Updated: Jun 6
When I think of David Hockney, vivid colours and vast rolling landscapes come to mind. His recent retrospective at the Tate Britain showed that and infinitely more.
The Tate filled 12 rooms with work that spanned 60 years from his student days, through to the early LA depictions, Yorkshire landscapes and recent Californian series. The Tate stated that ‘his principal obsession was the challenge of representation: how do we see the world, and how can that world of time and space be captured in two dimensions?’. This obsession was certainly evident through his exploration of perspective and use of different media including photography, film and digital drawings. What became clearer still was his witty sense of humor, zest for life and beautiful palette. During my time I noted the works that stood out for me. So instead of reviewing the exhibition, I wanted to talk you through my personal highlights and try and understand why I was specifically drawn to these paintings.
The first work I noted was ‘Californian Art Collector’ 1964 in the third room along. The artworks prior to his early Californian series employed a much darker palette, perhaps relating to a more difficult subject matter he was exploring at the time, his sexuality. The first thing I noticed from these LA pieces was the whirl of striking colour that stayed from this point onwards. ‘Californian Art Collector’ was the first of Hockney’s LA depictions with a swimming pool, a feature that became synonymous with his work. Here we see a glamorous Art collector, seated on a patterned chair surrounded by her beautiful possessions while observing a rock sculpture. Her pronounced, angular features share a likeness with the primitive sculpture behind her. This is an idea that Hockney liked to explore in his work; the visual parallels between collectors and their chosen artworks.
Hockney uses clever symbolism throughout his work. Here a rainbow, the symbol of hope, dashes in from the left hand side arching towards the swimming pool, a symbol of status and luxury in LA. It’s interesting that the Art collector is dressed in green, the only colour missing from the rainbow. Perhaps she is an extension of hope for Hockney.
I admire Hockney’s fascination with, and portrayal of, water, which really came to life in the works that followed. Hockney was interested in the concept that water is usually always moving; think of the sea and the constant reflections and playfulness of light ricocheting off the surface. And then there’s the behaviour of water in swimming pools, which glitters and sparkles like aqua marine camouflage. I was mesmerised by the dancing swiggles of white, lemon and pink candy floss lines moving in parallel to each other in paintings such as ‘Sunbather’ 1966 and later in ‘Portrait of an Artist’ 1972, where he portrays a flash of sunlight on the surface as a gorgeous bolt of yellow.
Olivia Laing suggests that water had a certain quality that lured Hockney to paint it, ‘the light on the water, iridescent ribbons of glitter, a splash, meant he could deploy all the lessons of abstraction here, among them Helen Frankenthaler’s trick of diluting acrylic paint with detergent, so it would flood the canvas with reflective pools of colour.’
His focus then shifted to human interaction, portrayed in a series of vast dual portraits. Hockney uses a stylized language of flat picture planes, bright colours and playful use of light and shadows across all these works. By positioning these people in a stylized world, we are forced to look closely at their relationship. In ‘American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)’ 1968 we see Art collectors, Fred and Marcia Weisman, standing in their LA garden surrounded by beautiful sculptures.
As seen in ‘Californian Art Collector’, Hockney draws visual parallels between the collectors and their art; Marcia’s toothy smile is humorously mirrored in the totem pole behind her, and Fred stands as stiff as the objects around him, his shadow morphs with the rock sculpture before him, as if one.
They do not acknowledge each other, the only thing uniting them are the objects around them and the stylized, flattened world Hockney places them in. Is he suggesting that it’s their love of Art that unites them? In ‘My Parents’ 1977, Hockney takes a more naturalistic approach to execution, where he is more concerned with the subtleties of human behaviour than the absolute flatness of a picture. I particularly liked the turquoise and blue tones in his palette, especially the soft dappled background, which creates a lightness in the picture. The pink, yellow and red tulips look so luscious and rich. Hockney said that the tulips were a symbol of his presence, which adds a clever symbolic dimension.
I appreciate Hockney’s interest in photography, which was revealed in the following rooms. He was interested in the visual problems that the photograph posed for him, such as its limitation of one point perspective. He explored this idea in the Joiner series, where a single image was made up of lots of individual polaroids, to create a whole picture, almost like a Cubist painting. For me though, it was the brighter, red and firey orange tones of his Grand Canyon paintings in rooms that followed, which really struck a chord. You can see the impact of photography on these paintings, whereby one viewpoint is painted over multiple interlocking canvases. This helped him to capture the vastness of the Grand Canyon, a place which Hockney said does not have a single focal point.
His palette of golds, blues, hot pinks, fiery reds and yellows give this renowned landscape a psychedelic tone.
The final painting I want to discuss and my favourite of all is ‘May Blossom on the Roman Road’ 2009. In this work, giant hawthorn bushes with white caterpillar-esque blossom rise up into the sky, their long, stylized shadows cast onto the road, which twists around and arches into the horizon.
The dreamlike sky above is comprised of blue and mauve marks, inspired by the dashes used by Van Gogh, to create a whirling effect.
The sheer scale and immersive quality of this work, painted over 8 giant canvases, meant you could loose yourself in Hockney’s fervent storm of frothing blossom and swirling skies. A normal Yorkshire scene has been transformed into something otherworldly and surreal. Beyond the palette, which I admire throughout his work, it was the dreamlike fervour that really sparked my imagination. Although this painting was the icing on the cake, there were a few works that followed this one, that deserve a mention. ‘Red Pots in the Garden’ 2000 is inspired by his garden in LA. We see his distinctive blue terrace peppered with red pots overlooking the squiggly-lined swimming pool. I like the use of multiple perspectives to describe the space and of course the bright colours of bold blues and luscious greens. I enjoyed the iPad drawings of single objects such as a lamp and another of a cactus. They had a flatness about them as if drawn with a felt tip pen, and reminded me of snapshots from an animated film.
To conclude, the works I have discussed all share a similarity in that they have moved me as the viewer. Hockney uses his unique visual language of swirls and swiggles, serpentine lines, abstract illusions of space, bright palette and flowing brushstrokes to convey his interpretation of life. It’s the boldness of colour, clever visual parallels, use of symbolism, immersive scale, psychedelic dreaminess and his tangible interest in the world that deeply inspires me.