Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Hockney Hookah: The Tate Britain David Hockney Retrospective

Model with Unfinished Self Portrait, 1977

Isn’t it peculiar that, for the longest time, I thought David Hockney nothing more than a pro-tobacco campaigner? To this day, when I think of “our greatest living artist” (the slightly grovelling title now commonly attributed to him in the post Lucian Freud world), I first picture a Pall Mall ciggy with a mop of blond hair and the trademark sartorial tortoiseshell specs. Perish the thought.

London can’t get enough of Hockney, the prodigal Northern son. This was the repeated lament of my Sunday companion, who protested most heartily at being dragged to yet another Hockney retrospective. I can certainly see his point of view. Just a few months ago, the Royal Academy paraded eighty Hockney portraits – and, a mere three years prior to that, hosted a swaggering show of his late landscapes. It seems barely a few months ever go by without something of good old David’s gracing some grand, colonnaded space between the Mall and Pimlico. He has infiltrated the national consciousness in the manner of his own icons – everyone can recognise the figure in the pool, the flecks of chlorine froth upon the Mondrian-esque abstraction. City bourgeoisie yuppies defend a favourite print over Napa shiraz at dinner gatherings. We can see his ‘Wolds beaming guilelessly during the otherwise grey traipse from cubicle to loo. It is certainly no surprise that the current retrospective is the fastest selling exhibit in Tate history; after all, it is for the same reasons of foggy familiarity that La Traviata continuously sells out season after season.

Why, then, are we not sick to the teeth of his sun-soaked frolics? The answer (to me) seems simple: joy, sheer and unadulterated. Hockney’s art inhabits a curious world where even moroseness and abandonment are veiled by a gossamer haze of mischief and abstract placidity. It stands out as decidedly un-British and, in lazy comparison to his most significant peer in Freud, Hockney’s art has a primary humanity and visceral heartwarmth that Freud’s more relentless approach cannot match (for direct comparison, proceed downstairs at Tate Britain to the final room of the Queer British Art exhibit, where works of both glare across the walls and you can “smell the balls”).

When I entered the Hockney exhibit, it was with a dreamy eye and induced serenity. The first room is an exorbitant overture; the grand prologue. Alive here the components of the possible impossibility that comprises the gentle, post-coital glow of Hockney’s art. It is present in the breathtakingly tender male beauty of the supine figure in Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait, the intrusive warmth of which is later re-seen in Schlesinger’s detached profile (Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)) and the coy archness of Ossie Clark’s gaze. It is in the gentle teasing of the absurd and preposterous, which is manifest even in the near childlike graffiti of his Royal College days. Disbelief is suspended, the improbable is bare but unquestioned; because in one fell swoop, we stop being playthings of memory and hateful of the marvellous. 

Play within a Play, 1963

It is the abiding themes which are irrevocably Hockney that stay in my mind. It’s like that much-abused Allen question; what are the things that make life worth living? Hockney provides his own tailored answer in the luxuriant sweep of his brushstroke, persistently throughout his voyage through adolescent semi-abstract protest, to Californian masturbatory abstraction, to naturalism and late Cubism. It is:
  • The indulgent sink of Ossie’s feet into the gleaming white rug
  • The wild spangle of pink and turquoise adorning the Californian hills behind Peter Schlesinger
  •  The thirsty delirium of the Canyon-side dirt paths
  • The demonic phallic possibility of a Play within a Play
  • The cackling derision of Colgate and Vaseline
  • The unreal pre-Raphaelite and glazed depiction of Celia Birtwell, at once discordant and fecund against her partner’s immediacy
  • The rebirth and reinvigoration of beauty in the inanimate dually alongside an abstraction of the distance between human subjects 

Peter Getting out of Nick's Pool, 1966
As for Hockney’s later works, there is perhaps some credence to the view that, “In some senses, the subsequent 40 years of Hockney’s career look like a series of heroic attempts and strategies to manufacture the intensity of his early years”. Yet, this dismissal might be too unilateralist. With advancing age, Hockney’s art seems to assume increased sanguineness, abandoning the shackles of gleeful contrivement that mars the unproven and unrecognised.  There is a wonderful, almost lyrical, arc to the two mid-sized paintings of Breakfast at Malibu, Wednesday and Sunday, 1989. In both, a window flanked veranda is set for tea. Wednesday has two chairs and allegorical fussiness. Beyond the floor length glass lurks an ocean; vast, uncontained, ribbed. Its seizures melt into the greenish sky. On Sunday, the chairs are withdrawn. The surface has been covered with sheened titian. There is only the smallest strip of navy sky, below which stirs placid crests. I moved from one to the other. And back. It was magnetically compelling.

Days later, I recalled the Malibu waves to a close friend on a transatlantic phone call, though words were a poor imitation. They, recently sobered by the departure of loved one, looked at the prints. Their perception was altogether different. Where I had been assuaged by the calm of Sunday, they found artificial freedom and a locked-up dream. The human activity of Wednesday, the milk jug slightly off line, to them signalled comfort, as did the febrile activity of the waves. Our conversation wandered, to an old man who feared death with spiteful acuteness. We never returned to Hockney, but the understanding was clear.

As for my begrudging Sunday companion – well, he stood over my shoulder watching the Malibu waves for a good twenty minutes and didn’t complain once. I daresay he even rather enjoyed it, as gauche and mainstream as he had previously made it sound. That encapsulates, I think, the enduring strength of Hockney's appeal; few can worm their way into public affections in such easy, unassuming manner. Even after all these years, it is easy to simply fall in love again. 

Breakfast at Malibu, Wednesday, 1989
Breakfast at Malibu, Sunday, 1989

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