Published  14/12/2006

David Hockney Portraits

David Hockney Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, London
12 October 2006-21 January 2007

'What an artist is trying to do for people is bring them closer to something, because of course art is about sharing: you wouldn't be an artist unless you wanted to share an experience, a thought.' David Hockney

David Hockney's portraiture has become well known in recent years, with his prodigious output using watercolour on an unprecedented scale and his published work on the subject of optical devices such as the camera lucida. Although portraiture has run through his oeuvre since his teenage years, this is the first retrospective devoted to the genre.

'David Hockney Portraits' is the most comprehensive survey of Hockney's portraits ever shown. It features over 150 works, including paintings, drawings, prints, sketchbooks and photo collages, spanning 50 years from 1955 to 2005. 'David Hockney Portraits' opened in Boston and travelled to Los Angeles before coming to London. It is appropriate that it should be shown in England and on the East and West coasts of the USA, for these are the places where Hockney has made his home, and from which his friendships, the subjects of his finest works, have developed.

The distinctive optimism, the saturated palette, the varied and life-affirming oeuvre, has been absorbed into public consciousness more than most living artists, for Hockney is quite rightly one of the most celebrated artists in Britain today. Yet the familiarity that has come about through media attention (his paintings reproduce extremely well) does nothing to obscure the element of surprise and the sheer joy at seeing the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition brings together a great range of Hockney's work in many different media that express personal and heartfelt emotions with a tenderness that it is a privilege to experience. The scale and range of the work, and the level of intimate engagement with the process and the subjects, is prompted by a rare faith and trust in human relations.

In Hockney, we experience what George Steiner in On Difficulty and Other Essays1 identified as a lost quality in contemporary literature - a space afforded around figures. For all the intimacy, Hockney also allows a privacy and respect around his characters. The product is compelling. Although Hockney works in the traditional genres of portraiture, still-life and landscape, he has been innovative at all stages of his career. There is a touching candour and unpretentious quality that personifies his life and work. The exhibition starts with Hockney's very early self-portraits and studies of his father created during his student years at Bradford School of Art. A high point of the exhibition are the marvellous, almost life-size, double portraits of 'Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott' (1969), 'American Collectors (Mr and Mrs Weisman)' (1968), 'My Parents' (1977) and the splendid 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy' (1970-71), which was first shown at the National Portrait Gallery in 1971. In these works, there is both drama and ambiguity between the sitters, a pivotal quality in Hockney's work. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive, fully illustrated catalogue by curators Sarah Howgate and Barbara Stern Shapiro, with essays by Mark Glazebrook, Marco Livingstone and Edmund White.2

In an exhibition such as 'David Hockney Portraits', one is inevitably drawn to biographical details to glean the process of the development of such a prodigious talent. The studies and paintings of Hockney's parents, individually and together provide considerable evidence for Hockney's precocious technical skill and the tenderness of relationships that formed the emotional building blocks for a lifetime of friendships and artistic fruition. The depictions of his mother represent some of the finest images of older age.

David Hockney was the fourth of five children born to Kenneth and Laura Hockney. Both were independent and unconventional individuals. Hockney's father was an accountant with unconventional views and strong politics. He was a conscientious objector during the war, and later was actively opposed to nuclear arms. He influenced his son in a number of ways, not least being his stylish appearance and a penchant for spotted bow ties, a large collection of spectacles and false teeth for different occasions. He introduced his son to the theatre, opera and music. According to Hockney, his father taught him not to care what the neighbours thought. Hockney's mother was a strict vegetarian, a devout Methodist and teetotaller. An unconventional and highly ethical stance was accompanied by a warm and affectionate upbringing; she was always supportive of his artistic career. Hockney's desire to portray the most candid experience of his sitters is illustrated by the fact that he chose the day of his father's funeral to portray his mother. In doing so, he created an image of unveiled human suffering, a moving and outstanding testament to both of his parents.

Hockney's work is often confrontational in manner, psychologically as well as technically - the forward-tilted portrait of Jonathan Silver looks illness and mortality in the eye. The loss of friends to AIDS in Los Angeles in particular, was devastating; further, it symbolised the end of an emancipated sexuality and freedom and tolerance that had drawn Hockney and many others to LA in the 1960s. The contribution made by Hockney as an artist to the Gay Liberation movement from the 1960s is examined by Edmund White in his catalogue essay, 'The Lineaments of Desire':

From the very beginning, literature, homosexual desire and tributes to friends came together as sources in David Hockney's work. He would remain true to these three influences until the present. Hockney took up gay subject matter before almost anyone else - and the amazing thing is that he got away with it ... Hockney's cool detachment and our sense that he has other, strictly artistic designs on us direct our attention away from all these smooth, bare buttocks.3

Hockney has said of his early works:

What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something that hadn't been propagandised, especially among students, as a subject: homosexuality. I felt it should be done. Nobody else would use it as a subject because it was part of me; it was a subject I could treat humorously. I loved the line, 'We two boys together clinging'; it's a marvellous, beautiful, poetic line.4

A characteristic of Hockney's portraiture is the manner in which he has used the same sitters over many decades. Celia Birtwell has remained one of Hockney's closest friends. She is one of the few women to be painted and drawn by Hockney. He describes her thus:

Celia has a beautiful face, a very rare face with lots of things in it which appeal to me. It shows aspects of her, like her intuitive knowledge and her kindness, which I think is the greatest virtue. To me she's such a special person … Portraits aren't just made up of drawing, they are made up of other insights as well. Celia is one of the few girls I know really well. I've drawn her so many times and knowing her makes it always slightly different. I don't bother getting the likeness in her face because I know it so well. She has many faces and I think if you looked through all the drawings I've done of her, you'd see that they don't look alike.5

Celia Birtwell, who first sat for Hockney in 1969, recently observed:

He's an amusing person. He's got a sense of irony and wit that appears in his work. And he's totally devoted to his art. Nothing comes in the way of David painting. He's no young man anymore, but the energy and passion is just as strong. It's something that is within him. Never fussy, never cute - just right.5

'David Hockney Portraits' reflects the artist's loyalty to lifelong friends that, when viewed en masse in the exhibition, makes a powerfully humanist stance. The portraits of Gregory Evans are a case in point. Evans has remained a close companion, assistant and model for over 30 years. The languid 'Gregory Leaning Nude' is intimate, evoking the tender relationship between artist and subject. He is reminiscent of the noble boys in Botticelli's painting, the archetypal young man of classical literature. The drawings of John Fitzherbert, with whom Hockney has lived in Los Angeles and London for the past decade, are particularly fine. Informal poses while travelling, or going about daily life - sleeping, reading, cooking - exude a tender acceptance of life and self.

In 2002, David Hockney sat for Lucian Freud, whose working method was somewhat different to Hockney's. Freud required Hockney to sit for almost 100 hours. Hockney, on the other hand, took just over a day to complete his portrait of Freud. Using the traditional medium of watercolour, Hockney employs quite a different approach. Watercolour was never intended in the manner in which Hockney now uses it. He writes:

Overcoming the technical difficulties of the watercolour medium for large-scale works was a solvable problem. The main difficulty is that washes have to be put on horizontally, but drawing really has to be done vertically to enable one to see it. As this all developed it opened out the medium, leading eventually to the large double portraits.6

Each couple in the double portraits are seated on the same swivel chairs, against the same floorboards. Four sheets of paper are placed together so that the overall size is over a metre high (one large sheet would buckle under the weigh of the moisture in the paint). Watercolour is not, however, an easy medium for portraiture, or on this scale. Where oil paint can be scraped and overpainted, any mark in watercolour cannot properly be removed. Overpainting becomes muddy, the paper support can be damaged. Watercolour is ideally suited to small-scale landscapes - the washes revealing light and suggesting atmosphere. Hockney has chosen watercolour, however, for its fluid, quick application so that the 'double portrait' is captured in a single sitting as opposed to the separate sittings of each individual (traditionally used in a double or group portrait). Hockney's ambition is to capture the relationship between his sitters.

As with his own appearance, Hockney manages in his portraits to co-ordinate and orchestrate shoes, clothing, the arrangement of feet, the placement of hands and the bases of the swivel chairs in an original and flamboyant formal arrangement that is utterly human and aesthetically satisfying. Hockney's love and admiration of his friends as subjects are conveyed to the viewer with a sense of great immediacy - the economy of line, the gorgeous colour - so that when one looks at the splendid portraits of Henry Geldzahler, who loved flamboyant outfits and posing for Hockney, one wants to know him better. When one reads of his death, and Hockney's recollection, 'I expected him to grow into a marvellous, crotchety old man. I would have enjoyed that', and looks at the drawings of Henry on his deathbed, one experiences a great sense of loss. Hockney imbues his own personal loss with a universal poignancy and great compassion.

Hockney's friend, Marco Livingstone, the subject of several portraits and the author of the essay in the Encounters catalogue7 wrote 'Sitting for Hockney', in David Hockney: Painting on Paper (2003). In it, he reveals many of the artist's motives and methods:

In every case, no matter what the relationship, Hockney was interested in capturing not just the appearance of the sitters but something of their psychology and their interaction with each other. This, he soon discovered, was most visible from their body language: whether they acknowledged each other's presence from the way they sat or seemed to exist in separate spheres; whether they touched or at least approached each other, or seemed on the other hand to be recoiling; whether they seemed at ease and affectionate or tense and mistrustful.8

David Hockney has always been a fine draughtsman and committed to traditional skills in art. For years now, he has campaigned for figurative art. Although he always placed great importance on drawing and painting, he has also been interested in experiments in photography and computer-assisted art. In 1999, Hockney quite amazed the art world with his publication of Secret Knowledge (Thames and Hudson, London). His study revealed that the Old Masters of Western art had often used optical devices. Thames and Hudson have recently (2006) republished this title.

The 'Twelve Portraits After Ingres in a Uniform Style' (1999-2000), shown in the National Gallery's exhibition 'Encounters: New Art from Old' in 2000, consist of 12 portraits of uniformed National Gallery attendants. They were drawn from life in Hockney's London studio between 16 December 1999 and 11 January 2000. As with many recent works, these portraits were drawn in a single session lasting between three and five hours. They are lively, intense and individual.

On his return to Los Angeles, Hockney began to play about with his drawn images, photocopying and enlarging parts of the drawings. Photo collages such as 'My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov 1982' (1982) are remarkable and original images. Seen alongside drawings and etchings, one can link his masterly use of space with the large-scale landscapes and opera sets he did in the USA.

The resulting fractured images, which recall the post-Cubist experiments of his photocollages of the early 1980s exaggerate the imposing physical presence of the figures and call their attention to the way that their personality and identity are conveyed as much through their manual gestures as through their physiognomy and facial expression. Created with the assistance of a photo-mechanical process, these 'copies' also bring full circle the dialogue with lenses and optical instruments that lay behind the creation of the original drawings themselves, for which he had availed himself of a camera lucida.9

In the late 1970s, Hockney became intensely interested in the work of Ingres - especially in his technique - believing that Ingres might have used an optical device known as a camera lucida, patented in 1807. It was, Hockney believed, used to create a quick likeness of a sitter unknown to the artist. It is 'essentially nothing more than a small prism (mounted at the end of a metal arm) through which the subject is refracted and reconstituted as a virtual image on a sheet of paper'.10

Hockney corresponded with a number of people on the subject, including art historian Professor Martin Kemp (University of Oxford), whose book The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat (London, 1990) was of great interest to Hockney, who drew Kemp's portrait with a camera lucida on 22 June 1999. Speaking of Hockney, Kemp recalls his first meeting:

All artists are intelligent, but not all are intelligent in that articulate way. He had extraordinary curiosity. Not long after that, I sat for him. He was doing a series of camera lucida drawings. He used the camera, for no more than two minutes, as a basic mapping device of the facial features as they were at a particular moment. All the rest is then 'eyeballed', as he called it - directly looking at someone. He was sitting very close to me. It's a kind of mental striptease because nobody ever looks at you that hard. That ferocity of scrutiny - of your nose and your eyes or whatever - is wonderfully disconcerting, to have two eyes tick-tocking from the paper to you with searing concentration.11

By the time Hockney returned to London in December 1999 to work on the National Gallery portraits, he had produced some 280 drawings with the same device. Hockney then wrote his radical and controversial Secret Knowledge to consolidate his research into the use of optical devices and lenses used by artists from the Renaissance to the 19th century. As Livingstone points out, the camera lucida enabled Hockney to learn a great deal about the topography of faces. As the present exhibition shows, Hockney has been an accomplished portraitist from the 1960s (the ink portraits display his great skill and sensitivity to the sitter). The work he did with the camera lucida enabled him to work with a great variety of individuals, to scrutinise faces of all ages and types. One of the compelling aspects of the portrait show is the great range of individuals - parents, lovers, National Gallery attendants, famous actors, playwrights, authors, designers and artists. It is an organic, unpretentious celebration of life and acceptance of mortality.

Armed with this knowledge of the subtle ways in which every feature varies from person to person, the task of finding a likeness no longer carried with it the anxiety that it might once have had for him. Confident now that he could capture this aspect of any sitter, he was free to turn his attention to other matters both visual - tone, colour, texture - and psychological. Painting the whole figure rather than just the head and shoulders and then multiplying it by two, and doing so on a nearly life-sized scale, Hockney knew that the resulting portraits would have a commanding presence and complexity. Taking pride in the fact these meticulously observed and naturalistic figures were made without any cameras or photographic references, he had found a fresh and lively way of making portraits by hand for the 21st century.8

In David Hockney: Painting on Paper (London, 2003), Hockney points out that after the publication of Secret Knowledge, further optical experiments were carried out and a film made for BBC Omnibus. Hockney's conclusion was that 'the hand is now returning to the camera, through the computer. It all leads me back to painting'. The artist acknowledges that two exhibitions were important influences on his new body of work: the exhibition of Chinese painting at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (2002) and 'The American Sublime' (2002) exhibition at Tate Britain, which he attended three times. Hockney has always been attracted to the open spaces of the American West. In the 19th-century paintings on show at the Tate, he identified that there was, in fact, a quality missing. He realised that it was concerned with the fact that the task of the artists and photographers who accompanied the geological expeditions into the new frontier was primarily to 'record'.

In 1860, photography was in its infancy, then being only 20 years old, and was revered as being able to capture 'truth'. Consequently, painters imitated photographers and, in doing so, removed any sign of the brush or the artist's hand. The same occurred in academic painting in France; and yet, from about 1860, artists such as Monet and Cézanne put texture and subjective response back into their painting. A major influence for Impressionist artists was Japanese art, a non-Western view. It is to Chinese art with its bird's eye view that Hockney has recently turned for a more 'human' touch or evocation of landscape. His choice of other subject matter, such as bonsai trees and cherry blossom, and his feel for the decorative elements of a picture, all support another way of seeing than the tradition Western view. 'David Hockney Portraits' is a testament to the intelligence, integrity and humanity of the artist's life and work.

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Steiner G. On Difficulty and Other Essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
2. Howgate S, Stern Shapiro B, Glazebrook M, White E, Livingstone M. David Hockney Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, London, 2006.
3. White E. The Lineaments of Desire. In: ibid: 48.
4. Ibid: 49.
5. Notes on Sitters. In: Howgate S, Shapiro BS, Glazebrook M, White E, Livingstone M. David Hockney Portraits. National Portrait Gallery, London, 2006: 222.
6. He can see deeper than the skin. Interviews by Natalie Hanman. The Guardian, 8 September 2006: 15.
7. Hockney D. Foreword. In: David Hockney: Painting on Paper. London: Annely Juda Fine Art, 2003.
8. Livingstone M. Sitting for Hockney. In: David Hockney: Painting on Paper. London: Annely Juda Fine Art, 2003.
9. Livingstone M. David Hockney. In: Morphett R (ed). Encounters: New Art From Old. London: National Gallery, 2000: 157.
10. Ibid: 158.
12. He can see deeper than the skin. Interviews by Natalie Hanman. The Guardian, 8 September 2006: 14.

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