Capturing the lexicon of one of Britain’s best loved and most productive artists is no small feat, but one executed with brilliance by London’s National Portrait Gallery. Opening on 2nd November 2023, David Hockney: Drawing from Life makes a bold reappearance at the freshly reopened gallery. Initially staged for just 20 days in 2020 before it was prematurely closed in the wake of the pandemic, this ‘updated’ iteration of the exhibition contains over 30 new portraits by David Hockney. This show is nothing short of triumphant, and a true testament to Hockney’s ceaseless innovation and creative prowess.
Uniting over 60 years of Hockney’s extensive oeuvre, across 160 portraits executed by pencil, ink, paint and iPad, David Hockney: Drawing from Life is an unprecedented showcase of the artist’s unrelenting creativity. Following Hockney’s dazzling showcase at London’s Lightroom earlier this year, this exhibition continues to piece together the trajectory of Hockney’s artistic career and his personal relationships with his returning sitters. Though the National Portrait Gallery exhibition was halted back in March 2020 due to the pandemic, Dr Nicholas Cullinan - Director of the gallery - promised its return after the troubles to be “even better than before”: and they did so to new and spectacular ends.
This trailblazing retrospective connects five of Hockney’s most thoroughly explored subjects - including the artist’s self-portrait; his friend, Celia Birtwell; his mother, Laura Hockney; his former partner and curator, Gregory Evans; and his master printer, Maurice Payne. The show proves Hockney’s aptitude not only as an artist in the traditional sense of the word, but also as a “master draughtsman”: a jack of all trades, and a master of all.
As soon as you walk through the entrance to David Hockney: Drawing from Life, you start this touching journey through the artist’s life and work with two self-portraits. Side by side, we see the young artist in the formative years of his career - though already with a clear sense of self in his expression and colourful collaged ensemble. To the left, a self-portrait recently executed at the artist’s Normandy studio depicts the artist in his maturity. With a familiar sense of candid abandon, Hockney presents himself here with the eclectic self-fashioning for which the artist is known and loved. Hockney gazes out to the viewer here with a paintbrush in hand, reaching out to the right of the composition towards his early self-portrait. From his early years to the present, the act of looking and - indeed - ‘drawing from life’ has been a crucial touchstone of Hockney’s piercing representation.
Through the first archway of the exhibition space, we see My Parents and Myself - an earlier version of My Parents, which resides in Tate’s collection. This painting - thought to be lost before it was rediscovered by the show’s curator, Sarah Howgate, is unfinished; with masking tape revealing the technical process of Hockney at work on the canvas. In this work - unlike My Parents - we are afforded a glimpse of Hockney’s self-portrait in the mirror at the centre of the composition in a playful Holbein-inspired reflection. From the get-go, Hockney’s influences - from Holbein, to Picasso, to Matisse - are played out before the viewer. Indeed, this exhibition is proof in point that in order for an artist to truly break with tradition, it must first be studied.
Facing the viewer as they take their first steps through the exhibition is a dark alcove, illuminated by three screens showing some of Hockney’s more recent works executed on his iPad. Despite the iPad forming a large proportion of the artist’s more recent work, these form a relatively minimal part of Drawing from Life; perhaps because London’s Lightroom had provided him with the perfect stage with which to present these digitally-rendered compositions earlier this year at Bigger and Closer, not Smaller and Further Away. Nonetheless, Hockney’s iPad self-portraits fade in and out of two screens while a third plays a time-lapse screen recording of the artist producing one of these self-portraits. At the end of each cycle, the centre screen pans to an iPad drawing of Hockney’s much-abused ashtray - a tongue-in-cheek reminder that the artist’s anti-smoking fanatic of a father clearly had little influence.
Also in this alcove, we see video footage of the artist flicking through a hand-delineated sketchbook, and another devoted solely to Hockney’s mother. These two sketchbooks form one of hundreds held by the artist’s private estate, and speak to his relentless pursuit of seeing and representing into his maturity.
From the dimly lit alcove, gallery-goers traverse along a corridor populated by a series of works on paper scoping the artist’s career. On one side of the wall is a lithographic series, A Rake’s Progress, a semi-autobiographical series following the artist’s first visit to the United States in 1961 - informed by William Hogarth’s set of engravings from 1735. Directly opposite is another self-portrait, from Hockney’s Home Made Prints body of work, which was executed using a Xerox photocopier. The influence of Picasso becomes increasingly apparent throughout this portion of the exhibition, as does Hockney’s growing occupation with colour.
An entire room of the exhibition is devoted to renowned textile designer Celia Birtwell, one of Hockney’s closest friends and confidants since the 1960s. As the exhibition label rightly observes, Celia is not merely an enduring ‘muse’ for Hockney. Rather, the pair were symbiotically inspired by one another. As we see in many of the portraits in this room - executed in monochrome, colour, and in one of Hockney’s large photo collages - Hockney pays particularly close attention to the fabrics designed and worn by Celia. In his portraits of her, perhaps more than any of his other sitters, the representation of Celia’s garments is spared no detail - seemingly representing as much about her character as her familiar face.
Adjacent to the Celia room is a snug dedicated to Hockney’s mother, Laura Hockney. Amongst these poignant portraits of his mother is an ink drawing of Laura on the day of her husband’s (Hockney’s father’s) funeral. Indeed, it seems that Hockney saw that a photograph couldn’t relay and distil the sadness felt by his mother in this moment; this was something that could only be captured by Hockney’s line. Until her own death, Laura remained a ‘loyal and patient model’, as we see in open sketchbook pages presented in this room. Of all the rooms in Drawing from Life, it is this one which seems to capture Hockney’s art as a vessel through which he connects with his sitters. From quickly delineated sketches to thoroughly conceived photo collages, each of Hockney’s portraits of his mother expresses the unspoken compassion between mother and child.
This room of the exhibition features perhaps the largest scope of portraits, in terms of their multitude and style. Hockney met Gregory Evans in Paris in 1974, and the portraits presented in this room ‘tell the story of the ebb and flow of their time spent together’. Depicted in a variety of media, colour palettes, and sizes, these portraits reveal the intimacy between Hockney and his romantic partner, assistant, studio manager, and curator. Taking prime place in the room is a large portrait of Gregory ‘exploring the landscape of the face’, which is spliced into Picasso-informed segments and tells of Hockney’s fascination with Gregory’s features and character. Contained within a small square at the top of the picture plane are Gregory’s pursed pink lips, which the artist paid particular attention to throughout all his portraits of this sitter.
After meeting in London in the mid-1960s, Maurice Payne became one of Hockney’s prime collaborators: working on significant projects such as Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969) and The Man with the Blue Guitar (1976-77). Some 20 years later, the pair worked together once again in a West Hollywood printing studio to produce portraits of Hockney’s friends, family, and his beloved dachshunds, Boodgie and Stanley. Indeed, the only disappointment from David Hockney: Drawing from Life is the omittance of Hockney’s hounds from this grand retrospective.
Towards the close of the exhibition, a wall presents Hockney’s most frequent sitters in more recent times - a ‘Where Are They Now?’ reunion of those nearest and dearest to the artist. These sepia ink portraits present Gregory, Celia, and Maurice in the spring of 2019 from Hockney’s Normandy studio. Though time has certainly manifested itself on the faces of these returning sitters, these portraits speak to the unwavering glimmer of vitality ignited by Hockney’s close studies of his subjects.
Finally, viewers are ushered into the final room - which is a new addition to the exhibition - encircled by large-scale colourful painted portraits from the Normandy studio. Including the much-celebrated portrait of pop icon, Harry Styles, and Hockney’s partner Jean-Pierre Gonçlaves, these portraits show that Hockney will not be retiring any time soon.
Executed quickly, throughout two-to-three sittings each, these new portraits have a visceral quality; the artist appears determined to look and interpret new faces and characters with equal measures of inquisitiveness and joy. Now at the age of 86, Hockney continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the arena of Contemporary Art, and these final portraits are a hopeful signal that this portfolio is unlikely to be his last.
David Hockney: Drawing from Life runs from November 2 2023 - 21 January 2024. Tickets can be purchased here.
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