David Hockney at Tate Britain (9 February to 29 May 2017)

Detail from Play Within a Play, 1963.  Private collection.  © David Hockney

Hockney is one of the world’s greatest living artists, and the retrospective is Tate Britain’s bestselling exhibition ever.  He still works daily, and is currently designing a large stained glass window in Westminster Abbey to honour the Queen.  Appointed to the Order of Merit in 2012 having turned down a knighthood in 1990 (“I don’t value prizes of any sort. I value my friends,”) he sees the present time as he approaches his 80th birthday in July as his most prolific.  Like our other recent British greats Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, (sadly both deceased) Hockney is largely a figurative painter, but unlike Freud and Bacon, he has a great sense of fun – you will leave the exhibition feeling exhilarated and uplifted.

Arranged across 10 huge galleries, the exhibition is largely chronological, but also broadly thematically, due to Hockney’s work practice. We see nearly 60 years of artwork, from early student days to today –  portraits of friends and partners, photography, a series of LA swimming pools which silently radiate the sun’s heat, giant landscapes, plus video and I-pad art.  Hockney’s work is fresh, vibrant and enormously appealing – he examines over and over how we see and experience the world, and how it can be captured in 2-dimensionality – what is it to make art? In Play within a Play 1963  (room 1) Hockney has lots of fun with this concept – what is real and what is illusion? The painting is based on a photo of his friend John Kasim, who presses himself against the glass door of his art gallery – he stands in an impossibly narrow space and we see his hands pressed on to the glass – it looks accurate and yet it can’t be.

In the late 1990s living between his native Yorkshire and Hollywood Hills, Hockney produced a series of landscapes in East Yorkshire, and the Grand Canyon. Hockney’s style includes dazzlingly bright complementary colours (complementaries are colours opposite on the colour wheel- eg. red and green, blue and orange which when placed next to each other give enormous brightness – look out for the pairings), plus multiple perspectives, and a strong sense of movement.  The colours are roughly realistic but heightened in a Fauvist way (the Fauves worked in the early 1900s with super-bright colours to give an intense vibrancy to their paintings).

In Going up Garrowby Hill 2000 (left and room 9) we feel the wind, and swift ascent and descent as the car speeds up and down the steep hills – the sense of swoop is created largely by the disproportionately tall trees to the left.

In Elderflower Blossom Kilham July 2006 (room 10) the shadows reach out like comic animals across the road – it is realistic and yet not realistic – Hockney’s cartoony cheerful treatment of the trees and bushes is reminiscent of Grant Wood’s landscapes that so upset the American farmers during the Depression, and his swirling dotty sky reminds us of van Gogh, but without the angst.  Close by is his wonderful Woldgate Woods 2006 with its multiple vanishing points creating intriguing paths through the neon green woods – we are drawn straight to the end of the woods on a dazzling November day.

In tackling the Grand Canyon, Hockney began to work on separate canvases which he then joined into 1 picture to give a sense of vastness Grand Canyon – 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon 1998  (Room 9) captures the scale of the Canyon in paint, which had seemed impossible to previous generations of artists . His rocks are muscle-red like Frida Kahlo’s desert scenes, and the sense of space and scale is obvious – the thin blue strip of sky at the top, and the multiple canvas structure deftly effective.

In the 1960s and 70s Hockney was living in Los Angeles – he loved the open spaces and set out to paint the City – he found a clear geometry in the modern lines of offices and houses, and fell in love with the ripples of the sun-saturated swimming pools.  His 1967 A Bigger Splash (room 4) is one of his most recognised works – we see the moment after the swimmer has dived into the pool – the diving board, rigidly rectangular house, lines of the pool, and the intricately painted splash (perhaps a dig at the Abstract Expressionist artists who threw and splashed paint over a canvas seemingly at ramdon – in contrast Hockney takes hours to intricately paint a simple splash) the painting feels hot, empty and, despite the action of the splash which must quickly fall back to the pool, completely still – where are all the people?

In Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures) 1972 (left and room 5) the strong ripple pattern shows the movement of the swimmer – we can almost see his body gliding with his swimming strokes – Hockney contrasts the organic ripple patterns with the rectangles and triangles of the pool and mountains, and as in his later landscapes, our eyes are drawn effortlessly around the picture.

In room 11 Hockney celebrates the cycle of nature – he attached 9 video cameras to his land-rover and drove slowly along the same Yorkshire road, recording as he went, in each of the 4 seasons – the result is 4 walls of multi-screen video revolving immersively through the seasons – after 20 years of seasonless California, creating this installation must have been a joy.The Arrival of Spring 2013 (room 12) consists of 25 charcoal drawings – the drawings are beautiful but melancholy – perhaps the charcoal suggests mortality in a way that the zingy colours of his oil paintings and acrylics cannot.

It’s hard to put a “style” to Hockney’s art –Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain since July 2015 sees him as a “formative protagonist” of that so hard to define art movement Post Modernism, but perhaps it doesn’t matter – this huge exhibition will travel in May to The Pompidou Centre in Paris, and then The Metropolitan in New York- you will leave feeling exhilarated and uplifted.

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