Last week, while in London with a few hours to spare, I decided to take a trip to the Royal Academy to see the Summer Exhibition and the David Hockney portraits.
I first came across David Hockney’s work during my A levels, in the late 1980s. In fact, one of my favourite paintings of all time is a Hockney: Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. When I went on a school trip to London in 1988, I came across this painting and fell in love with it straight away. There is something about that painting that hypnotised me: the light, the cat, the quirkiness, the perceived ease the figures have in each other’s company, the way they are looking out, the sunshine and the happiness infused in it. I love it.
So I was quite eager to see this new body of work. I don’t like all of David Hockney’s work but I was intrigued to see this exhibition as he had recently returned to portratiure after a long break from the genre. One thing that I have in common with David Hockney is a determination to champion the basics of art: for me, drawing and still life; for him, still life, portraiture and landscape. I admire his determination to do what he wants to do, even if it goes against the tide of fashion.
Entering the galleries housing the 82 portraits and 1 still life was like entering a jewelled Aladin’s Cave. The walls are bright red, the backgrounds of the portraits are mostly greens and turquoise, contrasting brilliantly with the bright red walls and the skin tones in the faces. The paintings are all the same size and orientation (except for one) and are spaced equidistant around the gallery rooms.
It felt simultaneously like entering a private space and a place of exposure (oddly it reminded me of how it might feel to live in the Big Brother house). The faces in the portraits are solemn, the eyes are sometimes piercing, something blank, sometimes staring, but they all look out at the viewers as they wander slowly around. Most of the portraits are sitting in the same or similar pose to each other. They are mostly in the same chair and in the same space. I felt stared at. I was staring, they were staring. There was a lot of staring.
This exhibition acts as an epic still life of many people (and of one grouping of fruit). Life has been arrested by the painting of these portraits.
I like anyone who uses subtle humour in art and David Hockney is well-known for doing that. He hasn’t been quite so quirky for a while but these portraits were definitely humourous. I loved the addition of the still life, painted as a result of the non-attendance of one of the sitters. What else was he to do with his unexpected free time? There’s something majestic about the fruit posing on a bench in a gallery full of people. It felt as if they are speaking out: ‘We are just as valid as all of these people so please appreciate us just as much as you appreciate the organic objects here.’
The exhibition is like a ‘This Is Your Life’ of David Hockney. The sitters are friends, family, friends of friends, colleagues, office staff, other artists, curators and gallery owners, and the odd child (my favourite being the rather important-looking Rufus). They comprise an eclectic mix of personalities. Some of them sit, determined to express something of themselves via their choice of clothes, glare or pose, others sit nervously dressed more soberly and some sit in the expected pose in their best dress, feeling lucky to be someone chosen to be painted by a master artist.
The common element throughout are the size of the canvas, the chair, and the background colours (with some small variations). It works extremely well. I spent a long time in the exhibition (probably longer than I should have). Sometimes I sat and stared back, willing them to blink. Often I just walked around, and around again. I also stood, and studied the paint, the brush work, the tones, the colours. I went around more than once, more than twice, even.
By the time I decided to leave, I felt calm and relaxed. This contrasts to how I had felt leaving the Summer Exhibition galleries an hour or so before, when I’d felt chaotic, energised and inspired. Leaving this exhibition, it felt different. I felt in balance.
I had studied and been studied.