It seems a long time since Tate Britain had a real blockbuster show. Even the Turner Prize, once a focus of popular attention, has received less and less publicity recently, to the point where the dissidents of the Stuckist Movement can no longer be bothered to picket it, even when the annual prize exhibition is held here in London, and not banished to some deserving gallery in the provinces. With the new Hockney retrospective, this is about to change. The exhibition is already sold out, a long way into its scheduled run.
In historical terms, Hockney is a familiar figure in the history of British art: the one time outsider who, by the end of his career, becomes a revered insider. The cheeky lad from Bradford, with his floppy dyed blonde haircut, parading the fact that he was gay, has now become a revered and applauded British National Treasure. Looking back over the years, the transformation didn’t in fact take that long. It was in fact more or less complete by the 1980s.
The desire to exert control over the looming verdict of the future accounts for some of its peculiarities.
There have been a number of major Hockney shows recently, notably two at the Royal Academy, one of landscapes and the other of portraits. The attraction of this new one is not only that it is very large, taking up a vast chunk of the main floor in Tate Britain, but also that it attempts to be a complete narrative of Hockney’s career. Furthermore, this narrative is very much under the control of the artist himself. This is how he wants to be seen, not only by us, who are in varying degrees his contemporaries, but by posterity. Since the artist is now almost 80, posterity is peering at him from no very great distance away.
The desire to exert control over the looming verdict of the future accounts for some of its peculiarities. Though Hockney has long been lauded for his drawings, the helping of them offered here is rather scanty. The number of landscape drawings – a genre for which he is not particularly known – challenges the number of sheets that offer portraits of people. Since Hockney has a genuine claim to be regarded as a 20th century rival of Ingres as a maker of exquisite portrait drawings, this seems a wee bit disappointing.
In fact, one of the main aims of the show seems to be to demonstrate how extremely versatile the artist is – both in terms of the subject-matter he is prepared to tackle and in those of the wide variety of techniques he is prepared to use in order to do so. This is openly announced in an opening section, proudly entitled ‘Demonstrations of Versatility’. Hockney’s mentor here has clearly been Picasso. He would like to be seen as having the same facility is slipping dextrously from one stylistic language to another. Unlike Picasso, however, he never invents any visual language – no signature style – that is entirely and incontrovertibly new. No Cubist moment explodes into art history here.
The big surprise of the exhibition is that, contrary to the way in which Hockney is usually perceived by enthusiasts for his work, it becomes more and more committed to images of landscape as it goes forward. The last five (out of twelve) sections of the show are largely devoted to this genre. There have already been tetchy of wails of protest about this, from people who don’t like any artist to deviate from the image they have already formed about his work.
What emerges from this is not so much a passion for landscape as a thing in itself, but an intense curiosity about ways of perceiving the world. This is linked to a deep commitment to populism. The catalogue quotes Hockney as saying: “I do want to make a picture that has meaning for a lot of people. I think the idea of making pictures for twenty-five people in the art world is crazy and ridiculous. It ought to be stopped.”
That commitment is linked in turn to an interest in technology, in particular as this relates to new ways both of viewing and of making representations of the world.
It is of course notorious that Hockney hasn’t the slightest sympathy for abstraction in art. Looking at the world is what he does. He has no desire, for better or worse, to lure us towards a kind of contemplation that shuts out what surrounds us.
The exhibition runs until 29th May at Tate Britain
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photo P C Robinson © Artlyst 2017