David Hockney is the perennial golden boy of British art, an image forever symbolised and reinforced by his Pop Art paintings of Los Angeles swimming pools made before the onset of AIDS blighted the gay urbanity of the City of Angels. It’s impossible to imagine him aging. Yet he turns 80 this summer and we now have a chance to see the spread of his achievements in this exhibition, the most extensive retrospective of his work.
But this is more than a celebration of a world-renowned artist (let’s resist using the expression ‘national treasure’, a term designed to cosily nullify the status and attainments of the person on whom it is bestowed) and his creativity. There is a serious intention here. As Alex Farquharson, the Director of Tate Britain, reminds us: ‘David Hockney is without doubt one of Britain’s greatest living artists. His practice is both consistent, in its pursuit of core concerns, while also wonderfully diverse. Hockney’s impact on post-war art, and culture more generally, is inestimable, and this is a fantastic opportunity to see the full trajectory of his career to date.’ And Hockney himself states that: ‘It has been a pleasure to revisit works I made decades ago, including some of my earliest paintings. Many of them seem like old friends to me now. We’re looking back over a lifetime with this exhibition, and I hope, like me, people will enjoy seeing how the roots of my new and recent work can be seen in the developments over the years.’
So what we get in this exhibition is an examination of how Hockney has tried to get to the essence of art, and what it means. Throughout his life, he has experimented with different art forms in trying to get at what makes art tick, what it can say, what it can reveal. These forms range from portraiture and his afore-mentioned swimming pool paintings, through to his ‘joiner’ photographs and paintings of the Yorkshire Wolds (with which, like any pastoral painter however accomplished, he had to take the risk of having his work evaluated against that of the great Suffolk master, Constable). He’s also illustrated the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and the poems of the Alexandrian-born Greek poet CP Cavafy (whose themes included homosexuality) as well as designing for a production of Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress. And there have been his experiments – of varying success – with technology, such as the use of iPad sketches and digital film. There have been problems here: some of the iPad sketches, due to their small size, have lacked the impact of wall-mounted pictures whilst with film there have also been difficulties too: paintings capture a moment to which we can return and contemplate endlessly whilst film is moving constantly. But these set-backs are outweighed by the fact that, in doing this, Hockney has also taken time to get to grips with the media by which reality can be depicted. He hasn’t gone for any attention-grabbing, pseudo-clever sensationalism. Instead, he is comfortable with the essential premise of whatever he is attempting whilst experimenting with new forms of doing so.
But Hockney does much more than thoroughly exploring different artistic forms. He makes a vital statement about the importance of the individual artist, and his or her creativity and insights within art. Consider his use of portraiture (the genre with which, in the 1960s, he gained his early fame as painter to the movers and shakers of Swinging London, and to which he has returned in recent years). It shows that he rejects the imprisoning orthodoxy which regards only conceptual art as having any critical or commercial value. Instead, by his work he asserts that traditional representational art forms can be revelatory about their subjects, and help us to see what’s under their skin. A good example of this is ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ (1970-71), his portrait of fashion designer Ossie Clark and his wife, the textile designer Celia Birtwell – along with their cat – in which the tensions of their short-lived marriage are palpable.
What has led Hockney to take this approach throughout his work, one which is courageous even for an established figure? One suspects that he has – in the best sense of the phrase – a provincial mindset. Born in Bradford in 1937, he probably isn’t disposed to take on trust the febrile fashions expounded by fancy metropolitan opinion-formers about what is or is not of artistic merit or usefulness. If this is the case, Hockney’s approach is valid. History shows how religious, political and social institutions have been given a life-enhancing dose of fresh blood by provincial outsiders. Arguably, this pattern applies in the arts, too. Except, with him, it’s a matter of this shot in the artistic arm arising from following a traditional approach rather than – as might be expected – the other way round. With Hockney, it’s the conceptual avant-garde rather than representational art which seems to have lost its usefulness as a tool of perception. And he hasn’t let himself become restricted by the fact that Pop Art (which helped to build up his early fame), originally, celebrated the materialistic optimism of the post-War world. For him, there is more to life than what’s on show. There are hidden depths under every surface – however shiny or mundane – if we take the trouble to look for and explore them. Hockney – applying his ever-fresh mind and vigilant eye and using a careful mixture of both radicalism and realism – stops us in our visual tracks and makes us take notice of what is concealed in plain sight.
The exhibition runs from 9 February to 29 May 2017. Find out more and book tickets here.