While walking into Tate Britain, my companion commented how much she would like someone to record all the things that children say while walking around art galleries; sure enough, the new Hockney exhibition provided such entertainment. As we walked into a tightly packed first room, a parent was comforting a small crying child who commented, “Daddy, I don’t like it!” Such a strong reaction (aversion) elicited smiles and giggles from the surrounding people, who had been busy intently examining the tensions, humour and exuberant colour of the art. This exhibition, displaying until the 29th May, chronicles Hockney’s life’s work, from a small graphite self-portrait from 1954 to the interactive works he has recently drawn on iPads, and thus takes you on a journey through the life of one of the most celebrated artists alive today.
Hockney was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, and through this exhibition he promised to showcase his adventures both at home and abroad, exhibiting “his portraits and images of Los Angeles swimming pools, through to his drawings and photography, Yorkshire landscapes and most recent painting”. Focusing on these different eras and subjects, the exhibition exudes both a real sense of calm and, sometimes, a feeling of unease as you walk between Hockney’s various inspirations and explore the works that arose from them.
Our guide told us bluntly that “Many of his pictures are about making and looking at pictures”, and immediately to the left hand side in the first room is a large painting called 4 Blue Stools (2014). The painting depicts a room in an art gallery, with works dotted systematically around the walls and people in various conversations and scenarios amongst chairs, household plans, and several blue stools. The same people appear more than once in the picture, but with the chairs circling the circumference of the room, the painted gallery looks more like a support group meeting than an explorative work. This piece had a confessional air and, through acting as a form of mirror for us standing in the real gallery, instantly posed a question of how comfortable we as viewers should be.
This first room, entitled “Play Within a Play”, also houses a painting of the same name painted in 1963, which was based on a photograph of his friend, with his subject covered by a real shard of glass. According to the exhibition brochure, the glass paradoxically suggests that “what appears to be real is an illusion; what appears to be an illusion is actually there”. The shard itself, however, is not shaped as a perfect rectangle, but instead expands as it moves toward the bottom, diagonally crossing a chair in the piece in a fragmented motion. Directly opposite this picture sat Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait (1977), where the artist’s legs are missing entirely beneath the table where he sits. Through these pictures, the notion of sitting comfortably in this exhibition is implicitly dismissed before you moved through to the next room.
The next room rewinds to the beginning, celebrating Hockney’s early work at art school. It features square figures, small quotes within paintings, and an erotic vision of two figures brushing their teeth simultaneously. There is also a large depiction of a box of Typhoo tea, Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961), which features a human figure melted into the tea’s packaging. There were no soothing qualities you would usually associate with a hot beverage in this piece, but instead the image of a body consumed by the blood-red packaging, disappearing beneath the blazing white font. Hockney would revisit the image of tea later in two studies of Breakfast at Malibu (1989), which featured tea being served in two delicate sets, a far cry from this earlier, shocking image. It was this contrast of delicacy and brutality that came up again and again in the exhibition, from wild landscapes sitting behind neatly potted plants, to The Four Seasons (2010), which followed the same road in Yorkshire over contrasting times of the year.
The viewer’s attention is also moved towards Hockney’s observations of people. While the collection examined the interactions of body language, the lack of eye contact in these works was stark. In a room entitled “Paintings with People in”, only one painting, The Hypnotist (1963), which depicts an older man staring intently into the eyes of a youthful man, depicts two subjects looking at each other, with their gaze the focal point of the piece. To draw attention to this, Hockney even painted a thunderbolt between the two pairs of eyes, as if to portray both a confrontation and a seduction of willpower as the hypnotist takes control.
We continued to move through the exhibition, surrounded by iconic pictures such as A Bigger Splash (1967). As we wandered, we looked with fascination at many of Hockney’s subjects, from swimmers to art collectors, and found a picture of his family, My Parents (1977). It is noticeable that Hockney depicts his parents with an air of real tenderness, as his mother sits in regal blue staring out while his father browses a book to her left. I had begun to notice Hockney’s use of hands as we moved around: seemingly melting in some pictures and non-existent in others. His mother’s hands rest peacefully on her lap while his father, barely acknowledging the existence of anyone else, cradle the pages of the book, and I couldn’t help but sense an emotional attachment of the artist towards these subjects in this delicate piece.
When it comes to observations of home, Hockney is not afraid to challenge himself. Just as The Hypnotist saw a confrontation between two gazes, the earliest self-portrait in the collection is placed directly opposite another self-portrait drawn nearly 30 years later, in 1983. Staring directly into his own eyes from across the gallery, there is little need for drawn thunderbolts as the viewer’s gaze moves from one to the other as Hockney challenges even his own changing perspectives by placing his younger and older selves in a perpetual staring contest.
As we moved into the room entitled “A Bigger Photograpy”, we began to experience Hockney’s work with photographs more fully: building collages of small polaroids to depict American highways and a lone swimmer following a seemingly random pathway in a swimming pool. In a corner, Hockney has built a collage of his own mother, which was easily my favourite work in the exhibition. It explored frailty and vulnerability like no other piece in the collection, seeing her sit quietly amongst old gravestones wrapped head to toe in a large anorak. She neither challenged your gaze nor accepted your presence, the only suggestion of company appearing in the artist’s shoes at the bottom of the collage, but instead looking sadly into the distance.
The final painting, The Card Players (2015), shows three men sitting around a drawing table gambling intently, with a painting on the wall behind them. None of the painting’s subjects are looking at this artwork, but the external viewer immediately notices that the painting behind the figures is the same as the Hockney painting containing them, but with a fourth man present. This figure’s absence from the scene in the foreground piques the viewer’s curiosity and Hockney’s exhibition thus finishes as it started: with the same implicit challenge to the viewer to think about their own gaze and to forge their own interpretations. In truth, this is an exhibition about which I could have written much more. There are tensions and parallels and Hockney continues to references his own works as we move through the rooms. After we left, I walked into another (anonymous) room in the gallery, which I wandered around for some minutes before I realised that I had stopped looking at any of the paintings. Having just seen such an exuberance of colour, it paled (pun intended) in comparison and I started to walk back towards the Hockney exhibition. Then I saw the queue…
David Hockney is on display at Tate Britain until the 29th of May. More information and tickets can be found here.