All splashed out? David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain

In the year of the artist’s 80th birthday, Tate Britain presents a survey of almost 60 years of David Hockney’s work in the first major retrospective for nearly 30 years and already the gallery’s fastest-selling exhibition. Once the rebel – he was painting queer art (We Two Boys Together Clinging) when homosexuality was still illegal – he’s now considered a national treasure somewhat in the manner of Alan Bennett, and is dubbed Britain’s “greatest living artist”, a title rather indulgently conferred upon him after the death of Lucien Freud in 2011. His work remains perennially popular and highly accessible, with its vibrant colours, classical genres (still life, landscapes, portraits) and subject matter drawn from the places where Hockney has lived and the people he has encountered, including many intimate and personal pictures of family, lovers and close friends.

As an artist, Hockney’s principal obsession continues to be the challenge of representation: how we view the world and how that view can be captured in two-dimensions. Although presented largely chronologically, the exhibition uses thematic elements to demonstrate Hockney’s ongoing interest in challenging the conventions of picture making. Thus the show contains his early forays into photo-montage in the 1980s, a genre which he has extended in recent years into large multi-screen video installations, and pictures created using an iPad app, which reveal his willingness to utilise new technology in the creation of new artworks. The problem is these works add little to the exhibition: they appear merely self-indulgent and attention-seeking – a case of “look at me! Look what I can do!”.

In fact, it was those interminable iPad pictures – vividly colourful, but curiously flat and lifeless because of the medium – which crammed the walls of the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition of Hockney’s work, which finally convinced me that this is an artist who, in his later years, has sold out to gimmicks and popularity over artistic integrity. If Rembrandt’s or Beethoven’s late style demonstrates a creative individual fully at ease with himself who no longer feels the need to play to the gallery nor please the audience, Hockney always has an eye trained on “the market”. In his book On Late Style Edward Said examines the concept of a distinct artistic/literary “late style” and highlights features such as a certain “insouciance” or self-confidence which may stem from a sense of completion, serenity, acceptance, or reconciliation. Sure, there is a distinct insouciance in Hockney’s most recent work with garish, straight-from-the-tube colours, inelegant outsized pointillist blobs, and crudely-drawn stripes. These works may reveal a supreme self-confidence, but looking at these paintings one has the sense of an artist who is very conscious of how they will be received (something neither Rembrandt nor Beethoven seems remotely concerned with in their late works).

Fortunately, the Tate show contains only a handful of dreadful iPad pictures, and there are many crowd-pleasing favourites in the exhibition, works which Hockney himself describes as “old friends”, including A Bigger Splash, Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy, and his celebrated double portrait of writer Christopher Isherwood and artist Don Bachardy (complete with a suggestive banana in the fruit bowl), together with sensitively-drawn portraits of family and friends, including his parents and his long-time friend Celia Birtwell. The works from the 1960s and 70s are, for me, the most interesting and reveal a skilled, confident artist at ease with his subject matter. There’s a sophisticated restraint and refinement of execution in these naturalistic paintings (sadly lacking in the later works), and fifty years on, works like A Bigger Splash still seem fresh and cool (in the best possible sense of that word).

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Colour has always been important for Hockney – from the sun-drenched landscapes of California to the glittering azure of the swimming pool paintings, and related works, hot pinks, rich umbers and intense greens leap from the paintings. The later works are notable for both their colour, vast scale and crude execution, and it seems as if Hockney has transferred the intense colours of California to his native Yorkshire: never has the English countryside looked so gaudy!

A whole room is devoted to drawings, which prove that Hockney is, above all else, a fine draughtsman. Thoughtful, intimate and domestic in scale, these works, together with a series of charcoal landscape sketches, are by far the most interesting part of the exhibition and provide welcome relief from the brash palette and vast scale of the later landscapes. I was disappointed to find no prints in this show. His beautiful etchings, made in response to the gay poetry of Constantine P Cavafy, which he adored, are omitted (perhaps for reasons of logistics/permissions) which is a great shame for these, like the drawings, reveal Hockney’s compositional skill and craftsmanship far better than the giant canvasses and photo-montages.

The show also presents rarely-seen works from the late 1950s when the artist was studying at London’s Royal College of Art, plus Hockney’s landscapes from his native Yorkshire to his adopted home in California. New paintings of Hockney’s home and garden in Los Angeles (Garden With Blue Terrace) are displayed for the first time, works which vibrate with glaring colours and lush vegetation, and show that old age has certainly not dimmed this artist’s creative impulse and output.

But as a “retrospective” the exhibition works well – all of Hockney’s life is here – and unlike the 2012 Royal Academy show, there is not an overwhelming amount to take in. It’s a manageable exhibition whose first half is far superior to its second.

David Hockney, Tate Britain, 9 February – 29 May 2017


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