Imagine sitting perfectly still, locked on the spot, with an old man staring intensely at you, for three days. Sounds uncomfortable doesn’t it? Like a horror movie, or Christmas at your parents’. That’s the commitment you would have had to give the great David Hockney if you’d agreed to sit for one of the 82 portraits on show here. Then imagine the surprise when, after three days of your arse getting sore and feeling uncomfortable with this bloke eyeballing you, Hockney finally lets you see the finished work – the big reveal, tada! – and… it’s a bit shit. Yeah, deflating.
Let’s not mess about, Hockney is one of the best. He’s a giant of twentieth-century art. His images are among the most iconic of his generation: you can’t talk about modern painting without mentioning ‘A Bigger Splash’, or his contribution to pop art. Hockney, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud: the holy trinity of modern British painting. And Hockney has continued to be a truly brilliant painter into the twenty-first century – his landscape show at the RA in 2012 was a total blockbuster, and his iPad drawings are great. But these, sadly, are not brilliant paintings.
Every one of them is, essentially, the same. They’re all the same size, the sitter facing the same direction, painted against the same two-tone flat background. A couple of sitters only gave him two days, and one didn’t show up (which explains the one still-life), but that’s still well over 200 days that Hockney dedicated to one thing. It’s a monumental undertaking, a Herculean artistic effort. You have to admire his determination, if nothing else.
They’re all hung in the RA in chronological order, so you can see the progression, the move towards uniformity. What strikes you first is that Hockney knows a lot of old white men. There’s uber-rich gallery tycoon Larry Gagosian, uber-rich banker Jacob Rothschild and uber-rich architect Frank Gehry. There’s a near-endless sea of pink-skinned white dudes in khakis and loafers, like Henley Royal Regatta. It’s basically a room full of unbearable types you’d never want to hang out with. There are some women and non-white people here as well; plenty of artists, curators and museum directors, some family members, neighbours and a few kids too.
The thing is, he hasn’t really captured much humanity in any of these people, just the same blank, flat stare. It’s like he doesn’t care about the sitters or even the result, but only about the process: the act of painting the same thing for hundreds of days. No matter who these people are – how rich, powerful or influential they may be – Hockney has painted them in the same way, removed every semblance of character from them and turned them into Hockneys. He has imposed himself on them and dominated these characters. Make no mistake, this is about him, not them. That’s why the still-life is the best work here, it’s like he’s saying there’s no difference between some bananas and Rothschild, they’re all going to end up as a Hockney painting.
The only sitters who really manage to hold their own are the teenagers and kids. They all look so bored, so unenthralled by the master and desperate to be anywhere but stuck in that studio. Their teenage arrogance wins out over his.
Hockney’s flatness – his cold, brutal approach – combined with the general poor quality of many of these portraits makes them hard to love. Limbs seem to extend too far and at weird angles, hands look bulbous and unattached, faces bulge, lines smear uncertainly. Some of the paintings are better than others, some aren’t even that bad, but Hockney doesn’t really come close to any of his past portraiture, in terms of either execution or emotion.
The whole show works best from a distance, as a monumental wash of pink flesh and flat blues and greens. As one big work of art, this is a massive statement, it’s Hockney stamping his presence over everything, screaming ‘I’m still here!’ And we should all be pretty glad that he is, even if this really isn’t him at his best.
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