For a joyful hour or two, go see David Hockney at Tate Britain

The David Hockney exhibition opens this week at Tate Britain in London and it’s a glorious feast for the eyes, a sensorial overload not to be missed.

“…. you would have to be very determined not to yield to joy and the memory of love, and youth and sheer pleasure in life”.  Philip Hensher


“Inspiration does not visit the lazy”.

 David Hockney on Tchaikovsky 

Since the death of Lucian Freud in 2011,  David Hockney is arguably Britain’s greatest living artist, even a national treasure.   Born in Yorkshire,  he studied at the Royal College of Art where he quickly gained recognition and shortly afterwards inevitable fame when he produced those iconic swimming pool scenes in the 1960s.

Despite his age, almost 80, he is still searching for different ways to represent the imagines of daily scenes using painting, drawing, photography and video but most of all he is clearly fascinated by people and places.  Human beings have a deep need for pictures he said, they are one of the means of understanding the world around us.

Mindful always that the purpose of art is not decorative but a means of provoking,  inspiring, perhaps even on occasion to enrage us, but mostly its purpose is to challenge us and our judgments and assumptions of the world.   Viewing Hockney’s woodland paintings comprising large canvases grouped together to create a single image, one is instinctively moved by his infectious joie-de-vivre.

Walking around the twelve exhibition rooms at Tate Britain, you get the feeling that Hockney must be a very happy and contented man and yet …… and yet, there is tragedy too. Many of his friends died of Aids in the 1980s so perhaps this is why he seems to take great delight in life because he has been one of the lucky ones.   In one of my favourite quotes from him this last week he said “…. laughter is the best medicine. You know why, because when you are laughing you have the least fear in your body.  Essential.  I have at least two good laughs a day…”  Perhaps that’s why my children tell me to watch YouTube videos for ten minutes a day.

Never a religious man, he volunteers,  “I’ve never really had faith.  I believe in Lucretius.   He lived 100 years before Christ so he’s seen as a pagan, but he said this is the only life we have, why not live it well and get on with our neighbours and things like that.  Everything he said made sense.”.  Hockney retains that wicked sense of humour and when it comes to death he says, “Italians had these buildings that always reminded them of death – they were called churches! Death comes to us all.”

Hockney sounds like a man who takes his work seriously but not himself and maybe that is the ultimate reward for a life lived to the full.  During his BBC interview he is asked to identify his least favourite painting in the show, “none” he says , adding “I’m not that good but not that terrible either.”    For someone so accomplished, he is surprisingly self deprecating evidently lacking any pomposity.

The paintings of his elderly parents are touching and evocative, his mother’s bent foot, his father reading intently on a chair too high so that his heels are lifting off the floor.  The humour in his painting of his mother sitting inside wearing her coat.  A contemporary of Andy Warhol, his Californian paintings of his friends are vibrant and energetic and shows         that figurative painting can express the energy of youth and the excitement of the moment. He fell in love with Santa Monica and painted many of its scenes.  He loved its open spaces and considered California to be the promised land.

One should not underestimate Hockney because his work is bright, brash and frivolous rather there is an intellectual curiosity, depth and rigour that he wears lightly.  He has travelled widely and reads constantly currently Frankopan’s The Silk Roads which argues that Persia was the font of all our culture.  Hockney thinks about the serious purpose of art and points out that the Chinese have the right idea, i.e, “you need three things for painting: the hand, the eye and the heart.  Two is simply not enough”.  Perhaps something to bear in mind when looking at a work of art in the future.

Hockney is a prolific painter who takes inspiration from the composer Tchaikovsky, “Inspiration, she does not visit the lazy…with inspiration you have got to start work first and then you get inspired”.  Though I’m no artist that’s the quote I’ve now stuck to my bedside table.

Picasso is one of Hockney’s heroes and one he always hoped to emulate saying, “I deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sort of picture like Picasso”.   Hockney has a remarkable versatility, the paintings are well recognised, but he is also accomplished at drawing particularly charcoal on paper and his film work shows the breadth of his imagination.  His picture collages are intriguing and effective –  he takes various shots from slightly different angles to create a sense of movement.   One might expect such a combination to result in an incoherent jumble but these portraits work and the result is compelling.  In reality, when we look at a person our eyes are moving by the nanosecond and the image we form in our minds when we think of a person is always composite.  This is what Hockney manages to capture brilliantly in the photographic experiments.

I must admit that normally at exhibitions, computer visuals get no more than a cursory glance from me.  So imagine my surprise at the involuntary visual pull from computer generated images and short multi screen video films shown on 36 monitors.  Words cannot adequately describe the visual impact but it is dazzling.   Hockney has taken full advantage of the latest technology depicting a celebration of the miracle of the seasons.  Scenes of spring, summer, autumn and winter focus on the exact same place in Woodgate Woods and it is a joy to sit and immerse yourself in this glorious setting.

Despite his love for California, Hockney is evidently deeply rooted in his native landscape.  Even in relation to the turmoil of British politics he says,  “Brexit didn’t surprise me totally because I’d been living in provincial Britain.  The power has spread to the people because that’s what the iPhone has done” he told the Sun.

One of my favourite things to do at exhibitions is to take a few minutes to remain perfectly still, take my eyes off the artwork and watch the reactions of other visitors in the room.  So if you are in London and get a chance to go see the show, it will not disappoint, I promise you.  Hockney’s last show at the Royal Academy on Piccadilly a few years ago attracted a record audience, almost one million visitors.  This show at Tate Britain will be crowded at peak times but the bonus is the gallery is open till 11pm on Friday nights so no excuse.  Enjoy.  Smile on departure.


“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy” .  Tchaikovsky

For in-depth reviews of the Hockney exhibition see the following publications: Event Magazine, Spectator, The Sunday Times, The Sun and Tate etc.

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