Fitzwilliam Museum and Heong Gallery, Cambridge
East England

Self Portrait, 22nd November 2021

“What is the point of David Hockney?” my friend Richard replied, disparagingly, when I told him, excitedly, that I would be reviewing the latest Hockney blockbuster. “No seriously,” he continued, “some important early works, maybe, but then….?” His voice trailed off into silence.

For many, the answer is self-evidently to be found in the bright colours and eternal optimism of his effortlessly pleasing landscapes, and indeed the very question is an affront to good taste. But for those who like their art a little (or a lot) crunchier, or who remain unpersuaded by his mauve trees and joyous-but-childlike mark making, there is undoubtedly a case to be answered. This exhibition provides that answer.

But to begin at the beginning. The avuncular self-portrait in tweed jacket with a cigarette (dutifully cropped out for the publicity photos) that is on the exhibition poster is unfortunately banal and disappointing. It has nothing to do with the essence of the exhibition, which is the way in which Hockney has spent his life wrestling with the problem of translating three dimensions into two, and instead it looks like an unsuccessful pastiche of Beryl Cook and reads like a deliberate provocation: “I’m still here, I’m still smoking, and I’ll paint like this if I want”. Hockney likes to provoke.

So the poster is a shame, because Hockney doesn’t need to play such games with us. If Hockney wants to claim his place in the pantheon of art gods (and I’m pretty sure that he does, and preferably fairly close to Pablo Picasso), then this exhibition otherwise goes a long way to providing him with his entry ticket.

Le Parc des Sources, Vichy, 1970

The show itself is a joy and an eye-opener, precisely because it looks beyond the apparent kitsch of some of his late work and focuses instead on the theoretical and intellectual concerns that he has consistently pursued throughout his career. An early study of a skeleton reminds us that David Hockney is a ridiculously gifted draughtsman. He has been given the keys to a very fast car indeed, but where to take it? Alongside, and gradually replacing, an early focus on his own personal life as subject matter, Hockney has made it his calling to breathe new life into the tradition of realism and the problems of depicting what we see. Specifically, he has three main agenda items. First, a continuing dialogue with western art history, revisiting what has gone before and considering why and how it continues to be relevant. Second, a search for alternatives to the tyranny of classical perspective and the snapshot approach to representation. Third, a fascination with technology and how it can be yoked into the service of art. As Hockney himself says in one of the many pithy and apposite Hockneyisms that are included on the information panels, “Photography is alright if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralysed Cyclops – for a split second. But that is not what it’s like to live in the world.”

After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge) 2017

Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Depiction is spread across two venues. Both are essential viewing. At the Fitzwilliam museum, Hockney’s work is insinuated (as the co-curators Martin Kemp, Martin Gayford and Jane Munro describe it) throughout the permanent collection, making for a kind of treasure hunt. This juxtaposition is surprisingly successful (in marked contrast, for example, with Damian Hirst’s famously awful paintings amongst the Wallace Collection in 2009). The proximity of old and new allows Hockney’s dialogue with western art to find its voice, and the choice of punchy, bright, Hockney-green panelling to signpost the interventions re-animates the more sedate reds and golds of the museum’s surroundings. There are also many excellent supporting exhibits that help to explain and contextualise Secret Knowledge, Hockney’s thesis on the historical use of optical devices in art, and the camera obscura outside on the lawn is great fun.

The Scrabble Game, Jan 1st 1983

The exhibition was originally conceived as a single-venue show at the Heong Gallery and the work shown there provides important additional material, crisply laid out and nicely encapsulating the white cube experience (compare and contrast the two venues). Here Hockney is freed from the trappings of the past and his work feels fresher. The far wall of the gallery is well used, with the large and imposing photographic drawing Viewers looking at a Ready-made with Skull and Mirrors perfectly situated and luring us in, and three of his joiners – photographic collages composed of hundreds of single images – are also particularly relevant in the context of this show.

But the stand-out piece is a video of Hockney sharing his analysis of a 17th-century Chinese scroll painting by Wang Hui. Forget the nadir of the exhibition poster, this is where we see the true David Hockney, erudite, playful and insightful. And at the conclusion of the video, he frames the whole Renaissance obsession with single points of view as a religious paradox in which, like train tracks vanishing to infinity, the viewer and God can never meet. By contrast, alternative forms of perspective require the viewer to be inside the painting, effectively alongside God: an immanent and pantheistic world view. This is what Hockney calls ‘The Theology of Perspective’ and this video leaves us in no doubt that he is its high priest. (Might some kind of pantheism also be the best lens through which to consider Hockney’s late blossoming landscapes?).

Woldgate Woods, Winter, 2010

In the final gallery of the Fitzwilliam museum we are invited to consider Hockney’s 9 screen video work Woldgate Woods, Winter, 2010 in the company of another of Hockney’s heroes, Claude Monet. This video work is utterly mesmerising, and combines all of David Hockney’s core themes: the fracturing of perspective, the beauty of the natural world, and the exploitation of technology to create the effect. I defy anyone to say that this does not capture, in only two dimensions, the essence of what it is to see, to experience, and to be in the world. As Paul Cezanne said, speaking of Monet, Hockney may be “only an eye, but my God, what an eye”.

17th April 2020, No. 2

For some, David Hockney will always be too simplistic, for others, the conversation has moved on and his agenda is no longer relevant. But every generation needs at least one artist who unashamedly reminds us of the pleasures (and importance) of simply looking and who challenges us to really see, and we should be grateful to have ours.

David Hockney, take a bow.


Image credits:
David Hockney
“Viewers Looking at a Ready-made with Skull and Mirrors” 2018
Photographic drawing
© David Hockney
assisted by Jonathan Wilkinson

David Hockney
“Self Portrait, 22nd November 2021”
Acrylic on canvas
© David Hockney

David Hockney
“Le Parc des Sources, Vichy” 1970
Acrylic on Canvas
© David Hockney
Photo: Fabrice Gibert
Devonshire Collections

David Hockney
“After Hobbema (Useful Knowledge) 2017”
Acrylic on 6 canvases
© David Hockney
Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney
“The Scrabble Game, Jan. 1st 1983”
Photographic collage. Edition of 20.
© David Hockney
Photo Credit: Richard Schmidt

David Hockney
“Woldgate Woads, Winter, 2010”
9 digital videos synchronised and presented on 9 monitors to comprise a single artwork
© David Hockney

David Hockney
“17th April 2020, No. 2”
iPad painting
© David Hockney