To Pimlico and Tate Britain for the big David Hockney retrospective exhibition that’s been timed to coincide with the artist’s 80th birthday that falls later in the year. In fact, the show will have moved on from London by the time that Hockney actually lights the candles on his celebratory cake in July, having been reinstalled at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, prior to the conclusion of its mini-tour that finishes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I think it’s fair to say that there’s no other living British figurative artist who’s likely to be honoured with such a prestigious series of presentations around the art capitals of the world any time soon and, all in all, it’s a pretty good indication of the high global reputation and status that Hockney currently holds both among most sections of the professional critics and large swathes of the gallery-going public in general.
Of course, some artists gain a reputation for being awkward or eccentric, rude or offensive, irresponsible or boastful, but are then forgiven their sins by dint of the magic they bring to the particular field of creativity in which they excel, whether pop singing or football playing, fashion designing or picture painting. Others, perhaps a rather smaller minority, belong to a more charmed circle and appear to be blessed with having both a normal, pleasant down-to-earth personality as well as an extraordinary, exceptional artistic talent. It’s a killer combination that gives rise to an almost excessively warm public appreciation that can last a lifetime, and if Paul McCartney is its musical embodiment, when it comes to the visual arts, the personification can only be dear old David Hockney.
From swinging ‘60s wonderkind to today’s national treasure, Hockney has spent the past several decades in and out of the public eye charming all around him, with the radiance of his golden boy good looks and cheeky smile being wonderfully offset by the flat monotones of his homely Northern accent. And even now, his ever so slight air of grumpy resignation, due to the inconveniences of increasing deafness, is treated as would be the charming foibles of a well-loved grandparent while his oft expressed irritation at no longer being able to chain smoke in public places, is afforded all the affable concessions to quirkiness accorded to the more irrational grumblings of a quirky old uncle. I confess that I, too, am just as susceptible as everyone else to falling under the spell of this grand old man of British art who has produced so many wonderful paintings, prints and drawings during the course of his sixty odd years of professional mark making.
Well, almost. I’m afraid I feel duty bound to blow a few raspberries later on but before doing so I have to say that for the most part I found wandering around his retrospective a really very enjoyable experience. In essence the exhibition is a tour through the life of a hugely skillful artist who has very successfully documented his own colourful autobiographical journey. It’s a trip that goes from the tiny terraced house in suburban Bradford to the bright lights of London and then on to the exciting freedoms of New York and the wide open spaces of sunny California. More recently, the latest chapters have also included a return to more parochial locations and concerns, with the artist exploring seasonal variations in the scenery of the countryside around the byways of the Yorkshire dales. But Hockney has done more than just keep a standard visual log, at the same time as pursuing his geographical travels back and forth across the Atlantic, he’s also been involved in another life-long adventure, continually experimenting with different techniques and methods of recording the sights he’s seen and the people he’s met.
So, for the very earliest, student work his figures are drawn with a disingenuous, childlike naivety and surrounded by scraps of graffiti and references to mundane grocery store packaging. But then comes the much more naturalistic representations of personal friends and artworld acquaintances, captured most beautifully in pencil sketches and intimate line drawings. For me, these are his most appealing of his works and his greatest successes but almost as impressive are the large scale paintings of swimmers splashing about in idyllic pools and couples caught lounging in the comfort of their stylish luxury homes. There’s something very attractive about the graphic design-like simplicity of these works with their very flat, precision rendering – an effect I think that probably results from the artist working in acrylics (as opposed to oils) and copying from photographs (rather than stood working for hours in front of actual, living, breathing models).
While Hockney must have put a good deal of concentrated hard work and effort into producing these mid-career works, he also clearly benefitted from having had that innate talent that enables some lucky individuals to be able to reproduce convincing likenesses on paper or canvas using old-fashioned techniques relating to perspective and shading that have evolved only slightly over the previous few hundred years. Part of me rather wishes he had been happy enough with having been blessed with such a natural gift and been content to keep on producing these realistic figure studies and still lifes. But maybe they would have become mannered and dulled by repetition and lost their consummate charm. At any rate, Hockney must have grown bored turning them out for, despite them being so well received, he evidently decided it was time to put down his pens and paints and pick up a camera instead. The resulting works are composed of dozens of individual Polaroid snaps, each taken from a slightly different angle and then combined in such a way as to produce a sort of updated, mechanical form of Picasso’s painterly Cubism. And rather surprisingly, some of them look pretty good and the idea almost sort of works as a new, arty way of restyling three dimensions into two.
It certainly works better than Hockney’s next stylistic swerve which, I think, was prompted by the artist becoming interested in checking out how other, non-Western cultures chose to try to represent the world they saw around them. In particular it was Japanese scroll painting that captured his imagination, or so I vaguely remember from watching him drone on about it during some TV show many years ago. Suffice to say, that he became obsessed with the idea of trying to render a version of the Californian countryside around where he was then living along with a symbolistic interpretation of his daily car ride from home to studio. Sadly, realism is forfeit and roads, mountains and flora are reduced to a very basic, crudely Expresionistic mish-mash of shapes rendered in the kind of intense bright colours favoured by the manufacturers of Floridean beachware. I suppose it’s just about possible to see what Hockney was trying to achieve here and were one feeling generous one might award a few points for effort and ingenuity but the results are neither very pretty nor very convincing. Then again, I’ve never been to that particular part of the new world so maybe I shouldn’t really judge him too harshly.
I have, however, on occasion departed from my usual urban haunts and habitats, leaving behind the mean streets of the metropolitan miasma to tread in the muddy magnificence of the British countryside. And, as far as I recall, it looks quite a lot like that marvelous mix of greenery and brownery that the wonderful Mr Constable spent a lifetime so carefully daubing down. All of which brings me to the most recent of Hockney’s experimentalist works and also, consequently, the last few rooms in the Tate exhibition and the conclusion of the otherwise interesting and pleasing retrospective. And what a pity it is that everything has to end with such a sad whimper. Notwithstanding that the last time Hockney exhibited these late landscapes at the Royal Academy a few years ago crowds came in their thousands to get a look at the pictures and attendance records were broken, I still think they’re duffers, each and every one. It’s not just the all too casual way that Hockney has constructed the scenes, throwing down lines and blocking in chunks of colour or pattern with a terrible lack of finesse, it’s the failure to convey a convincing perspective – so that paths that are meant to be receding into the distance look to me like mounds pointing up towards the sky. Nevertheless, these days one is obliged to accept the will of the populist majority and since they voted with their feet, pounding along to see the show, I will say no more.
Except to comment that since Picasso was still paintings in his nineties there’s every reason to hope that Hockney may well reach his century which would give him another score of years to play around with. And, that being the case, I can’t help thinking that he should pay a visit to Specsavers and then go back and take a good long look at his own retrospective, especially the earlier works in the first five or six rooms. Then perhaps he’ll see sense and stop just bashing out all those dreadful i-Pad doodles and instead settle down to creating just a few final, fully crafted, properly painted late masterworks.