This is the third large exhibition of work by David Hockney in London over the past five years, following two major previous shows at the Royal Academy. Both contained some fine paintings, but were let down in my mind by a lack of editing. This wonderful exhibition at Tate Britain, surveying sixty years of Hockney’s work, avoids that problem. It provides a large but carefully selected summary of Hockney’s achievements to date, with scarcely a false note. I would defy anyone to leave the exhibition without a spring in their step and a song in the heart, uplifted by Hockney’s colourful, carefully observed and overwhelmingly positive views of his world. This exhibition surely cements his reputation as one of the great figures in C20 British art, and certainly the greatest British artist now active.
By coincidence I finished reading David Hockney and Martin Gayford’s recent book A History of Pictures shortly before seeing the exhibition,and the book and exhibition complement each other nicely. Although he carries his knowledge and insights lightly, both the book and the exhibition reinforce that Hockney has thought deeply about the process of looking and representing what he has seen. He has studied picture making over the centuries and constantly brings what he has learnt to his own work. He is fascinated by the issues of perspective and the presentation of reality, and in particular the weaknesses of photography and the single controlling perspective in image making. This might sound dry and academic, but dryness never touches his work. And indeed it can be enjoyed without any understanding of the considerations behind the development of each image.
The extent of Hockney’s thinking about the process of picture making is clearly established in the first room, Play Within A Play which consists of six pictures drawn from 1963 to 2014 all of which challenge and play with traditional notions of depth and perspective. It is worth the price of admission to study the pictures in this room alone. From there the exhibition follows a broadly chronological approach charting his career from precocious student, through his first visits to Los Angeles and the iconic images of sun-kissed poolside freedom which resulted, up to his return to Bridlington and the Yorkshire Wolds and his embracing of the iPad as another tool for art production.
Included in this are many of his great double portraits of the late 60s and 70s. These are of course familiar images because they are so frequently reproduced but those reproductions give no adequate sense of the scale and impact of the originals and the careful detailed captured in each one. I was astounded by the quality of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy when you see the picture in front of you. Mrs Clark (Celia Birtwell) is presented as a C20 Venus by a C20 Botticelli, here purity reinforced by the vase of lilies in front of her. And each of these double portraits provides the opportunity for hours of speculation about the relationship between the subjects who Hockney is painting. This is portrait painting of the highest and most insightful order.
In the midst of rooms full of large, colourful works demanding attention, it is too easy to skip past the room of drawings; easy, but a big mistake because these drawings seem to me to be key. They remind us that Hockney draws beautifully and that drawing remains absolutely central to his picture making. At a time when British art education downplayed and even ignored the need for basic drawing skills as a foundation for painting, Hockney was demonstrating every day the absurdity of this notion. At a time when artistic fashion had largely abandoned figurative and naturalistic painting, Hockney stuck to his task and it is glorious to see that fashion has moved to Hockney, without Hockney having to move to fashion.
The final parts of the exhibition reprise some of the works shown recently at the royal Academy but by carefully selecting the strongest images, one single room makes as much impact as a whole exhibition five years ago. We then move on to a reminder of Hockey’s fascination with technology. The video’s he took of a country lane in the Yorkshire Wolds are presented differently here than at the RA, and much more effectively. And finally we have a room of iPad art, the key interest of which is watching Hockney’s drawing place emerging on the screen.
This is a large and comprehensive exhibition. It is full and popular, as it should be. Go immediately, absorb what you can, and then go again. There is enough to see here to justify multiple visits.