Tuesday, 30 May 2017

A tale of two cities? David Hockney at Tate Britain

To a hot and sweltering London on Wednesday, with my friend Penny, and the vast retrospective of the work of David Hockney at Tate Britain. An exhibition that, incidentally, illustrates 20th century British deep ambiguity with abstract Modernism, and the continuing vitality of the figurative and landscape traditions in the 21st. Such a vast, and humbling, exhibition in fact, and Hockney such a complex, changeful and intellectual artist, that I'm not sure quite how to begin. With a few biographical details, perhaps.  Hockney was born in 1937 in the industrial city of Bradford, Yorkshire. In 1953 he attended Bradford School of Art. The work that Hockney did between his time at and the RCA is largely overlooked in this exhibition, the narrative of which commences with the work he made while at the Royal College of Art In London (1959-1961).  However it's perfectly easy to find it on line, and quite interesting it is. Perhaps very much in the style of the Euston Road School and the dying embers of Neo-Romanticism.  There is one work, a very early work in particular that presages themes that re-occur in Hockney's later work: the self portrait of 1954.  Firstly there is its almost hieratic style, secondly the slight sense of isolation of the subject, and thirdly the love of pattern
Hockney's move to the capital, like his later encounter with Los Angeles, was crucial to the development of his style as a painter and of his personal life.  Initially there was a massive change in his painting style as he temporarily forsook figuration for Abstract Expressionism, and secondly in his personal life he came out. This act, quite brave considering the times, propelled his return to figurative art; and that changefulness in Hockney's work is one the themes that emerges repeatedly in this exhibition. The influences at that stage of his career are clear enough: Francis Bacon, Dubuffet. There are elements too of Pop Art, such as in 'Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style' of 1961.  Indeed one always feels with Hockney that his influences are always readily apparent, and that perhaps makes him a pioneer Post-Modernist, (indeed Hockney has had a great effect on the visual language of Post Modenism), except, I suggest, he has always been open to the idea of the meta-narrative.  He is also suspicious, and rightly so, of the idea of the 'Avant Garde'. The canvas are often darkly textured with paint, and scrawled with lettering (like graffiti) that enhances the often visceral quality of the image. The scale too is big, though not as big as the monumental canvases Hockey painted in the late 60s and early 70s. In these RCA works we also see the emergence of another theme: the figure in profile. On leaving the RCA Hockney quickly found representation with John Kasmin, 'Kasmin', whose eponymous West End Gallery was supported by Lindy and Sheriden Dufferin.  Hockney was now moving in aristocratic and bohemian circles in London. It is a period in Hockney's life that I find deeply and endlessly fascinating, and which is chronicled in one of my favourite books, 'Checkered Past' by Peter Schlesinger, Hockney's lover in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The art of this period returns in a manner to the art of those pre RCA years in that it begins to find inspiration in the life around him, though stylistically they are radically different. In them Hockney's painting of the human form seems to coalesce and clarify, and it was a process that was speeded up by Hockney's momentous encounter (1967) with a second city - Los Angeles.  'Three times better than I thought it would be', or words to that effect. California sharpened up his style as it went through another momentous transformation; the areas of bare canvas that haunted his work post RCA retreated before smooth fields of acrylic paint; for the first time nature makes an appearance with vivid sky and vivid, manicured lawns and there is the water, transformed by Hockney's love of pattern.  Although realist all thses pictures eschew Renaissance perspective for something essentially older, more (if you will) Medieval - the smart Modernist villas that inhabit the Los Angeles pictures are painted in the manner of slick architects' presentation drawings.  And as much a I liked them I felt an certain unease before them.  It's only a few days after my visit has this thought finally crystallised.  I'll see if I can explain.  In all these early works the figures seem to float free.  Decontextualised almost.   Even in the double portraits, such as 'American Collectors', 1968, the relationship between subjects seem to be merely formal as though they were taking place in some sort of ritual, rather than everyday interaction - that same sense of the formal and hieractic that was present in that early self portrait of 1954.  There is a sense of atomisation, if not alienation.  The enuui of late Modernity.  Three paintings are the exception and they represent people he was particularly attached to: Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy', 1970-71, 'Portrait of an Artist', 1972, and 'My Parents', 1977. One feels that throughout this period Hockney could, with some justification, be labelled an urban painter. History is never too far from Hockney; objects appear in the fore ground of many paintings such as 'Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968, just as they do in the Renaissance.  But did they, I wonder, have any symbolic meaning?
In contrast the next gallery concentrates on his drawings and prints. The crayon portraits are simply exquisite demonstrating his great technical abilities.  There are three portraits of a rare and wonderful lucidity and luminosity, Ozzie Clark, Celia Birtwell and Andy Warhol, that were quite inspirational. The contrast could not be greater with the next two galleries, which contain work from the Eighties and Nineties.  Again one encounters one of those rather breathtaking changes in style: the brush strokes more gestural 'painterly'; the style semi-abstract; the colours harsh, scalding. I didn't linger. And then suddenly, I found myself standing before one of Hockney's Yorkshire Wold paintings.  Pale English colours.  Relief.  These paintings dating from 2000s are vast and monumentaland at times deeply moving.  In a process that began in the 1980s, one suspects, the City has finally been abandoned.  One feels that a long journey has bee travelled since those dark abrasive pictures of Hockney's RCA days.

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