Tate Britain: exhilarating and exhausting

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Tate Britain bowls me over again. In one hit – in retrospect, a mistake – I get to take in the work of Vincent Van Gogh and Don McCullin with Mike Nelson as the bonus prize. These three stunning exhibitions could not be more different. I only have the morning. I move through them perhaps too quickly; the resulting cocktail of emotions takes me surprise.

Van Gogh came to London in 1873 at the age of twenty; he lived here for three years. England and english people inspired him; when his work became well-known, he in turn inspired English writers and painters.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Prison Courtyard” Oil on canvas 1890 (after Gustave Doré, “The exercise yard at Newgate Prison” Engraving on paper 1872.)

Long after leaving England, he painted a prison exercise yard. This was inspired by a fascination for London’s seedy underbelly and descriptions of the city’s prisons by Charles Dickens: a writer whom the young painter admired greatly.

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Vincent Van Gogh “Starry night” Oil on canvas, 1888

Years after his death in 1890, Van Gogh’s work was labelled “post-impressionism.” Some found the style shocking but exhibitions of his paintings in London drew thousands. The hall-mark brushstroke technique was eagerly adopted by the Camden Town Group of painters.

Soothed and enchanted by Vincent’s starry, starry night, I believe myself ready for Don McCullin. Wrong again!

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Don McCullin “Londonderry, Northern Ireland” 1971

Don McCullin is a legend. This comprehensive show covers his extraordinary sixty-year photographic trajectory through the world’s worst trouble – misery spots. There is a reason that the Tate has an advisory notice pertaining to his images. Much of the subject matter is heart-wrenching; the outstanding quality of the (self-printed!) photographs only serves to make them more powerful still. And there are hundreds of them. I recoil from the man-made suffering, the executions, the starvation and the dead bodies. It cuts just that bit close to my bone. I notice that the many viewers fuse into a sort of silent, shuffling, heavy-weight-around-neck chain gang tasked with looking at McCullin’s photos. Some of us loiter around his own escapism in the relatively few but exquisite landscapes and still-life studies.

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Don McCullin “Shell-shocked US Marine, the battle of Hué” 1968

I confine my focus to his portraits. Even these can be harrowing. Probably the best known is the Vietnam shell-shocked American soldier of whom he took several photos and who neither moved nor blinked over several minutes. In the trade, this is known as the “thousand-yard stare.” McCullin admits that receiving praise for photographing the suffering of others sits uncomfortably in his soul.

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Don McCullin “A boy at the funeral of his father who died of AIDS, Kawama cemetery, Ndola, Zambia” 2000

I try – and fail – to imagine how McCullin has been able to cope with the extreme insecurity and distress inherent in his chosen contexts and then function professionally and creatively. I leave this landmark exhibition steeped in admiration for the man, his endurance, his compassion and for what he has achieved with his talent.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

I literally stumble into the Duveen galleries; the main central space of Tate Britain. I am looking at some old telegraph poles and a section of a wide concrete pipe laid out on some canvases all in a kind of makeshift roofless shed.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

The galleries are full of old machinery and a variety of heavy objects mostly associated with manufacture. Everything sits on a neat stone plinth. Is it an industrial museum? Is it a contemporary installation? Is it a tongue-in-cheek collection of big old heavy mechanical and electric stuff. Well…. all of the above! And what’s more, it contrasts rather deliciously with the classic architecture of the space. What I am standing in – and enthralled by – is “The Asset Striipers” created by Mike Nelson for the annual Tate Britain Commission.

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Mike Nelson “The Asset Strippers” (part of) 2018

Nelson’s concept for the commission is that the Duveen Galleries become a kind of warehouse of objects that serve as monuments of Britain’s former industrial wealth just as the industrial is being superceded by the digital; as manufactrure is being superceded by service. To make the point, he selected and purchased all the objects through on-line auctions of asset strippers and company liquidators. I find the concept at once brilliant and intriguing.

Then suddenly I am drained. I feel as though I have just climbed off one of those roller-coaster rides that is supposed to be fun but, in reality, precipitates spells of wheeeeee… and white-knuckle nausea. I head for the main exit with a haste that surprises me. I find calm on Millbank; the black taxis, the River Thames and the unseasonably warm May London sunshine.

All images reproduced here thanks to Tate Britain.

My Father Celebrating Victory in Europe, May 1945

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My father, Michael, was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, London during World War II. I recently found an extraordinary letter that he wrote to his mother describing his part in the celebrations when the cease fire and Allied Victory in Europe were declared.

He was a part of the massive crowd that partied for three days and called the Royal Family out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace. His letter gives a fascinating insight into those events and people’s behaviour.

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The Royal Family at Buckingham Palace 8th May 1945. From left to right, Princess Elizabeth (to become Queen Elizabeth II), Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, King George VI and Princess Margaret. Copyright unknown

Take a look at this news reel of the day.

I can’t help thinking that World War II was the raison d’être for European unity; something that the UK is on the point of moving away from.


Talbot House,
42, Trinity Square,
LONDON E.C.3
14th May 1945

Dear Mother,

God, what a week ! Three days and three nights of jubilation, revelling and indulgence followed the “cease fire.”

Monday afternoon began it and I thought Wednesday would see the end of it – I left my heart, soul and voice in Trafalgar Square. But Thursday was the most strenuous of the lot.

On Monday night – the night of V.E. day, flags were going up everywhere. People were waiting – and tired of waiting – for the word “go” to begin their celebrations.

I arrived from Guy’s to find Miss Coulson brushing what the rats had left of what Coronation Day had left. A little bunting and a Union Jack were put up on the front of 42.

An old fellow with very blue eyes and a palid skin came up and asked me “Is it necessary ?” He went on – “I’ve lost my family…. Do you expect me to hang one out ?” Some would rejoice, having experienced the loss, that no more should die – others of course would not. The obvious remark was “Please yourself !” but I had not the heart to make it.

I set off to Charing Cross in perhaps a more philosophical mood which, however was soon lost when I came across a University of London procession which had been marching since 3.30 – it was now about 10.0. We marched round the Victoria Memorial several times and for an hour waited for the King who did not appear that night. Not many people had waited for the official proclamation and when our number had dwindled to about thirty we split up. Some of us went to Piccadilly – a  bunch of men and women from UCL and Bedford. The place was a riot, and until late at night – probably early morning – people were dancing the very wildest of dances – singing and shouting. 

I crawled in pretty late but was up early the next morning. I was a little tired. However, no stopping, it was V.E. day.

Everywhere people’s more sober feelings presided in the morning. A service at All Hallows at 11.0. A pint of beer, lunch at Lyons and a service at Southwark at 1.0. Just after 2.0 a bunch of us met some Royal Free people outside St. Georges and strung across the street we marched to Buckingham Palace.

There, crowds were gathering and for the first time I saw thousands herded and directed by mounted police with their wonderful horses under perfect control. It was too crowded and we went on to hear Churchill speak in Parliament Square – it was worse here.

That night we made a famous raid on Kings College, Strand, and captured – without opposition – Reggie (a stuffed lion), the best mascot in London – only once before stolen. Having seen it safely to Guys, Alan and I went to see the King and Queen at Buckingham Palace and hear his speech.

There were masses and masses – an ant hill disturbed was not in the picture. We managed to get to the Victoria Memorial and then lost each other. We waited nearly an hour amongst the panting and sweating crowd which was fainting in parts but growing all over. Big Ben and God Save the King were barely heard ; in fact, I doubt they would have been were it not for a sailor sitting right away up on one of the warriors of the Memorial. His position had temporarily endowed him with leadership. For once in his life he could control the reactions of people, he had the feelings of thousands (millions ?) in the palm of his hand. No one would have deprived him of his temporary glory – but, God how we cursed him later.

A great hush fell on the people, a lull in the storm, death to the struggling – indescribable, intense and intoxicating. “His Majesty the King” – that bloody sailor yelled and clapped – so, therefore, did very many others. We missed the beginning – not much it was true, but at the climax of the hour – two or three hours in some cases – the crowd nearly burst with anxiety.

The King said what was needed and very well – we waited in suspense to see him. Had the Royal Family appeared straight away things would not have been so bad. But we had waited close to half an hour after the speech and when they came out there was a swell of hysteria – a turmoil and each one fought for a fleeting glance. I had never seen any of the Royal Family before – they seemed far off and unreal – but there they were – there they really were ! It was tremendous. I was to get a closer look the next night. Once again I went up to Piccadilly and by amazing coincidence met a crew from Toc H. and together we entered the hilarious spirit of the masses. Tonight being “The” night – rejoicings were madder still. People were climbing up lamp posts, shouting, singing, dancing on shelter roofs and round great fires. These fires were built in the middle of the street from boarded up shop fronts, fences round bombed areas and mainly  “To Let” boards and anything else to be found. Eventually we wandered back putting “one foot in front of the other.” If I remember these days for anything, it will be the dire shortage of anything to drink anywhere near the celebrations. This in spite of the fact that I drank more these last few days than ever before.

The next day was quiet in the morning and afternoon – apart from a drink or two on the wards at 12.0 Before the fun began in the evening Alan and I went to a show at the Princes called “3 Waltzes” with Evelyn Laye – a very good show. We had 2/- gallery seats – most successful. Later we found 3 others from Guys and between us found a Wren each. Wrens make good land marks – they are always decent girls and ready for some fun (I tried my hand at some A.T.S. but they were not so forthcoming.) These Wrens were grand. They marched with us, where they helped us shout for Guys until we were 100 strong. Then down the Mall to Buckingham Palace where they danced with us, where they helped us raise the cheers of the crowd – always there – where we brought the King and Queen out of bed and let them know who we were. I saw them closer this time. They really were the King and Queen and no impersonating member of the kitchen staff – no picture in a paper or on a screen. The King and Queen in flesh and blood.

Yes, these Wrens were with us when we marched back again, when we swarmed up the side of the Royal College of Physicians and demanded to see our doctors and when we marched through the crush in Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square and drained our last ounces of energy singing on the steps of Nelson’s Column. Indeed they had to come – we had got their hats on our heads !

Nelson was fine. Serene and aloof he was lit from many different angles. The centre of fun, he was the emblem of England’s gallantry. The Admiralty Arch was flood lit in green and violet, as light as day – as also was Big Ben. The sky was red with flames and streaked with rockets and later a pale shimmering spider-work of shifting search lights. St. Paul’s was beautiful, but the Tower was transfigured ; a fairy tale brought to life ; history on a modern stage ; standing right out in its greyness, baked by the deep purple of night – even Toc H’s roughest soldier was impressed.

I’ll remember these days as examples of England’s reverence – churches were packed ; of England’s love of peace when it’s time for peace – the mornings and afternoons were still ; of England’s solidarity and loyalty, of her good fellowship and joyousness when it’s time to rejoice – and last – her dryness on those nights !

These were some of my doings and impressions – I hope they haven’t bored you – Great Scott ; 7 pages ! You might keep ’em – I might want to read them later – poor reading, though, they’ll make.

Tired, foot sore and sleep wanting we all rolled up for work the next day, but not for long. King’s College raided us. Seven hundred swept into the Hospital. They wanted Reggie. Outnumbered though we were – and taken by surprise – we pushed them right out beyond the gates. This fight was colossal, I’ve never seen so much water – the fire apparatus was a useful weapon – but the details are too many to give you now. From my point of view my shirt was torn by their women, and my beautiful tie taken as a trophy by them. I was thrown down some stairs and tore my best trousers – needless to say I soon changed into a suit from the linen department. In the afternoon we had to take Reggie back – we did ! A half mile procession took him back and the Strand at 3.0 was a mass of  fighting students which only subsided when Reggis was in many little bits.

Of course this sort of thing is not without its casualties and it will have far reaching repurcussions. Call it “boyish” if you like – but my goodness it was dashed good sport.

And yet, do you consider we have the right to celebrate like this – after all, one political move leads to another – a war merely means its come to a head, anyhow our troops are still fighting ?

Too, late, the deed is done and there are 50 million people in Great Britain feeling the better for it.

I have missed four days of work so I shall have to work next week-end. I think I shall have to go to the Wells to do it, so unless you hear to the contrary, Alan and I will appear on Saturday afternoon if it’s alright by you.

With very much love,

Michael.

Ben Wilson: “Chewing Gum Man”

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I have little left of my day in London. I hurry past the Black Friar pub and find the north end the pedestrian-only Millennium bridge. It is busy. Like everyone else, I am determined to get to the Tate Modern that beckons from the south side of the river. I want to see The Clock.

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In the middle of the bridge there’s guy lying down next to an open tool box. His clothes are daubed with paint of every colour. I say hello. He’s very friendly. I ask his name. “Ben Wilson.” He replies with a broad smile. “But people call me ‘chewing gum man’!”

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Ben is relaxed and chats to anyone who stops. He’s not obviously chewing gum. I ask him what he’s doing. It’s clear he’s been asked this a thousand times. “I’m painting the chewing gum!” I gawp. I look down around my feet and along the shiny aluminium walking surface. I see there are thousands of stuck-hard pieces of discarded chewing. The penny drops. Ben’s canvas is the chewing gum! “It’s a great day for painting.” he says. “It rained last night so the gum’s clean!”

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Using acrylic and enamel paints he has created hundreds of beautiful little fantasy designs scattered along the full span of the bridge. They include humanoid, animaloid and all sorts of -oids. Each is unique and intriguing. Some bear the names of visitors. I crouch to take photos. People trip over me; Tate-goers are too polite to curse me. Ben cheers me on.

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Ben is an exhibited painter and sculptor. This work, for which he is apparently well-known in London, was inspired by his distaste for any kind of rubbish on the streets. It is a truly imaginative initiative. However, he has generated controversy. Is this vandalism? He was once dragged down to the local police station for painting public property. Clever lawyers argued that he is not defacing private property but merely painting rubbish and therefore is breaking no law.

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Ben’s project requires an extraordinary dedication. It is as original and unexpected as it is opportunistic. I am totally uplifted. This has made my day. I skip down the steps to the Tate Modern where, I’m sure, the surface of the bridge will one day be exhibited.

Take a look at more of Bens work.

“The Clock” at Tate Modern

Christian Marclay’s The Clock, currently showing at the Tate Modern, is the only “work of art” that I could happily look at all day and night. It is a masterful concept, staggering in terms of the work involved and mesmerising. If you’re thinking of going, do not make an excuse. You have until 20th January 2019.

The Clock is a twenty-four hour video montage. Each of the 1,440 minutes is represented by a scene from film or television that features a clock, a watch or some other time-piece. Occasionally the time is spoken. “Oh, my God, it’s three o’clock!” Therefore, the work itself, when synchronised with real-time, functions as a clock with the time shown on-screen being the actual time. Brilliant! Just imagine searching for all those scenes! The only thing I’ve seen like it is Maarten Baas’s clock in Schiphol airport.

I walk in at 14:40. I am shown to a comfy armchair as Sean Connery glances knowingly at a wall clock that stands at twenty to three and through which he rightly figures he is being spied upon via a peep hole. He coolly hangs his jacket over the clock. Cut to the next scene as a grainy, black and white Harry Lloyd dangles helplessly from the big hand of a massive clock above a crowded New York street. It is nineteen minutes to three. Get the picture? Furthermore, all the clips are cleverly spliced and a musical sound track makes the scenes run together smoothly to the point that it is not always obvious when there is a change to a completely different film. I am enthralled.

I wish I had more time. On-line, I find that if I was fortunate enough to be able to watch The Clock in it’s entirety, I would notice the fast pace of the time-orientated action in the morning, the inevitable bell-ringing around High Noon and the ensuing scenes with a more relaxed tempo. The late afternoon sees commuters travelling by car, bus and train. Scenes from the early evening show people eating; later, they are drinking in bars. And then, of course, there’s the inevitable deadline: midnight. In the early hours of the morning, sleepers and dreamers become angry at being woken at an antisocial hour. Big Ben features regularly.

The Clock was completed in 2010 after more than three year’s work. There are only six copies in existence. Happily, the Tate Modern has got hold of one for our benefit and has dedicated a big enough space for a hundred people to lounge and immerse themselves in this chronometric history of cinema. There are even all night showings.

The Clock at Tate Modern

There is no single image that adequately represents this work; but I bought the t-shirt anyway. The time-codes represent the monumental task of researching and editing The Clock. They do not represent the genius. One day, I’ll watch the whole thing. Bravo, Christian Marclay!

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.