjoying leisure activities: making music, playing cards, drinking tea, showing off the new possessions provided by the Industrial Revolution.

His early paintings of Garrick are not of the man of the theatre (although those – hugely successful – soon followed), but of the country gentleman Mr Garrick with his wife. Posed by the river, before the Temple to Shakespeare that Garrick had erected in the grounds of his house, Mrs Garrick casually leans her elbow on her husband’s shoulder, even as the formality of the temple is undercut by the delightfully incongruous addition of a pair of boot-scrapers by the entrance. No muddy footprints allowed here.

This homely charm continues even when Zoffany was painting the greatest in the land. In a portrait of Queen Charlotte with her children, the two boys wear fancy-dress, which is a painterly nod toward their future roles, but it is also just a picture of two little boys romping with their mother.

Their father, George III, in another vast image, is dressed in the ordinary redcoat of an officer, slouching informally on the arm of a chair, legs splayed in a display of soldierly masculinity. This could be any landowner, waiting perhaps for his steward to discuss a new land-drainage system.

Despite all the laces, frills and furbelows that Zoffany paints (and he paints them with a highly polished finish that shows how important they were to him and to his sitters), many of his portraits are almost austere in their simplicity. A portrait of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, shows him not in full-dress uniform, but in the simple grey-and-brown outfit of a country gentleman. Here, says the painting, is a humble, decent man doing a Herculean job of attempting to reform the notoriously corrupt and rapacious system of crony government in India.

Hastings continues to divide opinion. Was he Zoffany’s melancholic man of integrity, or looter-in-chief? Both positions have their partisans, but Zoffany’s opinion is clear via the simplicity he chooses.

Many of these Indian pictures are revelations. Much of Zoffany’s work on his six-year trip remains to be discovered – several of the pictures here have only been attributed to Zoffany within the last year (one too recently even to have made it into the catalogue).

In India he shows us a world where the Victorian stratification of society into “European” and “native” remain in the future, and images such as The Impey Family show how Indian and British cultures intermixed, as the small Impey daughter, in Indian dress, dances barefoot to the accompaniment of Indian musicians, applauded by her watching father. In other paintings European sitters clutch hookahs, or weave Indian fabrics into their headdresses.

It is always through these objects, through their possessions, that Zoffany’s sitters speak, to their own world and to ours today. At the beginning of the exhibition the visitor is greeted by three self-portraits. In one, hand on his chin, head tilted, the artist stares quizzically out at us, as if wondering how to depict the new objects of manufacture that are now passing in front of him.

For we are the true descendants of his sitters, those people whose rugs, and china, whose teapots, chess-sets and paintings, were so stylishly, lavishly, and enticingly displayed by one of the greatest painters of stuff there has ever been.

The Royal Academy is on something of a roll at the moment. The David Hockney show in the main galleries downstairs is, rightly, one of the season’s hot tickets.

Yet if even a tiny percentage of the Yorkshireman’s fans follow up with a visit to the Sackler Galleries, they will discover a whole new world of grace and charm and light. Follow Laurence Olivier’s advice and be sure to visit the Zoffanys: they love being disturbed.

‘Johann Zoffany: Society Observed’, to Jun 10; www.royalacademy.org.uk

This review also appears in SEVEN magazine, free with the Sunday Telegraph

Lines of Thought, Parasol Unit

A show about lines: my tiny minimalist heart goes pitter-patter. And with good cause. Lines can be a bit blah – a quick scribble, and you’re on to the next thing. But they can also by their very simplicity, their irreduceability, lay bare some fundamentals, can draw a line under (yes, lots of “line” jokes available: line right up!) what really matters.

Two of the artists at the core of minimalism set the tone. Sol LeWitt produced instructions for wall drawings of lines which were invariably minutely detailed, yet also magically permitted great freedom for the person actually “transcribing” his instructions onto the wall, so that no two renditions of any drawing were the same. Here Wall Drawing #103: Not straight vertical lines from floor to ceiling, using as much wall area as is determined by the drafter is a delicate, tenuous rendering, gently drifting across the wall.

Across the room is a fabulous yellow steel piece by Fred Sandback, Untitled (Nr. 4), a four-part piece of rods shaped at right angles that somehow fuse the right angle of the wall and floor, to create a square where previously none was visible. Sandback’s pieces are magic: thin, recessive, yet no one is ever willing to walk “through” one, so robust is the idea the sculptor has created in the viewer’s mind.

James Bishop, too, worked with line, although his were created in oil, building the illusion of line out of layers of almost-but-not-quite identical colour-waves. The poet John Ashbery called his oil and crayon works on paper “part air, part architecture”, and I can think of no better way to describe these softly shifting shapes: houses for invisible children, perhaps.

The show is not reductive, however, and it demonstrates how lines can be far more than a trace of graphite on paper, or steel in the air. Richard Long, whose art circles around walking, and the marking off of his walks in nature or on paper or in signs and symbols, has three pieces here, none of which is directly linear, but all of which explore what lines might encompass. Red Slate Circle seems at first flatly to contradict the notion of linearity, but both the slate itself – its small fissures and “lines” becoming obvious as one looks – and notions of how Long goes about finding his material make clear that his work is less about what we see on the gallery floor, and more about a body moving through space in a line, with the slate, or the wall marks, or the diary notations that make up Long’s art a reference point, rather than the work itself.

Geographical “lines” appear in other works, too: Jorge Macchi’s charmingly quirky Horizonte, a small photograph of a horizon at sea, with, either side of that line of horizon, springs that continue and exaggerate the endlessly receding line; or, more imposingly, Adrian Esparza’s Here and Now, where a small Mexican serape hangs on the gallery wall, with one small thread pulled out from the tight weave, leading astonishingly to a vast wall-piece made up of similar coloured threads, an MC Escher of Central American colour; or Hemali Bhuta’s wax lines of candles, clustered by the gallery ceiling in a womb-like enclosure of burnt-out stalactites.

In keeping with their minimalist forebears, most of the pieces are resolutely abstract: they say whatever the viewer wants to read into them. But Ceaseless Doodle, by Özlem Günyol and Mustafa Kunt, has both an immediate impact, this huge wall drawing in marker pen initially appearing ambivalent from a distance – is it a drawing, or a metal sculpture? – and a more conceptual layer. Taking every country in turn, the artists have reduced each one to a single-sized format, drawn its outline and then projected all of them simultaneously onto the wall, to create what looks like a cat’s-toy ball of wool, but is, in reality, our messy, complex world.

Paul Klee famously said that drawing was simply taking a line out for a walk. In Lines of Thought, lines go for walks. And runs. And skips, frolics and meanders. It is a pleasure to be able to accompany them.

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 Continue reading