David Hockney's Tate Britain retrospective demands to be seen - review

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A Bigger Splash by David Hockney, at the David Hockney Retrospective, Tate Britain, London
A visitor studies A Bigger Splash by David Hockney, at the David Hockney Retrospective, Tate Britain, London Credit: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock​

I have never been entirely convinced of David Hockney’s greatness as an artist, but don’t mind admitting that I ran to this exhibition. For the fact is that Hockney’s importance transcends the details of his art.

With his big glasses, peroxide hair and droll Yorkshire manner, he was the first British artist to make use of television, communicating to a broad audience at a time when most people in this country were utterly oblivious to contemporary art.

Tate teases new exhibition with David Hockney animation Tate teases new exhibition with David Hockney animation
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For that reason alone anyone seriously interested in art owes him a kind of debt, while his matter-of-fact attitude towards his own gayness undoubtedly contributed to greater acceptance of homosexuality in the country. The fact that he happens to be Britain’s most celebrated living artist is a bonus.

A visitor studies Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney Credit: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock​

So, this 80th-birthday exhibition, his most comprehensive to date, has to be a major event, a chance to assess in one broad sweep what has, and hasn’t, been achieved in what is by any standards a remarkable career. It begins, rather brilliantly, with a sort of overture, setting the tone for the exhibition by highlighting one of the most important aspects of Hockney’s art: his fascination with different ways of depicting reality.

Alongside his preoccupation with recording the people and places he has known – from Bradford to London and LA and back to Bridlington – Hockney has been a sort of collector of artistic styles and devices from different eras and cultures, which he juxtaposes and synthesises in visual games and jokes that are underpinned by serious questions about the nature of art.

A visitor walks past Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) by David Hockney Credit: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock

In Play within a Play from 1963, art dealer John Kasmin stands trapped between an illusionistic tapestry and piece of Perspex that is actually screwed to the canvas. In Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait, he’s seen in the background working at a desk: is he drawing the sleeping figure in the foreground or simply a painting on the wall or is it all a fantasy composite?

We bypass Hockney’s beginnings as a kitchen-sink realist in austerity-era Bradford, jumping into his career with the early Sixties Love Paintings with which he made his name while still a student at the Royal College of Art, fusing free-form brushwork inspired by abstract expressionism with popular imagery and autobiographic references. There’s a wonderful rawness and a fierce wit to works such as We Two Boys Together Clinging, with its scrawled, graffiti-like figures, or Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style, in which a naked male figure merges into a Typhoo Tea packet rendered in stark perspective.

A visitor studies Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style by David Hockney Credit: Amer Ghazzal/REX/Shutterstock​

Travels in Egypt and America saw him drawing new elements into his vocabulary of styles: the severe profiles of Ancient Egyptian art, totem poles, geographical contour maps. If this visual referencing might sound a touch academic, it’s deployed with an exuberant inventiveness and humour.

Hockney’s move to California in 1964 resulted in some of his most popular paintings, but his interest in how things can be depicted becomes drier and more formalised here. A Bigger Splash, perhaps his best-known work, juxtaposes a flatly painted LA house and swimming pool with a wild explosion of paint denoting the eponymous splash; not so much a painting of a splash as a painting about how to paint a splash. The Room, Tarzana – showing Hockney’s then boyfriend Peter Schlesinger lying face down, trouserless on a bed – startled at the time with its frank homoeroticism. But it’s more notable now for heralding the shift to a stiffer, more realistic style that bears fruit in a roomful of his large double portraits from the Seventies.

A visitor looking at Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool, 1966. Credit: Yui Mok/PA

While many of the subjects are people close to him  – his parents, the writers Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell – the mood of these paintings, with their clear reference to 19th-century neoclassicism, feels deliberately cool and alienated. The curator Henry Geldzahler sprawls confidently back on a huge sofa, while his partner, the artist Christopher Scott, stand to one side in a raincoat, like a put-upon undertaker. While these are clever paintings, in which even the sense of slight sterility feels very knowing, you can’t help feeling a sense of retreat from the radicalism of the earlier work.

The general critical prognosis on Hockney tends to be: early, good; late, bad. A room of large cubistic Californian landscapes in garish, straight-from-the-tube colours heralds the second half of the exhibition with a sinking sense that it will be downhill all the way. But it is always dangerous to write Hockney off too readily.

A woman looks at a portrait of Christopher and Don Bachardy by David Hockney Credit: REUTERS/Neil Hall

In The Other Side (1990-3), he’s up to his old tricks, playing with texture, form and surface to not particularly subtle, but undeniably explosive effect. Landscapes predominate; perhaps the curators don’t rate his later portraits. A group of views of fields and lanes, filling most of a room, each composed of six separate canvases, painted after his return to Yorkshire in 1997, are so prosaic you wonder what an artist of his skill and sophistication imagines he’s achieving by them. But May Blossom on the Roman Road, a great clunky behemoth of a painting, has a wacky energy in its swarming masses of foliage and stark shadows. Predictable, it certainly isn’t.

The best thing that can be said of Hockney’s experiments in filmmaking, involving nine cameras tracking along a particular Yorkshire lane over four seasons, is that it was brave of him to try, while his much vaunted iPad drawings and drawings don’t seem to do much that couldn’t have been achieved with conventional media.

Visitors look at Two Pots on the Terrace by David Hockney Credit: James Gourley/REX/Shutterstock​

If Hockney comes across as isolated from critical opinion and with too much time on his hands, perhaps the best thing an artist in that situation can do is to focus on one subject as honestly and clearly as they can. Hockney finally does this in The Coming of Spring, a series of 25 large charcoal drawings assiduously exploring the effects of light, shade and texture in the wooded lanes of East Yorkshire. If these aren’t “important” in the wider scheme of things, they show complete integrity, formidable skill and highlight the quality Hockney has always valued above all others: observation.

If this show might appear too heavily weighted towards Hockney’s later work, this latter period has occupied the larger part of his career. What we get is an admirably lucid, well structured account of his progress and what he has amounted to in artistic terms over the past seven decades. Whether or not Hockney is a great artist, he is a great cultural figure, and this exhibition demands to be seen.

Feb 9-May 29. Tickets: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk

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