Review: David Hockney, Tate Britain ‘Pleasant, if Unaffecting’

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I suppose I should feel a bit sorry for David Hockney. After all, it’s not his fault that he has been vaulted to national treasure status when, on the basis of his output, it would be hard to consider him a great artist. Perhaps therefore it is to be expected that I am not going to tell you that this is the greatest art show you’ll ever see (it’s not even the best show in town right now) but given Hockney’s popularity and his high-profile presence in British culture, it’s only fair that his 80th birthday should be marked with this, the world’s most extensive retrospective ever of his works.

A whopping 138 pieces have been brought together in this vast display that fills over thirteen galleries – a display that, no doubt, saw an extensive redesign of some of the permanent collection hanging in the galleries in order to fit it all in.

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, with the works hung, broadly, chronologically to enable visitors to trace Hockney’s artistic development over his sixty-year career. The big guns from the Sixties and Seventies are here, of course – A Bigger Splash, 1967, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970-71, and Pool with Two Figures, 1972 – as are many of his landscapes from his later years, such as excerpts from his Grand Canyon Series, and paintings of his native Yorkshire.

These are all enjoyable paintings with a very obvious appeal – I do have a soft spot for the burnt oranges and vivid palette of the Grand Canyon works – but I found Hockney’s earlier works the most interesting. A collection of paintings from his student days at the Royal College of Art are included and they display a far darker, more intense side to Hockney. More explicitly sexual and rather abstract, they seem a world away from the work he would produce only a few years later in California.

A quick review of the accompanying booklet (interestingly the Tate has chosen not to have any explanatory wall text at any point in this exhibition) reveals that this playing with styles was deliberate. As he noted, ‘I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso.’ My thoughts on reading this were, “Woah! Easy tiger!” Comparing yourself with the Master might be a bit much, yet I found these works intriguing and wondered where that interrogation, that interest in these darker styles, went.

For all the popularity of his big canvases, I preferred to spend time admiring Hockney’s work with his camera. Always fascinated with ripping up the single-point perspective in photography, his artworks of single images – portraits, places – comprised of a multitude of individual polaroids create interesting multi-faceted works that capture emotions and depth that I find missing in his larger paintings.

Even though this exhibition is vast in size – as are more than a few of his pieces – I imagine it may be hard for visitors to get the space to enjoy them, given the reports that this is already Tate’s most popular show with over 20,000 tickets sold in advance already (and rising). This is going to be a show many will queue to see, and if the eye-watering £19.50 admission charge doesn’t give the game away, then that unsettling feeling that the Tate is banking on this being a money-spinner hits you hard as you exit through the gift shop.

Here, you are surrounded by walls piled high with Hockney branded merchandise. Every item possible, short of your soul, has been given A Bigger Splash treatment (beach bag, anyone? Or perhaps a drinks tray? Children’s t-shirt, maybe??). I suppose it may seem unfair to deny the museum an opportunity to cash in but, my, it does feel a bit cynical and in-your-face.

Of course, the crowds will rush in – Hockney is a much-loved artist, after all. But, in truth, for all the effort that’s gone into pulling together this retrospective, I suspect that whatever your opinion is of his work, that will remain.

If you think his works beautiful, that will be validated. ‘Beautiful’ is the word I heard spoken most by the visitors around me. Yet if you’re not a fan, finding his work a bit superficial with not much beneath the surface, I don’t think this show will change your mind. I enjoyed parts of the show – his landscapes are always enchanting and his photography work is interesting – but the rest I could walk by, pleasant but unaffecting.

Tate Britain, London, to May 29, 2017

For more images, please see the album with photos from the exhibition on my Facebook page.

Image Credits:

1 Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966. Acrylic paint on canvas 1520 x 1520 mm National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery. Presented by Sir John Moores 1968 © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

2 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon, 1998. Oil paint on nine canvases. 1003 x 1689 mm. Richard and Carolyn Dewey © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

3 Billy + Audrey Wilder Los Angeles April 1982, 1982. Composite Polaroid 1117 x 1168 mm David Hockney Inc. (Los Angeles, USA) © David Hockney Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

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