Steven & Sufea: David Hockney – Early Reflections at The Walker Art Gallery

We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961, Oil on board 48 x 60” © David Hockney Collection Arts Council, Southbank Centre, London. Photo credit: Prudence Cuming Associates
We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961, Oil on board
48 x 60” © David Hockney Collection Arts Council, Southbank Centre, London. Photo credit: Prudence Cuming Associates

Two Curators’ Perspectives of David Hockney: Early Reflections at the Walker Art Gallery

Review by Steven Hyland

Howling from the first pictures is a murky passion, a sexual charge. In the form of dank colours and visceral paint application, we are confronted with a tone that veers between unsettling and endearing. We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) depicts a kind of grimy love, painted with the same immediacy that the moment of passion shown may represent. It is less romance and more lust, something more animal and uncouth, softened by the gentle curve of one of the boys arms and the sweet words ‘we 2 boys together clinging’ that hug to the bodies of the boys. The roughness shows these figures as awkward, they hang on to each other as to not buckle on their stick thin red legs- and the words physically hold them together even firmer as they appear to be the arms and shoulders of one of the boys.

The words within these paintings at the exhibition’s entrance offer much to muse over, as does the supporting text around the artworks, along with large quotes from the artist, David Hockney, that hang above appropriate sections of artworks. Taking on these words is strangely essential for this exhibition, especially when looking at the work he created to illustrate the work of the poet, Constantine P. Cavafy.

A step into the poetry inspired lithographs opens up a more comfortable and casual side of the artist’s sexuality, the poetry putting Hockney more at ease. The simple line drawings compliment the texts, the prints echoing the traditional black lines of words on white paper- there is less striving to be like another artist, but rather to be himself.

He pushes this further in the next section of the exhibition; that which explores his experiments with painting water and capturing the saturated light of California. These pictures represent Hockney’s true significant originality. Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966) is freshened up here, given a break from jostling alongside the crazy variety of other previous John Moores Painting Prize winners. The work is yet again more tranquil than in the section before; he is finding his paradise, his ideal, a place that he may not have known existed, and is showing it to us through his infatuated eyes. Words are not used within or as a starting point for these pictures; they have a greater clarity, any contradictions or uncertainties drowned out by the sun, any everydayness washed away by ripples of water.

To put it another way, I see the first section as Hockney’s unconscious tearing out into the open; the second as adjusting to reality and normality; and the third as striving for the dreamy ultimate. It is a progression, the colour progression couldn’t be starker, however, the fourth and final section of the exhibition is an anomaly in regards to this; it being more a bringing together of loose ends.

Portrait surrounded by artistic devices
Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, 1965, Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 72” © David Hockney Collection Arts Council, Southbank Centre, London. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

Uninspiring sketches and a particularly unsuccessful painting occupy the fourth space, perhaps not even occupying it but instead being hung out to dry. The starting point for Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965) was ‘wanting to be involved, if only peripherally, in modernism.’ The unsatisfactory quality of this picture, and the success of other pieces within the exhibition, demonstrates that Hockney works best with his own personal interests at the heart of his work, as well as the starting point. It is, however, quite satisfying to see fallibility, something Hockney decided against following to any significant degree. I am glad to see these works on show, they are all a part of Hockney’s development however successful or complete they are. When it comes to such renowned artists, it is no bad thing to see lesser known works and test pieces instead of seeing the work that you expect to see and might have seen in some form already. It is often this less significant work that can give you a greater understanding of the heavyweight artworks, and they don’t need to be next to them for that.

There is a Hockney exhibition currently on show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, called ‘A Bigger Exhibition.’ It explores his more recent work, and plays on his current tendency to go bigger. ‘Early Reflections’ might not have that awe-inspiring wow factor that has become synonymous with Hockney, but this is a chance to see how it progressed, where brilliance began, and where ideas were discarded along the way. Appropriately a smaller exhibition for his early works, the intimacy goes in its favour. 

 

Review by Sufea Mohamad Noor

Early Reflections is a great title for an exhibition which shows how much of David Hockney’s surroundings and those who inspired him are reflected in his early work. The show is split into four key themes which have influenced the artist’s practise, starting from his development as a student to the time he gained fame in Hollywood.

The biggest highlight in this show has to be In the Mood for Love section which is the insightful view into the artist’s life as a student, the beginning of Hockney’s creative practise. The young Hockney was rebellious – he was not afraid to go against the conventional. Even though homosexual act between two men was illegal during the artist’s time at the Royal College of Art, Hockney did not entirely refrain himself from expressing his sexual desires in his paintings.

The artist’s rebellious streak is very apparent in many of his work during this period. Hockney altered the subject of several contexts in order to accommodate his interests. A great example of this is Hockney’s Study for Doll Boy (1960) which is inspired by Cliff Richard’s hit single Living Doll. The young artist stated that Cliff Richard was ‘referring to some girl, so I changed it to a boy’.  Hockney was also known for pasting cut-outs of the singer because ‘other people used to stick up girls pin-ups’. It’s no doubt that the artist was making bold statements through his rebellion against the socially accepted norms.

Hockney was a romantic who wanted to tell the world about the man he was attracted to. Cliff (1962) is a painting showing writings of Cliff Richard’s name in which the repeated scribbles signify Hockney’s lovesick yet naive obsession with the singer. The grunge backdrop for the writings and the heart with paint slathered across it however, creates a dark, secretive atmosphere that evokes a feeling of uncertainty and remorse. The graffiti-like approach in this piece perfectly illustrates Hockney’s act of rebellion in terms of expressing his sexuality in a time when alternative sexual expressions and vandalism would have resulted in serious legal consequences.

Today, Hockney is famously known for his stylised figurative paintings but another one of his battles against the conventional was actually painting the human figure. To my surprise, the exhibition taught me that Hockney initially fought against this form of art-making during his days at the Royal College because he thought that it was not modern enough. Inspired by Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet, Hockney’s early figurative paintings took on naïve and juvenile, yet distressing characteristics that visually describe the situation in which we can only imagine Hockney must have found himself in during the early 1960s.

Other than this incredibly interesting section, I found myself not gaining much interest in the other sections of the exhibition. I feel that In the Mood for Love gives the audience a great depth of insight into Hockney’s early development and in this context, a better understanding of his later work.

But if you’d like to know beforehand, a few years later after art school Hockney then went on to create Illustrations For Fourteen Poems From C P Cavafy (1966). This set of works show images of men engaging in homosexual acts based on Cavafy’s poems about doomed homosexual love, which Hockney was very fond of. Although the starting point for this set of works started with something that the artist liked, Picturing Poetry differs from In the Mood for Love in the sense that this section shows an evolved selection of Hockney’s figurative drawings as well as his mature portrayal of homosexuality.

Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84” © David Hockney Collection Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt
Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, 1966, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84” © David Hockney Collection Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

Following from this, Familiar Faces display works by Hockney as he began stylising the human figure by producing portraits of companions such as his lover Peter Schlesinger in Sur la Terrasse (1971) and doing commissions for others. In this section, you can see that the style of Hockney’s finished pieces are often very sleek but some of his studies retain the instantaneous and juvenile look that he developed earlier in his student days.

Last but definitely not least is Reflection – a section which requires no explanation. This last bit of the exhibition includes in it a selection of optically stimulating images of water and accompanying subjects in addition to fun facts about Hockney’s water obsession. Of course, the famous Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool which won the artist the John Moore’s Prize in 1967 is presented in this section. The painting meticulously ends the exhibition with water and the male nude; two obsessions which Hockney has fully embraced, gaining him the incredible reputation as an artist that he is known as today.

Obsession is the masked theme in this exhibition. Hockney’s surrounding and those who inspired him are extensively reflected in his paintings to the point that we can validly label it as obsession. Hockney is telling us is that obsession, when reflected upon productively has the power which allows an artist to create a set of thought-provoking artworks.

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