David Hockney. The man is practically a national treasure so it is with some trepidation, and a heavy heart, that I have to say, I’m not particularly crazy about the new show of his work at the Royal Academy.
It focuses on a series of portraits that David has recently completed – 82 portraits, in fact, specifically of his friends and family. But instead of a lively, buoyant collection of those who David loves, it seems we have a rather unintended study of homogeneity.
No doubt, that is largely accentuated by David’s deliberate intent to put all sitters in the same chair, and have them all set against a similar background of blues and sea greens. It’s an interesting experiment, but good ideas don’t always necessarily result in engaging art. It might have worked had personalities been easier to glean but, as they’re not, the uniform appearance is exaggerated.
It’s no surprise that the Barry Humphries portrait is being used as the main promotional image for this show as it is the only one with any sort of character. There is little individuality reflected in any of these portraits. That I could draw you to perhaps the folds in Margaret Hockney’s spotted skirt, or Isabella Clark’s vibrant striped playsuit probably reflects how desperately I am grasping at straws here.
The portrait of his studio assistant, Jean-Pierre Gonclaves de Lima’s stands out as he has his head in his hands, no doubt mournful at the sudden death of David’s other assistant Dominic Elliott, but the rest are just a sea of impassive faces. And, I have to be frank, it is almost a sea entirely of white faces too. At a time when we really need the arts to get on the front foot with diversity, well, I found the whiteness blinding and awkward.
But back to the blandness… I found myself wondering whether the fault lay with the sitters rather than the artist. Have we as a society lost any kind of individuality? Those male sitters who weren’t in suits were in jeans and t-shirts. Maybe we really do all look the same.
But, in truth, I couldn’t discern any personality from any of the sitters. With the exception of Barry Humphries whose pink trousers, jaunty hat and smirk grabs the attention, David does not seem to have really given us an insight, a glimpse, into who his friends are or what makes them tick. As you pass from painting to painting, well, your eyes just glaze over.
Much has been made of the vivid colours though, with many drawing comparisons with Matisse. I am somewhat reluctant to do the same. Matisse’s work was alive and vibrant; here it seems oddly flat. Though this may not be helped by the curatorial decision to hang all the pieces on walls of deep maroon.
The series of works came out from a period when David was not in a good space. Not only had his assistant Dominic died (the portrait of Jean-Pierre reacting to this being the first portrait of this collection) but David had also recently suffered a stroke. Perhaps the jubilance of the colours belies the artist’s true emotions.
Anyway, I suspect this will be one of those shows where critical review isn’t really required. Such is the draw of David Hockney that the RA is already stating that all tickets must be booked in advance – they are fully expecting this to be one of their biggest shows of the year. No doubt it will be. But that doesn’t mean that many won’t leave a little disappointed. A shame.
Royal Academy of Arts, London to October 2, 2016
Admission £11.50 (concessions available)
David Hockney Rita Pynoos, 1st, 2nd March 2014 Acrylic on canvas 121.9 x 91.4 cm © David Hockney Photo credit: Richard Schmidt
David Hockney Barry Humphries, 26th, 27th, 28th March 2015 Acrylic on canvas 121.9 x 91.4 cm © David Hockney Photo credit: Richard Schmidt
David Hockney Celia Birtwell, 31st August, 1st, 2nd September 2015 Acrylic on canvas 121.9 x 91.4 cm © David Hockney Photo credit: Richard Schmidt