One image in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition on David Hockney perfectly captures the spirit of this most prolific of artists. Hockney examines his face over the rim of his glasses with intense scrutiny as he draws a self-portrait in the mirror, one arm steadying himself on the table, an expression of alert concentration written across his face. The resulting pencil drawing, made in 1983 and at a time when he was drawing himself almost every day, shows the artist determined and confident, marking the page with an economy of energetic strokes.
Those familiar with Hockney’s work will know that few artists observe as keenly as he does and with such a voracious appetite for drawing. Yet this is apparently the first major exhibition of his drawings in over 20 years. Here you will find an intimate story of one man’s life rendered through portraits of the people he loves.
Left: David Hockney, Gregory, 1978. Copyright David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt, Collection: The David Hockney Foundation. Right: David Hockney, Mother, Paris, 1972. Copyright David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt, Collection The David Hockney Foundation
The small room dedicated to Hockney's mother is the most moving in the whole show. A committed supporter of her son’s chosen career, Laura Hockney would sit patiently while her likeness was committed to paper. A line drawing made in sepia ink (and with van Gogh in mind) shows the artist's mother seated, still in her coat and hat, soon after Hockney’s father passed away. Images such as these demonstrate Hockney’s ability to imbue his portraits with pathos. Sadness and resignation are etched into her eyes. A montage of photos taken of Mrs Hockeny in the graveyard of Bolton Abbey on a rainy day speaks, too, of human frailty and mortality in the most touching terms.
Hockney’s artistic heroes are many, but throughout his career Picasso is a recurring presence. He represents himself with a bust of the Spanish master and at times even emulates Picasso's cubist approach. Portraits rendered with exacting naturalism were put to one side in favour of fragmented images, while he was, according to the wall text, 'thinking anew of Picasso' at various points in his career. Take, for example, one of his many portraits of Celia Birtwell, his friend of more than 50 years. Celia in Hollywood, made in 1984, shows Birtwell in a Breton top, her face distorted to a cartoony degree.
Left: David Hockney, The Student: Homage to Picasso, 1973. Copyright David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt, Collection The David Hockney Foundation. Right: David Hockney, Mother, Bradford. 19 Feb 1979. Copyright David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt, Collection The David Hockney Foundation.
One thing this exhibition does beautifully is to show the evolution of Hockney’s friends, his relationships and his interest in technology. As we walk through the galleries, his lovers age before our eyes, fashions shift and innovations are made. These changes are perhaps most marked with two portraits of the printer Maurice Payne, which hang side-by-side. One is a monotone lithograph of Payne in a check shirt, sporting a head of dark curls in 1976; the other depicts the same man over thirty years later, his hair now grey. But everything else in this second image is brightly coloured in with an iPad.
The exhibition finishes with a wall of ten drawings made last year in Los Angeles and Normandy. Here, we find a gallery of familiar faces including Birtwell and Payne. Artist and sitters are much older now (Hockney is 82), but there is still so much energy in these drawings. In one image, Birtwell sports a spotty dress and a contented smile, in another a bright red beret. These paintings stand as a testament to lasting friendships and one man’s irrepressible spirit. Nothing here suggests that Hockney is ready to hang up his paintbrush (perish the thought), or that his powers of observation are waning.
|David Hockney: Drawing from Life exhibition review
|National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London, WC2H 0HE | MAP
|Leicester Square (underground)
27 Feb 20 – 28 Jun 20, 12:00 AM
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