David Hockney Early Reflections: A Voyeuristic Exploration of Every Day Life

I was brought up with his name in my consciousness but there was always a silence after his name that I never quite understood. He was always the mysterious artist. It wasn’t as if people said to me as a child, ‘Ah yes, ‘David Hockney’, he was blah blah blah.” No, he was just David Hockney and that was it.”Why?”, I wondered. ”Why don’t they say more?”

I remember as a child, the portrait he painted of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1970 -1. I found it clean and graphic in style but  I remember also finding it quite a sinister painting in many ways. I was trying to find out who they were, what their relationship was, the coldness emphasised by the stark snow white cat, the deep plumb colour of her dress. And their expressions as if they were hiding something. Then the swimming pools, those clear aqua pools with men swimming which fascinated me because as a child you are very aware of the aqua colour of a pool but that colour tends to fade as you get older and so to see the paintings and these vivid aqua marine colours, brings that feeling of youth and swimming pools back once again. Thank goodness!
Hockney is best known for his swimming pool paintings, which followed his move to California in 1964. He had an obsession with water. He sought its constantly changing appearance. The exhibition focuses on the peak of Hockneys obsession with water, on his highly experimental ‘paper pools’, an interesting technique he used to create his love of water. ‘Le Plongeur’ (paper pool 18, 1978)  is made from coloured pressed paper pulp, one of 29 pools made during a six week period in 1978. I reflect on this period in my own life. I would have been at school and going to night clubs at this time. The Sex Pistols would have been playing their final show.
Hockney said , ‘It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything-it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description’. I glance over to another pool painting, acrylic on canvas. The painting, ‘Peter getting out of Nick’s pool’, 1966 won the John Moores painting prize in 1967.
As time went by, I heard that Hockney was an RCA student. Perhaps I had a sense of disappointment at hearing this. Maybe academic backgrounds from artists put me off  but nevertheless, there is a story behind everyone even if it is academic training. We really can’t judge, I suppose. But people do judge all the time don’t they? We go with our assumptions and what we perceive as happening, or perceive to why someone achieved something or why we perceive that someone paints in a certain way. Maybe sometimes we are right. But maybe much of the time, we are also wrong. All we can do I think is to try and take notice and think about it, think about the truth but most importantly to bother, to actually bother to look at the painting.

So many artists are not listened to. It is important that people look at the art and the history of that artist before they make judgements and before they make up their minds about the work of an artist, to keep the door open. So much of the time, I find people close the door so soon. This kind of attitude, I find cowardly. Then I heard the word POP somewhere. Pop artists, David Hockney and Peter Blake. Those two were always mentioned to me as if they were a pair but looking at it, this seems to be in terms of the time period only but I mustn’t judge, I mustn’t judge, not until I see the work.
I arrive at the Walker art Gallery, pass the cafe and up the steps through the richly coloured Victorian art rooms and into the light space of the special exhibition gallery. I am quite excited at going into the room, that’s a good sign and I am about to view, David Hockney: Early reflections Date: 11 Oct 2013 – 16 Mar 2014 An exhibition focusing on the early work of David Hockney.
The first paintings I see, are his early abstract paintings created during his time at the RCA which I am instantly drawn towards. His painting,’I’m in the mood for love’, 1961, oil on board and ‘Cliff’ 1962 and ‘Life painting for myself’ 1962.
I am intrigued by these paintings. They are real for me. They are works of art that speak a person’s own life and feelings, nothing pretentious here, just raw honest expression. This is real art, I think to myself. This incorporates, drawing and expression, a certain child like approach but it is clever and hints at ideas and every day life. He is laughing at himself and at life with a confidence of youth and an interest in the power of language incorporated in his work. I like this. It’s raw and fresh and interesting. The muted colours and the youthful energy show thought of colour and how they work together including the awareness of bold chalk lines and the acceptance of mistake and chance, using it all and incorporating it into the art.
When Hockney studied at the RCA in 1959, ‘ a ‘homosexual act’ between two men was illegal in the UK. it was not until 1967 that this was partially decriminalised.’ I do find it sad that so many gay artists had to create under this pressure. I try to imagine this in reverse and happening to me at art college many years ago, heterosexual me, having to keep my sexuality to myself, not mention it openly or just have to contain this information but knowing who I am and not really understanding why I am having to keep this a secret. It is actually a terrifying thought. It is not like we go round discussing our sexuality but to actually be aware that we are ‘sexually illegal’ must be very strange and disturbing for any young person. I try to imagine it but it is really hard to do which just shows how crazy this discrimination was.
‘Against this backdrop, Hockney pursued his personal and artistic identity as a young gay man. He found acceptance and inspiration within the London gay sub-culture and later the more liberating environment he encountered in New York and California.’ Alongside his artistic development, Hockney became a pioneer of gay subject matter’, although I didn’t see it like this. I just saw paintings and creation.
I do enjoy Hockney’s painting ”’He found inspiration in the visually raw painting of artists like Francis Bacon and Jean Debuffet. He evolved an approach that was part abstraction, part representation, in which the energetic and expressionistic surface of his pictures appeared scrubbed and smeared”. Language appeared in his work. This is what I love about Hockney’s work, the graffiti; ”Text soon became a code through which his gay identity could be both hidden and – to those in the know- revealed.” I am drawn to the graffiti as another deeper and more profound aspect of his art. I confess this has inspired me a great deal. I never did relate to text in painting until I had seen the work of David Hockney.
I turn to my right and a there is a beautiful chalk on paper study called ‘Doll Boy’, 1960 facing me. It just resonates art. It’s a strong sketched, smudged piece of work, simple and raw but it has emotion and expression. The childlike style of this piece has  a kind of sadness and fragility. I like this work and enjoyed this beautiful symbolic and cryptic language. For this work, Hockney was inspired by Cliff Richard’s song ‘living doll’ and it seems Cliff had an impact upon him. There is something rather eerie about the song. When I first heard it in my youth, I imagined the girl doll. How can a real girl be a doll? I actually found it quite upsetting looking back. It smashed female identity. I feel it is the height of sexism because it stresses an artificiality of women, they are not real, we are just living dolls and that’s all Cliff wanted, a living doll? Ido admit, I also had a crush on Cliff Richard and so did many others. Or is the doll song erotic? Is it erotic for a woman to be a living doll? Maybe it is but this was not implied in the song. It was implied that an ideal woman was doll – like,  a beautiful doll that can’t speak or do anything because she is not real. I suppose this runs in line with the nineteen fifties rather distorted perception of women. In the case of Hockney’s drawing, we are now dealing with Doll boy as the same gender as Hockney. I find myself distinguishing and comparing the idea of sexism and eroticism of the idea of someone as a doll in the same gender and the opposite gender.  The idea seems different but also similar. It’s such a mind boggling thought. I imagine myself fascinated with another woman who I imagine as a doll. This I feel is eroticism. Its a clever comparison and an interesting transition.
There is no doubting, Hockney’s skill at drawing and there are some beautiful etchings in this exhibition, particularly ‘Gregory’, 1974 and ‘Portrait of Angus Wilson’, 1969, (pen and ink on paper).
I am quite surprised to discover that Hockney’s favourite composer is Richard Wagner. In the 1980s he undertook stage designs for Wagner’s ‘Triston and Isolde’.
The exhibition has a few paintings of Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s then lover, depicted in Study  for ‘Sur La Terrace’.1971 which I must admit, I did think was a portrait of the back of the head of a woman at first.
I liked the way Hockney did not fall for people’s immediate expectations. In the painting, ‘Fred and Mariah Weiman’, wealthy art collectors in California’ (1968, oil pastel ink and pencil}, the collectors were not happy with the composition Hockney completed but Hockney continued anyway. He disliked commissions and preferred to make portraits of people he knew.  His preparatory studies reveal his California lifestyle, the vivid and graphic bright colours.
As a young figurative artist, Hockney  apparently worried that his work was not sufficiently contemporary. His early ‘Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices’ painted in 1965, (acrylic on canvas) is a response to the innovative ideas of artist Paul Cazanne that all nature could be reduced to cylinders, spheres and cones.
When I read this I reflected back to the work of Chagall who was also inspired by this idea for some of his early works.
There is a voyeuristic quality to Hockney’s work, for instance in his painting, ‘Man in Shower in Beverly Hills’, 1964, some of these works are inspired by photos he bought from the Homoerotic Physique  Pictorial magazine. I do find myself reflecting on the idea of pornography at this point. I have written a few reviews about pornography but I have to admit, I am not fond of pornography. There have been so many different arguments but even though it exists, I don’t believe in it as a heterasexual woman. I was brought up with feminist values that argued against it and shed light upon it as demeaning to women so how can I re-evaluate this idea I have been brought up with and do I wish to? Looking at other artists and reading about some of thir influences is the only way to try and answer some of these questions I think. For homosexual men during this oppressive time, I can only think that maybe this was an important aspect of life because everything had to be hidden and therefore something that was already considered hidden would have just have melted into normal every day life.
I turn around and I am now walking towards the printmaking. Hockney enjoyed etching. In 1966 he started work on illustrations, a book of etchings inspired by the poems by one of his favourite writer’s, Constantine P Cavafy. Hockney liked his direct and simple poems about doomed homosexual love. Hockney visited Beirut which was exotic and cosmopolitan like Alexandria, the setting for Cavafy’s poems. Back in his London studio Hockney worked from photographs and his own drawings, on to some copper plates. He matched 20 etchings to the poems afterwards. His bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love. The etchings were published in a limited edition book as loose- leaf portfolios. This takes me back to my childhood when poetry, pamphlets and orange penguin books were an important part of or culture and on every art lover’s table in the morning with a pot of tea and a packet of golden Virginia tobacco. The etching ‘portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria’ was published in 1966 to Cavafy’s poem, The Mirror at the Entrance. I enjoyed these drawings! I walk on and I am thinking of illustrated poems and how much I like this idea and always have. I appreciate the way Hockney has engaged with Cavafy’s poems and treats them almost like enquiries that reflect upon his own life. This is a moving and interesting collection of works.
On a less positive note, I glance over the room through the door of the Walker and see a gold jacket, wig and glasses hanging outside for people to try on and ‘become’ David Hockney’. I am not impressed. I think to myself ”the so called ‘Disneyfying’ of artists? What on earth is going on? Can we stick to the art without this nonsense please?” I reflect on this. I know that people dress up as film stars so why not artists? I am just not willing to accept it right now. It seems out of place in such a distinguished exhibition. My mind rejects the idea and instead I watch the film, ‘A Bigger Splash’ about the work and life of Hockney, from 1971-1973. ”Jack Hazan gained intimate access to David Hockney and his circle of friends and lovers to create the film, A Bigger Splash. Using a ‘structured reality’ format rather than pure documentary, he crafted a mesmerising film, ground breaking in style and daring in nature.”
You can view it at the exhibition. It is fascinating!
”David Hockney was born in Bradford.,Yorkshire, 1937. A talented young student he studied painting at the Royal College of Art in London from 1959 – 1967. He progressed quickly along the path to becoming one of the world’s best known British artists. His experiences and work he produced  during the 60s and 70s were instrumental in his success. I walk out of the exhibition into a blustery winters day towards St James gardens.
Thinking to myself, ”There is fun and laughter but also a darkness in those early works Mr David Hockney.”

Words: Alice Lenkiewicz: © Artlyst 19/11/2013 Photo:© David Hockney all rights reserved

David Hockney: Early Reflections – Walker Art Gallery 11 October 2013 – 16 March 2014

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