It has already been five years since David Hockney’s gigantic and sensational retrospective at London's Royal Academy of Arts, entitled; “David Hockney: A Bigger Picture”, which cemented the artist as one of the prominent figures of contemporary British painting. Rising to fame with his Californian scenes of the 1960s, Hockney since has been exploring the most noble of mediums, expanding and challenging its boundaries through the decades – even employing photography, collage techniques and the iPad. At the grand age of 80, Hockney has no intention of slowing down or arresting his artistic research and production. Now, he has returned with a new body of work which this time explores portraiture through seriality. David Hockney, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life is travelling the world, stopping in London (Royal Academy of Arts), Venice (Cà Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art), Bilbao (Guggenheim Museum) and Los Angeles (LACMA). But in today’s world dominated by digital cameras, selfies and an overflow of freely downloadable images, can portraiture on canvas still be relevant?
The exhibition in Venice is beautifully hung and lit. The central room flooded in red, plunging the visitor directly into the ouvre. There is no fixed beginning or ending – the visitor is invited to wander the rooms freely starting from the image that for its colour, expression or pose, captures their attention the most. All paintings are the same size and the same structure; the person sits on Hockney’s wooden chair inhabiting a bi-chromatic environment.
Various shades of blue; celestial, Caribbean sea and kingfisher hues, are combined with thick purple to make up the surface of the wall and the floor. By doing so all portraits are intentionally united under one frame that is physical (Hockney’s carefully built setting and prop) and stylistic (the choice of similar colours and personal brushstrokes). Within the room, the viewer quickly recognizes that all works belong to the same family.
Each painting is titled with the name of the person on the canvas and is followed by a couple of lines describing who they are. It is at Hockney’s discretion how much about the person we need to know; some descriptions are merely one line long, such as Richard Benefield's; “Richard is Deputy Director of Museums, Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco”. Others present a longer introduction that has to do with the sitter's characteristics, or an episode concerning their encounter with the artist. Helen and John Hockney's states: “I did notice that when John comes without Helen he’s a little bit different. When he comes with her he’s always livelier. So I realised, well, they’re a couple really, they are, and so I painted them both together. I set them up on the two chairs, but I had to have it so that I could see them in between the two canvases”.
This description indicates more of Hockney’s relationship and experience with them rather than their character. Rather than a profound introspection of the person the way a portrait by Lucien Freud does, these paintings are more of a collection of snapshots or cards that make one’s life connections. Going around the exhibition feels like being in the presence of Hockney himself, turning the pages of a big, thick photo album stopping every once in a while to tell you who someone is and how he knew them. Walking through the show you can learn more about Hockney than the sitters.
It is fascinating to move from one person to the other imagining their relationship with the painter, decoding expressions and identifying ideas of familiarity with being portrayed. Some are wearing trainers and shorts, others, more often the business men of the art world; loafers and a jacket. Some are stiff and composed, others relaxed and patient. Many are serious, giving out a slight hint of boredom due to the slow process of painting. The latter is an indication of how Hockney has no intention of glorifying or changing the looks of his sitters, capturing instead their natural and momentary state of being in that specific moment of painting.
With this show, Hockney has re-imagined portraiture and has provided another charming view in to his work, mind and role as an artist.
Words by Victoria de Zanche
David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life at Cà Pesaro, Venice, Italy until 22 October 2017