Sunday, 20 September 2009





Nowadays David Hockney ranks as a British National Treasure. That is, it doesn’t matter if the critics don’t like what he currently does, the British public will always flock to see it. In this respect he ranks only a little bit behind Paul McCartney, still triumphant despite an ongoing dirty divorce.


‘David Hockney Portraits’, at the National Portrait Gallery in London, arrives at what might be an unfortunate moment for the artist, with shows devoted to two supreme portrait painters, Holbein and Velazquez, both on view in the city. The Velazquez exhibition at the National Gallery is only two steps away. Yet there is no lack of enthusiasm – the queue to get into the Hockney show almost equals that for the great Spanish master.


While the critical consensus is that Hockney’s work has been gently declining since its first triumphant moment of celebrity in the 1960s and early 1970s, he still remains a formidable talent. One reason for this is that he is that rarest of all artistic entities, a natural draughtsman, who communicates as naturally through drawing as a bird signing on a branch.


Draughtsmen of this kind are in fact much rarer than good painters. From the time of the Renaissance onwards there have probably been just over a dozen – Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Guercino [maybe], Rembrandt, G.B. Tiepolo [maybe], Watteau, Ingres, Goya, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Egon Schiele. Hockney isn’t as good as any of these, but at moments he can come close.


What he is less good at is making paintings. His paintings, even when at their best, never have interesting surfaces and the color in some of the recent ones can seem rather crude. Nevertheless he is good at creating compositions when these are also depictions of a relationship. Among the most ambitious, and also most successful works in the show are some large double portraits. The best known of these is ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’[1970-1], a great favorite with visitors to the Tate. It offers likenesses of the textile designer Celia Birtwell and her then husband the fashion designer Ossie Clark, plus their large white cat, and was painted as a wedding present for the couple. Both sitters were intimate friends of the artist, who sensed, despite his generous intentions, that their marriage was a failure, and was about to break up, In 1996, more than twenty years later, Clark was murdered by a male lover.


Some of the double portraits are self-conscious tributes to the homosexual lifestyle. An example is that of Henry Geldzahler, curator at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, then the city’s Cultural Commissioner, and his much younger lover Christopher Scott. Geldzahler died of AIDS and Hockney made poignant drawings of him on his deathbed. Unfortunately none of these are included in the exhibition, as they offer the most convincing possible proof of Hockney’s gift for empathy. Yet there are also works that are not empathetic at all, such as the brutally satirical ‘American Collectors’, a double portrait of the wealthy Angelenos Fred and Marcia Weisman. Marcia Weisman, very much the moving force behind the creation of the Museum of Contemporary art in Los Angeles, once told me how much she had disliked the painting, and how she and her husband had hastened to get rid of it.


Hockney can sometimes succeed with people he does not find particularly sympathetic. This is the case with his drawing of the poet W.H. Auden. Hockney describes him as ‘grumpy’, and as someone who seemed to be playing a role, and who complained all the time about pornography. Anyone who knows Auden’s wildly pornographic poem ‘The Platonic Blow’ will perhaps be surprised by this. Yet, as Hockney also discloses, he invited two other artists to the sitting, his then boyfriend Peter Schlesinger and R.B. Kitaj, a close associate from their days as students at London’s Royal College of Art. Not surprisingly, Auden was disconcerted to be confronted by not one but three artists when he sat for his portrait.


Hockney used to have a reputation for being wildly, indiscriminately social, before deafness overtook him, and to some extent at least the show offers proof of this. It is full of likenesses of people from the beau monde of the arts. If they are gay, so much the better, but it clearly isn’t essential. There are likenesses here of the American patroness Drue Heinz, and of the artist Lindy Dufferin, who is also the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava. At the same time, there are touching portraits of his parents, his sister and his brother.


Where he tends to falter is on the occasions when he gets seized with a theoretical idea that he then carries out more or less by main force. This is the case with the series ’12 Portraits after Ingres in a Uniform Style’. These are watercolor likenesses of attendants at the National Gallery in London, painted to prove Hockney’s theory that Ingres used some sort of optical device when making his portraits in pencil. They do no such thing, and are in fact very much unlike Ingres as there is too much emphasis on the clothes and  not quite enough on the heads. Ingres, on the contrary, subdues the clothes with a soft sfumato and puts the emphasis where it counts.


Hockney’s theories tend to be rather like the idée fixe that recently seized the thriller writer Patricia Cornwell, that the leading English Impressionist Walter Richard Sickert was also the London mass-murderer Jack the Ripper. Cornwell’s theory falls apart when one sees solid evidence that Sickert was in Dieppe, which he often visited, at the time when some of the murders took place. Hockney’s is exploded by the fact that none of Ingres’s sitters ever reported that he employed an instrument of this sort. Surely at least one of them would have mentioned the fact?


These, however, are trivial complaints. The show restores Hockney’s reputation rather than destroying it, and the public is right to flock in. It isn’t Velazquez, but it is pretty good.


National Portrait Gallery London, until 21 January 2007


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