On That Point: Thank you, David Hockney

Keir Mather is profoundly moved by the work and life of David Hockney

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I struggle with art. Although I can tell a Rembrandt from a Picasso, and enjoy the works of many artists, overall it’s not a mode of expression with which I feel a strong affinity. That being said, something dragged me out of bed last Monday morning, and compelled me to take the train to London, queue for an hour, and then wait until ten o’clock at night to gain entry to a room stuffed with overly-groomed men and photo-hungry tourists. And that’s because it was the last day of the David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain.

Now I possess neither the pretentious writing-style nor the required desire for self-aggrandisement to write an art critique, so don’t expect one from this piece. But I will say this—everything I’m about to write is true to me, and if it’s incorrect in artistic terms, I simply don’t give a shit. So you should really take me as earnest when I say that I don’t think I’ll see a better art exhibition in my entire life.

There’s a story behind this. There’s a reason why, when I was younger, I spent so much time poring over Hockney’s paintings. Why I was so captivated by ‘Doll Boy’ and ‘Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool’, and will forever feel my strongest bond to ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’. There’s a reason why I watched all the documentaries there were on YouTube of Hockney’s life, from his Yorkshire upbringing to his student days in London, to his stories of love and of loss in America. It was all because, in a peculiar way, David Hockney is my gay icon.

Like many other LGBT young people, I spent a lot of time trying to reconcile who I was with where I fit into my community. Where I live and grew up in East Yorkshire, there is no ‘queer community’. And even now, attending a College steeped in radical gay politics, full of loud and proud defiance, I’ve never really felt part of it. But to find someone like Hockney, and his paintings, was a revolution for me. The knowledge that there was an artist from Yorkshire, quiet and polite, who sounded like someone I’d bump into walking down the street back home, who was both openly gay and a renowned figure in British culture, regardless of his sexuality, was a source of immeasurable inspiration to me. Someone who in his art expressed all of that emotion and churning anxiety that I was feeling, of guilt, of budding desire, of raw yearning, and of love. And although I’ve never met him, and am sure he would be embarrassed if I told him this, David Hockney legitimised who I was, and he made me proud of who I am. If he was open about his sexuality, and could still lead a successful and fulfilling life, then bloody well so could I.

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I walked into that exhibition with all of these feelings and memories swirling inside me. And then, there they all were. First, the paintings from the 1960s, some of his darkest and most tortured from when he was a student at the Royal College of Art. My dearest ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’ was the centrepiece. I stopped to stare at ‘The Third Love’, leaned in closer than I probably should have, and spied in white paint amongst the maelstrom of dark colour the words ‘come on David admit it’. All of those adolescent, agonising feelings I had whilst sitting in my room back at home flooded into me. I did not cry, thankfully, but moved onwards to the next room. ‘A Bigger Splash’, and ‘Portrait of an Artist’ came before me, and an American man, standing next to ‘The Room, Tarzana’, quietly admitted to a staff member that he didn’t even know Hockney was gay. Each painting was so large and engrossing, with more vivid colours than my computer screen would ever have been able to reveal. I drank in every last painting, the playfulness of the set designs, the vastness and intricate detail of ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ and ‘Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy’, the charming drawings he had made for friends. All of them were beautiful.

Eventually, I was about two thirds of the way through, and my fifty minutes in the exhibition had nearly run out. Pass through this last party quickly, I thought, and you can go back and look at ‘We Two Boys’ one last time. But that was before I walked into Room 10, and was faced with a series of colossal landscapes of The Wolds. This was East Yorkshire, my home, with trees capped with snow, countryside in freezing winter air, and soft spring mornings. Yes, I was being sentimental, but I didn’t care, because I have honestly never felt more proud of where I come from. Thousands of people, from Chinese tourists to London socialites, have been to this exhibition, and have looked at these marvellous paintings of the county of my birth, of East Yorkshire. And as I stood there, visitors fawning over their beauty, I defiantly thought, so they bloody well should.

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As the dying minutes of the exhibition’s life went by, I panicked, and ran back to the first room as the vast spaces gradually emptied of people. I stood there, alone, taking in ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’ before our impending separation. This painting is all mine, I thought, it’s part of my youth and it will be part of my life. A staff member caught me, I let out a laugh, and I went off into the night. I think I now understand why people love art.

So, what all of this means is that I want to say thanks to David Hockney, someone who helped me understand my sexuality and legitimised who I was in a way that a rainbow flag never could. Someone who’s helped put where I come from on the world stage. And ultimately, for being someone who’s made that kid from Yorkshire that little bit more proud of himself. Thank you.