Queer Identity in David Hockney’s Cavafy Illustrations and Erotic Prints

David Hockney’s In The Dull Village. An intaglio print of two men lying in bed together naked. In The Dull Village © David Hockney 1966
Jasper Tordoff

Jasper Tordoff, Specialist[email protected]

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David Hockney

David Hockney

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David Hockney's work consistently explores themes of identity, intimacy, and human connection. His Illustrations For Fourteen Poems By C.P. Cavafy and the Erotic Prints series are particularly notable for their sensitive and nuanced depictions of same-sex love and desire. Created during the 1960s and 70s, these works reflect both Hockney's personal experiences and broader social changes, capturing relationships with remarkable empathy.

A Journey Through David Hockney’s Evolution

David Hockney, born in 1937 in Bradford, England, is one of the most influential British artists of the 21st century. His work spans various media, including painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and digital art. Hockney’s journey began at the Royal College of Art in London, where his early works were characterised by bold, expressive use of colour and a fascination with personal and autobiographical themes.

Hockney’s career can be divided into several key phases, each marked by distinct thematic and stylistic developments. The early 1960s saw him producing works that combined elements of Pop Art with a unique personal iconography, as seen in his paintings We Two Boys Together Clinging and Doll Boy. These pieces boldly addressed themes of homosexual love and identity at a time when such topics were socially taboo and legally contentious in Britain.

The mid-1960s marked Hockney’s move to California, which had a significant impact on his work. The vibrant light and culture of Los Angeles inspired a series of iconic paintings depicting swimming pools, suburban homes, and portraits of friends and lovers. Works like A Bigger Splash and Portrait Of An Artist (Pool With Two Figures) are celebrated for their meticulous detail, bright colours, and serene compositions, reflecting a celebration of the freedom and openness of Californian life.

In the 1970s, Hockney expanded his repertoire to include stage design, photography, and printmaking. His collaboration with the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, producing illustrations for Cavafy’s poems, showcased a more introspective and nuanced approach to themes of love and desire. These works, including In The Dull Village and One Night, used minimalist lines and delicate shading to convey deep emotional resonance.

Hockney’s later works continued to explore themes of intimacy, identity, and human relationships, often using innovative digital tools.

An Evolution of Queer Representation in Art

The representation of queer identity in art has evolved significantly over the centuries, often reflecting broader social and political attitudes toward homosexuality. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, explicit depictions of same-sex love were rare and often coded, with artists employing subtle symbolism and metaphor to convey their themes. Prominent examples include the works of Oscar Wilde, whose literary contributions hinted at his homosexuality, and the discreetly homoerotic undertones in the paintings of Henry Scott Tuke.

“What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something that hadn't been propagandised, especially among students, as a subject: homosexuality. I felt it should be done. Nobody else would use it as a subject because it was a part of me.”
David Hockney

The mid-20th century brought significant social and political changes that began to influence the representation of queer identities in art more openly. The 1960s, in particular, were a pivotal decade, marked by the sexual revolution and a growing movement for gay rights. In Britain, the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 partially decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults, fostering a more permissive environment for the exploration of queer themes in art.

Artists like Hockney played a crucial role in this cultural shift, using their work to challenge societal norms and affirm queer identities. Hockney’s early paintings, with their unapologetic depictions of homosexual love, were revolutionary, pushing against the boundaries of what was acceptable in art and society. His move to California further liberated his expression, allowing him to explore themes of desire, intimacy, and identity in a more open and celebratory manner.

By the 1970s and beyond, queer representation in art had become more explicit and varied, with artists exploring a wide range of themes related to identity, community, and activism. Hockney’s illustrations, along with his later prints and digital pieces, continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, highlighting the relevance of queer themes in art.

Hockney’s Dialogue with C.P. Cavafy’s Poetry

C.P. Cavafy was a Greek poet whose poetry, often published posthumously, explores themes of history, eroticism, and existential reflection. Cavafy’s works are known for their concise, clear style and emotional depth, frequently drawing on Hellenistic history and his own experiences as a gay man in a conservative society. His poems have been translated into numerous languages, earning him international acclaim as one of the most important literary figures of the modern era.

Hockney's decision to illustrate C.P. Cavafy's poems stemmed from a profound connection to the themes of love, desire, and identity explored in Cavafy's work. During the 1960s, Hockney encountered Cavafy’s poetry and was struck by its emotional resonance and exploration of homosexual relationships. This encounter inspired Hockney to create a series of etchings that visually interpret the poet’s verses.

Hockney’s illustrations for Cavafy’s poems were produced in 1966 and reflect his appreciation for both the literary and thematic elements of Cavafy's work. The choice of Cavafy’s poems allowed Hockney to engage with a literary tradition that mirrored his own explorations of queer identity. By illustrating these poems, Hockney not only paid homage to Cavafy but also bridged the gap between visual and literary art, creating a dialogue that enhances the narrative of both mediums.

In The Dull Village

In The Dull Village features two figures, likely representing a couple, seated in a mundane, nondescript setting. The simplicity of the composition, with minimal background details, emphasises the emotional distance experienced by the characters. Hockney’s use of soft, delicate lines and muted shading underscores the theme of quiet despair and the unfulfilled longing that pervades the poem. The stark, unembellished depiction of the village reflects the dullness and monotony of the characters' surroundings, mirroring their internal states. By focusing on the interaction – or lack thereof – between the figures, Hockney highlights the isolation and emotional detachment that defines their relationship.

In Despair

The illustration for In Despair is a portrayal of sorrow and longing. This drawing depicts a solitary figure in a contemplative pose, sitting with head bowed in a dimly lit room. The sparse setting and subdued use of light and shadow enhance the mood of despair. Hockney’s choice to isolate the figure highlights the intensity of their emotional state, capturing the essence of Cavafy's poem, which speaks to unrequited love and inner turmoil. The detailed yet restrained line work conveys a sense of fragility and vulnerability, aligning with the poem's themes of hidden desires and personal suffering. The empty space around the figure not only underscores their loneliness but also allows the viewer to focus on the emotional core of the scene.

David Hockney’s Erotic Prints

Hockney's Erotic Prints represent a significant continuation and deepening of the themes he explored in his illustrations for C.P. Cavafy’s poems. These works dive into the intimate and often private moments of everyday life, capturing the nuanced interactions between male figures. Hockney’s move to Los Angeles in 1964 allowed him to embrace a more open and liberated expression of his sexuality, free from the conservative constraints of 1960s Britain.

Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness exemplifies Hockney's ability to depict private, intimate moments with a sense of naturalism and honesty. The screenprint portrays a man standing in the shower, partially obscured by a curtain. The scene is both private and candid, capturing a moment of personal hygiene with a sense of quiet dignity. The composition and framing suggest a sexual gaze, yet the tone remains respectful and contemplative, reflecting the intimacy and routine of daily life.

“The moment you can learn to deal with homosexuality in art, it's quite an exciting moment, just as in a sense when people 'come out' it's quite an exciting moment. It means they become aware of their desires and can deal with them in a remarkably honest way.”
David Hockney

Mo Asleep continues this exploration of private moments. The etching depicts a man, nude, asleep on a black and white floral lawn chair. The serene and relaxed posture of the figure conveys a sense of comfort, safety and vulnerability. Hockney’s delicate line work and careful shading create a soft quality to the work while the chair’s floral pattern adds a touch of domesticity.

An Erotic Etching is perhaps Hockney's most overtly erotic work, depicting two men engaged in a moment of intense physical intimacy. Despite the graphic nature of the scene, Hockney’s treatment of the subject is neither crude nor pornographic. Instead, he employs a naturalistic and honest approach, to convey the affection between his subjects. By rendering this intimate moment with such care and sensitivity, Hockney normalises queer relationships, positioning his art as a powerful vehicle for advocacy and representation.

The Power of Intimacy and Advocacy in Hockney's Art

David Hockney's body of work exemplifies his engagement with themes of love, identity, and intimacy. By portraying same-sex love with empathy and authenticity, Hockney challenges conventional norms and fosters a deeper understanding and acceptance of queer relationships.

Hockney’s ability to blend technical skill with emotional depth has established his art as a vital tool for social commentary and advocacy. His works invite viewers to reconsider their perceptions of what love looks like, highlighting the universal aspects of these experiences. As society continues to evolve, Hockney's contributions remain relevant, offering powerful visual narratives that advocate for inclusivity and celebrate the diversity of all relationships.

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