David Hockney at Tate Britain: To Go or Not to Go?

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David Hockney’s paintings never really grabbed me. I was familiar with some of his iconic yet dissimilar works such as We Two Boys Together Clinging and A Bigger Splash. I knew both were considered “important” but never really knew why. I couldn’t get too enthusiastic about his 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy.

Tate Britain in London announces it is showing the first ever exhibition that covers the sixty years of Hockney’s work. After some reflection, I get on a plane.

The exhibition is causing quite some excitement in the UK and even on the BBC. I am determined not to be swept up by the hype. If I am disappointed or confused by the exhibition, I am going to say so. Harsh critic, me! The day does not start well. Yesterday’s visit to the dentist is proving painful. I am crammed in a commuter train. It is cold and raining hard. I arrive at Tate Britain fifteen minutes before the doors open. A crowd has already gathered. Friendly staff eventually unlock and let us all in. We drip our way across the marble floor to get in line to check our umbrellas and soaked coats. By the time I am in the first room of the exhibition, it is packed. A child is crying loudly. At this point, I consider walking out. But, with aching jaw, I decide to shuffle along with the rest of middle-class England. A man in a tweed jacket say to his wife “He was gay, you know!” She replies “Well, never mind, dear!”

The exhibition occupies twelve spaces arranged by chronolgy and/or influences. After my first tour, I go around again with the audio guide. I buy the handsome 270-page catalogue. I return the following day. This show is monumental in its scope and presentation. It contains some exceptionally beautiful pictures. To say I am bowled over is an understatement. Exhibitions will never be the same. Tate Britain makes manifest something about David Hockney that has previously eluded me; that he is Britain’s best-known living picture-maker because he is a towering genius. Yes, my opinion is modified somewhat!

We have to be “wowed” these days. As (or if) you view the Hockney exhibition, do not expect to be wowed by everything. Do not even expect to be wowed by the majority of his pictures; you will be wowed by some. What will certainly wow you is to reach the final space having glimpsed the sixty year creative trajectory and the staggering output of a man whose life is dedicated not only to picture-making but also, and more importantly, to addressing the inadequacies of all means of picture–making when it comes to representing in two dimensions the world we see and move in. My road to Damascus moment comes after viewing and reviewing Hockney’s life, influences and pictures along and in light of this trajectory.

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“We Two Boys Together Clinging” 1961 Oil on board 122cm x 152cm

The first room (A Play Within a Play) establishes a critical element of Hockney’s work. This is that a person’s visual perception of the picture is taken into account; the spectator is challenged, intrigued, amused, teased, confronted or manipulated. The collection from the early 1960s in the second room (Demonstrations of Versatility) amply demonstrates the 25 year-old Hockney’s disdain for painting’s protocols and etiquette and his rejection of social convention. His work at that time has been labelled both “pop” and “abstract expressionism.” In Hockney’s view, neither term applies. The paintings outrageously promulgate his homosexuality at a time when it was illegal. They are difficult to like. However, they show that whatever trajectory young Hockney was on, it was never going to be ordinary.

The next three rooms (Paintings with People In, Sunbather and Towards Naturalism) show Hockney abandoning his previous style and slowly progressing towards naturalism. This phase is closely linked to his love affair with California which began when he moved there in 1964. Expansive canvases show illusional domestic scenes, couples in relationships, sun-blessed swimming pools, light on water and glass, bare-bottomed young men, palm trees and a squeaky clean suburban Los Angeles. The later paintings are precisely executed. He waves two fingers at the Abstract Expressionists when he points out that the splash of his A Bigger Splash was meticulously painted with a small brush over weeks.

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A Bigger Splash 1967 Acrylic on canvas 242cm x 244cm

In the last of these three rooms are two paintings that in different ways reveal the full extent of Hockney’s technical mastery of painting. Mt. Fuji and Flowers (1974) and Contre-Jour in the French Style (1974) are both mesmerisingly beautiful.

The exhibition leads us on to a room (Close Looking) that contains sketches from Hockney’s extensive travels and some truly exquisite drawn portraits. They provide a welcome break from the preceding huge canvases. This room is particularly popular with other viewers; they take much longer to stop and discuss. It prepares us for what comes next (A Bigger Photography.)

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The Scrabble Game 1983 Photographic collage 99cm x 147cm

Hockney found photography an inadequate means to make pictures. He felt it was limited by the one-point perspective and the “frozen moment” of the image. Allowing himself the influence of cubism, he embarked on a process involving hundreds of photographs per work that resulted in some of the most arresting pictures – including portraits – ever produced by this medium. Fast forward four rooms to The Four Seasons (2010-2011.) On each wall of a square hang nine crystal-clear video screens that show a coordinated nine-screen-slo-mo-scene of the same English country lane; but each wall is dedicated to one of the four seasons. I am captivated and abandon any attempt to find adequate words. I steal them from the catalogue: “high-def post cubist movie”! And Hockney’s extraordinary digital adventure has only just begun!

The three intervening rooms (Experiences of Space, Experiences of Place and The Wolds) comprise large brightly coloured canvases painted from the early 1980s through to 2009. People move past them quickly. Experiences of Space is strongly influenced by Picasso and Chinese scroll painting as Hockney freely admits. These paintings also reflect Hockney’s interest in the design of theatre sets. Perspective is flattened and one’s eye is forced to move around the fragments of the composition. The provenance of Experiences of Place is Hockney’s draw to wide open spaces. It is the least approachable part of the whole exhibition. The three garish renditions of the Grand Canyon do not work as landscape pictures. The Wolds brings Hockney back to England. These large, bright, multi-canvas, non-naturalistic landscapes are certainly intriguing but don’t set my senses a-buzz.

The penultimate room (Yorkshire and Hollywood) contains 25 closely mounted, stunning charcoal drawings from 2013 of a springtime Yorkshire woodland. Shortly after their completion, Hockney returned to his home in Hollywood where, in 2015, he completed his most recent large canvases of his garden and famous blue balcony. Hockney is now 80 years old. Is the juxtaposition of the spring drawings with these paintings to be seen as a kind of beginning and end? Are we about to arrive in the final scene of an epic film?

I stand in the middle of the last room (iPads) surrounded by his digital paintings done between 2009 and 2016. Some evolve as I watch. I am enthralled as an original Hockney of a small cactus in a red pot in a blue mug on a yellow tablecloth appears in front of me over two minutes. Every style, subject, influence and medium finds its way onto these screens. His extraordinary trajectory is encapsulated here. It is the most brilliant summary of his life’s work and of the exhibition. It is also his legacy. However, I suspect Hockney’s trajectory is yet to come to ground. Whilst this room may, in reality and metaphorically, represent the final scenes of Hockney’s blockbuster, there is a hint of more to come; another episode. A bigger exhibition even?

So, here’s what I think. This is the most important, beautiful and satisfying exhibition you will see. Go! Even if you are determined to dislike or dismiss Hockney’s work, go! Mix with the crowd! Get stuck in! Lap it all up! Be outraged! Be awed!

All images of David Hockney’s work are reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

The poet who saved St Pancras station

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Copyright: Hufton & Crow

St Pancras station, London. It’s many years. I had forgotten just how huge it is. The exterior is now impeccably maintained and inside there are clean brick walls and arcades of shiny, stylish boutiques. I wander around marvelling at the elaborate Victorian architecture and the massive iron vaulting of the train-shed roof. In its day, it was known as the cathedral of British Railways and would have been full of the noise, smoke and steam of the great trains of that era.

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On the upper level of the concourse, I find a wonderful bronze statue of my very favourite poet, the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjemen (1906-1984.) He is depicted as a friendly, academic, rather paunchy figure in a well worn three piece suit with tie askew and coat tails flapping. He has to hang onto his hat to gaze up in awe at Barlow’s girdered sky. He foregoes a briefcase for a canvas hold-all in which, I imagine, there are reams of paper with all sorts of lines about seaside golf and Miss Joan Hunter Dunn. He looks like such a nice old guy. I am sure that a conversation with him would have been a life-enriching experience. Here, he stands on a flat disc of Cumbria slate inscribed with lines from Cornish CliffsAnd in the shadowless unclouded glare / Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where / A misty sea-line meets the wash of air. 

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Betjemen was fascinated by the architecture and railways of Victorian times. In the 1960s, a plan to demolish St Pancras station was unveiled. He referred to this as “criminal folly.” He is now considered instrumental in the campaign that saved this great London landmark. In 2007, when the station became the international terminus for Eurostar, the sculpture was commissioned as a tribute to him.

This beautiful and touching sculpture is the work of Oxford-based Martin Jennings. His figurative style has led him to undertake similar public works of other great names including Charles Dickens and Philip Larkin. His subjects are not exclusively from the literary world, he has also commemorated in bronze the lives of two people who in different ways have advanced care for people wounded in conflict; namely, the Jamaican-born nurse, Mary Seacole who assisted wounded servicemen in the Crimean War and the World War II plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe.

On leaving St Pancras, I notice that a bar in the corner is called…. guess what….. “The John Betjemen”! To be remembered by a fabulous public sculpture and to have a bar bearing one’s name is a double honour. Then I guess you merit both if you wrote wonderful poems and saved a station.

More Geneva cave paintings!

One of our readers, Sari Setiogi, has photographed and curated a fantastic collection of Geneva cave paintings on her Instagram. Which one do you like the most?

Nuts in Marrakesh!

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I arrive at the Sofitel in Marrakesh. I am here for golf! Helpful porters haul my luggage and clubs into a sumptuous lobby. The welcome is warm. The receptioniste is charming. To help me through the formalities of check-in, she offers me a glass of refreshing green tea. A plate appears at my side with cashew nuts, pistachio nuts and little sweet coconut cakes covered with almond nuts. Lots of nuts! I am shown to my room. It is charming and comfortable. I relax on my small balcony. On the small table are some peanuts. More nuts! In the distance, I hear the call to prayer. Allah-U-Akbar!

Something caught my eye at the hotel entrance. I have to go back and take another look. I stare up at a magnificent black bull with bright red testicles. I can’t help being amused as such an overt display of masculine gonadism might be just a tad out of place in this town.

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This is the work of French designer, painter, sculptor (and golfer!) Alain Gerez. His sculptures are particularly popular here and many of them make manifest a rather naughty sense of humour. This big black bull is a bald, tongue-in-cheek tribute to testosterone. The beast seems to dance with Y chromosome-driven joy. His left horn, blood-stained, has just done in the matador that tormented him. Poor dumb animal that he is, he doesn’t realise that the meatworks await him nevertheless. His only present thought is that, free of his tormentor, he can now waltz off to give his cows a good licking and then fill them with the output of those two great swinging red orbs.

Testicles: the family jewels, balls, bollocks, knackers and, of course, nuts. Whatever, I can’t help suspecting that Monsieur Gerez finds great amusement in his contribution to the variety of nuts in Marrakesh!

Art Geneva 2017 opens on a frozen lakeside

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Geneva’s waterfront is blisteringly cold. A bruising north wind still blows off the water after last night’s storm. Swimming is definitely forbidden!

Well, it’s that time of year… but, exceptionally, it’s -6 degrees. Some hardy souls struggle to set up the fabulous lakeside big-sculpture extension of Art Geneva 2017 that opens next week. What I see enthralls me; imaginative, meticulous and outsized beautiful stuff.

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A massive white orchid turns away from the dull grey waves. Despite its pure glacial whiteness, it is delicate and bi-sexually erotic. I search in vain for a little plaque bearing the name of the master-sculptor.

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Just a hundred metres away is a  timber-diamond construction with windows (as yet unattributed). Again, somehow this gels with the subzero settings. I feel I am invited to climb into the mineral heart of this absurdly large wooden gem for shelter and to peer out. An after-thought arrives; whilst inside, I might even be able to make it roll in a semi-circle by a kind of lop-sided hamster-wheel effort.

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Really! How do people think these things up? I can only admire the fantasy-addled mind that created this three-chimneyed hobbit house with its five rooty entrances. If I was rabbit-sized I would hop in without doubt. What I love about it is that the invoked fantasy places me as the in-dweller observing today’s vicious elements from behind the thick glass of a ship-style port hole that, with arrival of the year’s first warm days, could be opened for the spring clean. Brilliant!

After ten minutes my frozen hands can no longer take photographs. I head for cover in a nearby café. I trust other works will appear when the weather permits. Give it a few days and take a stroll by the lakeside. Just admire the creative spirit behind this stuff! Wrap up warm!