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Exhibition Review: David Hockney at Tate Britain

Wednesday 08 February 2017
Words Spindle

Here is an exhibition that was always bound to be one of the most anticipated, must-see displays of 2017, given David Hockney‘s accolade as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and it’s footfall will surely surpass the standard numbers who pass typically wade through the gallery’s doors. Presented by Tate Britain, and running until late May before continuing its tour in Paris and New York, this is the world’s most extensive retrospective of David Hockney’s work, ranging in mediums of painting and drawing through to his lesser known recent achievements in photography and video.

As a noteworthy member of the 60’s popular pop-art movement and a significant player on the post-modernist map – and whether you’re into that or not – it is difficult to pass much of Hockney’s earliest work without at least a minor level of appreciation. For wherever your tastes and critiques lie, much of the artist’s paintings produced in California during his early twenties have become Hockney’s most iconic and recognisable work; celebrated, reprinted and shared on an international scale over the decades that succeed it.

Entering the exhibition as an already committed fan of Hockney’s work, I willed myself to keep an open and critical mind of the showcase, for no-one’s life’s work can be without its fair share of flaws, or dud-moments. Presuming that most of those dud-moments had been left out, the retrospective as a whole was not a disappointment, but nor did it surpass any preliminary expectations. Work is sectioned from one another not necessarily by the periods in which it was produced, but rather by it’s style and techniques. I expect that many, like me, hastily rushed through rooms 1, 2 and 3, to reach ‘Room 4: Sunbather’, to satisfy the impatient desire to see Hockney’s famous ‘A Bigger Splash’, 1967, and ‘Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool’, 1966 in the flesh.

Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool

David Hockney, ‘Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool’, 1966. National Musuems Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery. Courtesy of Tate Britain.

Tate Britain has overall done a satisfactory job of presenting this curation of work spanning across 60 years; it celebrates the many feats of Hockney as a well-refined artist of the moment in which he was living, as well as an artist who has kept hold of his relevance way into 2017. Suddenly you become aware that it’s not all about the ripples of watery pools in sun-drenched locations or erotic peachy bottoms protruding from the water, although you do wonder what kind of context Hockney was viewing said peachy bottoms from. It’s about simply looking, and moreover seeing what we’re looking at. Speaking to the BBC, Hockney said “Do we see like photographs? And no we don’t, I don’t think. Photographs see geometrically, we must see psychologically, mustn’t we?” Presented as a chronological overview, it’s perhaps better described as a categorised collection of  the various themes and styles Hockney has addressed in the course of his profession.

As one of the many admirers of Hockney, it is of course a privilege to analyse ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’, 1971, (see top), up close and personal, as well as slightly less iconic pieces such as ‘Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy’, 1970-1, ‘My Parents’, 1977, and ‘American Collectors (Fred & Marcia Weisman)’, 1968, in his move towards naturalism. His most recent, digitalised work maintains many elements of the paint work that made his name, with a new found applicability to the current age, although his digital art panels of the four seasons in movement are somewhat underwhelming, as if Hockney is displaying the first photos of his walk through the country that he captured with his brand new digital camera. Never mind though, as elsewhere we see more intimate, less-publicised works of Hockney including the many portraits of his muses – as well as himself – that feel like they were taken straight from the pages of his private sketchbook. Although his famed use of colour and bold definition is virtually non-existent in the room holding his portraiture, it is in this very space that the viewer can really feel connected to the eyes of David Hockney and what those eyes have seen, in an attempt to understand better one of the finest artists of our age.

Model with Unfinished Self Portrait 1977

David Hockney, ‘Model with Unfinished Self Portrait’, 1977. Private collection c/o Eykyn Maclean. Courtesy of Tate Britain.

David Hockney is on show at Tate Britain, London, from 9th February – 29th May.