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David Hockney: Drawing From Life review

  • Art
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
David Hockney 'Self Portrait March 14 2012' © David Hockney

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

There’s a sadness to this exhibition by the great British artist David Hockney (which originally opened in 2020 but closed after just 20 days due to the nationwide lockdown; this is the same show with a new series of portraits added). It feels like a long look backwards, with each room telling a story of ageing and the slow, creeping suffocation of time.

Hockney has drawn portraits of the same small group of people throughout his life: himself, his mother, and his friends Celia, Gregory and Maurice. Each sitter is clumped together here in their own mini-exhibition so you can watch Hockney’s progress from naïve man to world-conquering artist to experimental old fella over and over again.

Early works are shaky but bursting with excitement. The ‘feel’ of Hockney – the cool, distant quietness of his art – is there in self-portraits as a schoolboy from the 1950s, even if the ‘look’ isn’t. But by the 1970s he knows who he is. Sepia ink captures the tender heartache of his mother on the day of his father’s funeral. His friend the designer Celia Birtwell is ghostly and ethereal in pinks, blues and greens like she’s a spirit he can’t quite commune with, and the curator Gregory Evans is all gentle curves and throbbing sexual energy.

The 1980s bring experimentation. Gregory is a burst of cubist shapes, Hockney’s mother is a whirl of different perspectives while doing the crossword. But it’s also when the first hints of ageing start appearing. Gregory’s face is saggy and morose, Hockney’s own is contorted and angry.

By the 2000s, the sitters have all crumpled a bit. They’re no longer nude in bed, or stretched out on a divan. They’re tucked up on an armchair with a scarf and glasses. All the faces are longer, all the skin is looser. The whole show is a portrait of ageing, of time passing for Hockney and the loves of his life. It’s touching, sad and yet more proof of how important Hockney is.

But nowhere is the weight of time felt more heavily than in the show’s post-pandemic additions. After lockdown, Hockney started inviting people back into his studio to sit for him; there’s his chiropodist, a local farmer, Harry Styles, friends and family. They are almost all absolutely abject, heinous, awful paintings. I’ll defend Hockney through almost anything (I even love his much-hated iPad work), but look at the faces of Lola Clark or Brian Hastings, these formless fleshy splodges of nothing, or the mother and child, or the self-portrait, or Harry Styles as a snake; it’s like Hockney’s has Monkey Christ-ed himself. He is not the painter he once was..

You can forgive that to a large extent, because the show then functions as a portrait of Hockney himself, getting old and changing. But the real issue is that the exhibition’s just a bit of a mess. It can’t figure out if it’s a show of his works on paper (in which case why include his photo collages, or his iPad images?), or a show of his portraiture (in which case why include his ‘Rake’s Progress’ series?). And more than anything, it’s the umpteenth major Hockney show we’ve had in London in the past  few years, and this one adds very little to the Tate and the RA’s looks at the artist. We just don’t need this show.

But while we have it, we may as well enjoy it for what it is: an often touching, intimate look at one of the nation’s best artists.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


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