Tate Britain’s current retrospective, showing until 29th May, celebrates 60 years of the Yorkshire icon’s life and is a display of art in its purest and most playful form. The chronological exhibition is an extensive and panoramic homage to Hockney’s evolution as both an artist and worshipper of the human form and nature.
In this exhibition, David Hockney’s childlike exultation and joy in being alive is aptly captured. He is an artist who is self-aware, yet not self-conscious. Like Picasso, a constant source of inspiration for him, Hockney refuses to be pigeonholed into one genre. Instead, he cherry-picks his way through various styles and mediums. This hybridity is visible in the second room of the exhibition, entitled ‘Demonstrations of Versatility’, which displays Cubist shapes and Bacon-esque figures that draw attention to the actual process of picture-making.
The paintings in the exhibition are not only commentaries on the conventions of art but also autobiographical. They chart Hockney’s progress from the genteel puritanism of his Yorkshire childhood to the unbridled liberalism and sexuality of California. The paintings from the early sixties capture this transition, on canvases filled with graffiti and sporadically placed words. These images are not concerned with symmetry or life-like depictions, and instead act as subversive statements on sexuality. The following room, ‘Sunbather’, hosts his most famous works. Paintings such as ‘A Bigger Splash’ pay homage to Hockney’s life in Sixties California where unending indolent summers meet with crowds of pleasure seekers. Here, Hockney’s technical skill is illuminated through his depictions of rippling swimming pools and still afternoons, where inert figures—supposedly former or current lovers—lie in a soporific daze under the sunlight.
In an interview, Hockney himself confessed to a lifelong fascination with the constant movement of water, and his canvases attempt to capture this dynamism that is often lacking in photographs. The paintings in this room flaunt his fascination with the geometry and symmetry of LA’s architecture, a far cry from the meandering country lanes and pastoral views of his Yorkshire upbringing. In ‘Peter Getting out of Nick’s pool’ he juxtaposes the azure blue fluidity of water against the Spartan geometrical grey building. His fascination with the illusory nature of art permeates his work as each painting is surrounded by a border, reminding the viewer that it is a 2D depiction of reality. Hockney’s art, by this time, no longer expresses his homosexuality and male desire in a covert way. Instead, he declares it openly, depicting the naked athletic male bodies that he was so captivated by.
What shines through most clearly is Hockney’s sheer exultation in being alive and his appreciation of nature in all its permutations. This is particularly true of his landscapes. Bright and colourful depictions of California and the Grand Canyon are reminiscent of the works of Picasso and Matisse. These are followed by equally magnificent works depicting the Yorkshire countryside through the changing seasons, which are almost Van Gogh-like in their use of colour and tonality. His paintings of landscapes in vivid primary colours with strong sinuous forms are simple expressions of joy. He does not romanticise or favour the faraway land of Los Angeles over Yorkshire, and instead illustrates the same sense of joie de vivre in his British native land.
This exhibition reminds us of Hockney’s versatility and endless capacity to push the boundaries of art. It also includes the series portraits he made of family, friends, and acquaintances. Here, he combines the traditional form of portraiture with elements borrowed from the contemporary world, demonstrating his insistence on the fluidity of different art forms. The final room, consisting of his iPad series, exemplifies the British icon’s constant desire to experiment. Hockney’s art sees no limits and is open to all mediums. Even at the age of 80, he refuses to be considered traditional, moving with the times and embracing today’s technology.
Hockney refuses to be overawed or indeed be silenced by ever-changing methods and mediums of art. This is the kind of exhibition that uplifts you through its celebration of life, colour, and beauty. His paintings are a welcome antidote to a bleak world characterised by misery, oppression, and violence. Unlike many contemporary artists, Hockney is not concerned with elevating his art through pseudo-intellectual or conceptual meanings—his art speaks for itself. You don’t have to be a Hockney fan to enjoy the exhibition, as his versatility and exuberance guarantees there will be at least one painting that you will fall in love with.