Hockney at his most intimate and honest

David Hockney: Drawing from Life

National Portrait Gallery, London

Do we really need another David Hockney exhibition?” asked one of my co-reviewers when we were looking at the calendar of exhibitions for 2020. Well, based on the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, actually yes we do.

‘David Hockney: Drawing from Life’ is the first major exhibition of Hockney’s drawings in over 20 years, and it’s an absolute gem. If you, like me, have grown tired of Hockney’s garish, giant landscapes and those interminable iPad ‘paintings’ which adorned the walls of the major retrospective at the Royal Academy in 2012, then this exquisite show at the NPG is a valuable reminder of Hockney’s greatest skill – the master draughtsman whose keen eye and sensitive hand can render his friends’ and his own likeness in just a few perfectly-placed strokes. Drawing has always been at the heart of Hockney’s studio, from pen and ink sketches to coloured pencils, experiments with watercolour and digital technology (photography and iPad). He has never stood still, artistically, as evidenced by his willingness to embrace new techniques and materials, but his drawing also reflects his admiration for the Old Masters, in particular Rembrandt, and also Picasso.

Organised chronologically, the exhibition traces the trajectory of Hockney’s practice, beginning with his earliest forays into the art and craft of drawing. These teenage self-portraits already display an impressive proficiency, but are also a stylistic foretaste of his later works. Sensitively-rendered, the artist’s gaze, meeting the eye of the viewer, is often direct and serious, occasionally playful, and already challenging.

In a later room, his drawings of his dear friend and muse Celia Birtwell are elegant and intimate, her gorgeous likeness portrayed in a few simple lines. The next room is filled with pictures of another close friend and one-time lover, Gregory Evans, who has been a consistent model and inspiration for Hockney, as well as his curator. Here, some of the portraits are lightning-quick pen and ink sketches, but created with an intense concentration resulting in moments frozen in time, a snapshot in a drawing. Gregory sleeping is tender yet sensuous. With his tumbling curls and full lips, Gregory is as beautiful as Tadzio, the object of Aschenbach’s admiration in Death in Venice, and in these drawings, including ‘Gregory in Gym Socks’, where his penis is drawn with just three suggestive lines, the lover’s eye is affectionate and honest. Later portraits of Gregory as an older man are equally honest – now he’s jowly, chubbier, but the curly hair is still recognisable from the earlier works.

Celia, Carennac, August 1971, coloured pencil on paper (C) David Hockney
Gregory, Los Angeles, March 31st 1982, composite polaroid (C) David Hockney

There’s honesty too in Hockney’s portraits of his mother, unstinting in his portrayal of her ageing, but personal and kindly nonetheless. And he doesn’t spare the pen or charcoal stick when portraying his own descent into old age. These are candid self-portraits, reflective and instrospective, sometimes quirky and humorous, his owlish eyes in their distinctive round spectacles staring back at us.

Hockney and his dearest friends may be old now, but one senses an energy and spirit in these latest portraits: still gorgeous, Celia smiles, but now somewhat enigmatically.

The portraits are complemented by sketchbooks, notes and photographs, and a wall of iPad portraits further confirm Hockney’s mastery of his craft, technology allowing one to watch the evolution of a portrait from the first strokes. Stand back to view these and one can enjoy a certain depth; up close they are rather one-dimensional.

This is a magnificent, intimate overview of Hockney’s oeuvre and imagination as a master draughtsman and also a meditation on friendship, change and the ageing process.

Highly recommended


David Hockney: Drawing from Life

until 28 June 2020, National Portrait Gallery, London


(header image: David Hockney, ‘Self-Portrait with Red Braces’, 2003)

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