As Tate Britain unveils its highly anticipated David Hockney retrospective, an intimate display in St. James’s takes a look at the much less trodden ground of the iconic British artist’s early etchings. Far from simply jumping on the Hockney bandwagon however, this show at Hazlitt Holland Hibbert features a version of every single print that Hockney made between 1961 and 1964 offering a snapshot of the young, innocent artist as he studied at the Royal College of Art in London and embarked on his first trip to the USA.
Hockney discovered etching in the print rooms of the RCA which were filled with free materials when his empty pockets couldn’t stretch to painting supplies. But these works are far from a stopgap to the synonomous swimming pool. They provide an insight into Hockney’s remarkable versatility, from fax machine drawings to the iPad, and confirms his gift as a true draughtsman while Abstract Expressionism was king. For purists, Hockney’s etchings are a welcome return to the foundations of his most celebrated work and remind us why he is one of the most successful British artists of the 20th century.
In fact, it was an etching that allowed Hockney to venture to the USA for the first time in 1961. This trip sparked the greatest stimulus of Hockney’s career and is commemorated at Hazlitt Holland Hibbert with the defining series The Rake’s Progress, in which the artist’s alter ego travels to the big bad city to enjoy success before tumbling into iniquity, deception and finally bedlam. A highly personal reinvention of Hogarth’s classic painting series of the same name and subject, Hockney turns to his own life as the theme for this scandalous tale.
In his very first etching Myself and My Heroes, Hockney displays his technical prowess with an array of textures to construct the physicality of three figures. Standing alongside Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi, Hockney carves out his own scrawny outline alongside the words ‘I am 23 years old and wear glasses’. For the young Hockney, this was the only interesting thing that he could think to say about himself next to his two idols.
Riddled with mocking self-awareness, these early works reveal Hockney’s tussle with his own identity and homosexuality at a time when sexual acts between men were still illegal in the UK. Lyrics, idioms and stanzas are shrewdly woven into the images, inspired by the homoerotic poetry of Whitman, Michelangelo and Greek writer C.P. Cavafy. In one example Hockney emblazons the etching plate with the defiant words ‘queer’ and ‘queen’. Hockney also turned to his openly gay friend Mark Berger as the subject for several prints showing the young artist being rescued by a male lover from a vagina dentata and then threatened by a giant phallic snake.
Other highlights of the show include a reinvention of the Brothers Grimm dark fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin and a tongue-in-cheek image of the RCA principal Robin Darwin being eaten alive after refusing to award Hockney a diploma. This carefully considered show curated by post-war print dealer Lyndsey Ingram and gallery owner James Holland Hibbert uncovers a fascinating period in Hockney’s illustrious career and provides a wonderful amuse-bouche to accompany the main dish at Tate.
By Alice Godwin
David Hockney – The Complete Early Etchings 1961 – 1964 at Hazlitt Holland Hibbert, 38 Bury Street, St James's, London. 3 February – 10 March 2017.