David Hockney draws inspiration from his friends and family: ROBIN SIMON reviews the artist’s new exhibition Drawing From Life
David Hockney: Drawing From Life (National Portrait Gallery)
Verdict: The modern Old Master
This brilliant exhibition is a lesson in looking.
It shows, first, how relentlessly the artist looks at his sitters, limited here mainly to a few close friends: Celia Birtwell, Maurice Payne and Gregory Evans, as well as Hockney himself.
And second, it forces us to look for ourselves.
If we take time to study each masterly image, we shall see how Hockney has changed and adapted a bewildering array of media to portraiture as he and his friends have aged over 50 years.
The ink that creates such a tightly controlled outline in a portrait of Maurice Payne as a youth in 1967 gives way to charcoal in a portrait from 2013.
Celia Birtwell and her granddaughter Scarlett Clark pose with ‘Scarlett Clark, 20 Nov 2019’, an ink on paper painting by Hockney
The line is now shaky, as though embodying the effects of ageing — an ingenious piece of trickery.
There is also a self-portrait with a cigarette; and a wintry image of Gregory Evans, whose very spectacles seem to quiver.
Come to think of it, there is no body of work in the history of art to compare with this: one artist, repeatedly drawing the same three friends — and himself — over half a century. It is an uncanny but rewarding experience.
Look: here’s Celia in 1974, drawn in delicate pencil on vellum — another Old Master trick that produces a peculiar sheen and softness.
And look again: here is Celia, 45 years later in 2019; five portraits of her, in a row of ten of the three friends.
Hockney demonstrated, in his 2006 book Secret Knowledge, how artists of the past brought every technical trick into the studio to help them in their quest to interpret the world before them
They are all drawn in Rembrandt-like ink, deployed, when you examine them closely, in deceptively wobbly lines that magically cohere into precision just a few paces from the wall.
Hockney is a chameleon. Just when you have him pinned down as a master of the pencil, he picks up coloured crayons, or charcoal, or ink, and then a camera or even an iPad.
Along the way, he uses devices of the Old Masters such as mirrors or the camera lucida: a neat little desk-top device that helps to trace the outlines of a face and figure on to paper.
Some of the finest things on view are camera lucida portraits of Gregory and Maurice drawn in September 1999.
Hockney demonstrated, in his 2006 book Secret Knowledge, how artists of the past brought every technical trick into the studio to help them in their quest to interpret the world before them.
Adherents to the daft modern notion that all art should be somehow spontaneous leapt to announce that no true artist would ever do such a thing.
But Hockney’s own practice has proved them wrong.
The fact is that no technical aid can ever be a substitute for the technical skill of the artist’s own hand and eye.
That mastery is in precious little supply, now that life-drawing has been banned from so many art schools. Hence the loaded title of this exhibition.
Hockney is a chameleon. Just when you have him pinned down as a master of the pencil, he picks up coloured crayons, or charcoal, or ink, and then a camera or even an iPad