David Hockney has, after a much reported domestic catastrophe in Bridlington – the untimely death of a young member of his entourage – returned to the peace and quiet of California. He nevertheless remains a British National Treasure. No other British artist enjoys so much affection, combined with real solid celebrity, among his compatriots. The huge turn out for the Private View of his new exhibition at the Royal Academy – an institution of which he is of course a member – offered ample proof of that, if any were needed. No jumped-up YBA would have matched it, though Damien Hirst is, one suspects, a considerable richer man, with a wider and hungrier international market.
Photos L to R Sir Norman Rosenthal – John Baldessari – Larry Gagosian
The show is entitled 82 portraits and One Still-Life. The still-life is there, laid out on blue bench, as a substitute for a sitter who at the last minute couldn’t come on the appointed day. All the sitters occupy the same armchair, placed at exactly the same distance from the artist. They are all seen full length. Sometimes the floor their feet rest on is blue, while the wall behind them is green. Sometimes it’s the other way round. All were painted on canvases of exactly the same size, in at most three sessions. Sometimes only in two. The lighting is the same throughout – clear and shadowless, though the chair is allowed to cast a small shadow now and then, to emphasize its three-dimensionality. Hockney has no interest in the moodiness and mystery of Rembrandtian chiaroscuro. He also seems to have little interest in brushwork as such. There are none of the flickering brushstrokes, the little glittering dabs of paint, you find in high-fashion Edwardian portraits by Sargent and Boldini, to whom Hockney can now, in respect of his position within our society, be compared.
Photos L To R Celia Birtwell – Frank Gehry – Barry Humphries
The sitters offer a panorama of Hockney’s life as it is now. Some, but not many, are celebrities, not usually celebrities of the first rank. Others are relations – people whose surname is Hockney. Others still are members of his considerable entourage. You are left in no doubt that the painter is the ruler of his little court, which, in turn, tells you something about what it is to be a celebrity artist in contemporary society, cosseted but at the same time exposed. Perhaps the most moving image is the very first in the sequence, a portrait of the painter’s long-time chief assistant, Jean-Pierre Goncalves de Lima, head in his hands, in despair after the tragedy in Bridlington. It’s possible to read the whole sequence of images that follows as a defiant, re-iterated statement of the fact that life goes on. Some of the celebrity portraits are slyly amusing, most of all perhaps the likeness of the major dealer Larry Gagosian, whose own web-site shows that he represents no fewer than 118 artists, living or fairly recently dead, none of them called Hockney. Gagosian’s wry half-smile seem to say, ‘What the hell am I’m I doing here, wasting time with an artist who doesn’t need me, and who I’m not going to make any money out of.’
Hockney’s draftsmanship is still strong – except, sometimes, when it comes to the hands: Lord Rothschild, whose facial features are incisively rendered, has a pair of dead crayfish resting in his lap. On the whole, however, this is a brilliant, invigorating show. You won’t get a better set of images from any other painter who deigns to make portraits today. It gives new life to what seemed to be a dead form of art – the hand-painted, yes actually painted, likeness, made in the presence of the sitter.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith Photo: Top Sara Faith Bottom P C Robinson © Artlyst 2016