Hockney's Synthesis at LA Louver / by Laurence Fuller

Approaching LA Louver gallery last night for David Hockney's latest exhibition "Painting And Photography" the house was packed. It was immediately obvious Hockney was making the statement; that he is not only a man of his time (and one of the most successful British artists of the 20th Century), but has adapted and progressed with advancing technology, as he not only uses digital photography, but creates a new way to make digital art. I am reminded of Sidney Lumet who at the age of 83 started using digital cameras with "Before The Devil Knows Your Dead", and not only embraced the change wholeheartedly but brought something new to it.

In a recent interview at the age of 78 Hockney said he felt 30 when he paints, and the exhibition as a whole feels like the unveiling of a breakout talent, rather than paying deference to an accomplished master. Which is why I feel it's poignant to re-publish here my father's first article on Hockney in 1969, as it's fascinating to see the progression of Hockney's work in retrospect, from this landmark exhibition at LA Louver.

Pointing out the homage to Matisse's La Danse (which was probably just as obvious to everyone else there)

Pointing out the homage to Matisse's La Danse (which was probably just as obvious to everyone else there)

Looking through my father's early writing researching my screenplay about him, I found this early article on Hockney in the first issue of the short-lived magazine Synthesis, of which he was the founding editor aged 21, though it only lasted four issues it is clearly foreshadows what was to come. Especially in this article, it seems Hockney was the first British artist that Peter put in line with the Pre-Raphaelites; a critical stance which towards the end of his life he used to champion the revival of a British tradition, which 'had long been forgotten'.

Many of his comments on Hockney still hold today: "His portraits, in particular, are revelations. In a way it must be far more disturbing to be painted by Hockney than by Bacon". Indeed his portraits of people are still as stark and as striking as ever. As professional observer of people and their identities, I've always had a preference for contemporary figurative painting. There's something about seeing a person through the eyes of another that brings you closer to the truth and at the same time limited by the objectifiers perception. In the article below Peter suggests a coldness to the pictures, perhaps he refers to their directness, but I detect a love in them, and a joy for the company of people.

At this point I'd also like to share this very lively interview between Hockney and my father, where Hockney discuses the philosophy of perspectives, first aired on BBC for the documentary series "Naturally Creative".

Hockney's current exhibition shows at LA Louver gallery in Venice California 15 May - 27 September 2015.

 

DAVID HOCKNEY - SYNTHESIS by Peter Fuller 1969

To be "England's Answer", the art world's prime symbol of ' the swinging sixties', the first of the painters to move with a flourish into the fashionable, glossy covered world of the Mcluhan conscious, mass media hero, should be enough to spoil anybody, both as a painter and as a man, David Hockney, however, is delightfully unaffected.

His works are notable for their shrewdness, the poker-faced accuracy of their poignant statement; but not for supercilious indulgence in technique for techniques sake. As a personality viewed in relationship to his pictures, he is completely unspoiled and seemingly naieve. 

True, the famous Hockney aura exists; a strange, indeterminate quality of success surrounds him. The Hockney experience is all pervading and inescapable: the bright coloured imagery of the gay world, the eccentric clothes, the world renown black rimmed glasses, the bleached hair, the extraordinary outward symbols of this first ever, transatlantic artistic hit.

But Hockney's vision as a man and as a painter is almost absurdly pure. The two incidentally, are virtually indistinguishable. Whatever his subject matter, whether it is the forced glamour of a Beverly Hills swimming bath, or the intimate domesticity of two men taking a shower, he treats it with the same quiet accuracy, the insistence on contrasting detail and simplification.

There are no Hockney paintings which are remotely hysterical. If any emotion comes through the statement, it is a wit as dry as a glass of Medoc, without the slightest touch of pathos or sentimentality.

All such devices as insinuation and symbols are, similarly, eschewed absolutely. The paint itself seems to speak with devastating clarity.

There can have been few more honest painters in the history of art. In Hockney's world, metaphor does not exist. It is the blade of the knife the whole time, pressing against the expanse of canvas.

What Hockney sees, he sees coolly and dispassionately. His portraits, in particular, are revelations. In a way it must be far more disturbing to be painted by Hockney than by Bacon. With Hockney there is no suggestion of the grotesque, or revealing metamorphosis; no touch of caricature, he goes straight to the truth which exists in the naked, unadorned likeness. When we met him, there was a vast, unfinished portrait of a bespectacled man seated in front of a glass table, with a standing half-faced figure on the right, leaning against the wall in his studio. Hockney waved his hand at the picture, with the uncertainty of a child showing a toy to strangers; he seems pleased when we said that we liked it.

"He just sat around the house like that, just sitting all day tong, watching; I had to paint him; I just had to." The trouble was, without ever having seen the man, one knew exactly what he was like, how he had sat there just staring in front. There was just no shadow of doubt. That is what is so disturbing.

The kind of art which Hockney mentions in conversation is informative. Predictably, media successes appeal to him. Not so predictably, he spent a great deal of time weighing up the respective merits of "The Sound of Music" and " Oliver", speaking enthusiastically of the former. 

But perhaps more significantly, he believes that Sargent is grossly underrated as a painter. Hockney had been to the Royal Academy Bicentenary Exhibition, and was clearly very excited by Sargent's two pencil portraits there. This draughtmanship in the sketches of Violet Paget and William Rothenstein had deeply impressed him.

It is fitting that Hockney should be Sargent's advocate at a time when critical opinion had turned viciously against him, because this affinity emphasises two points about Hockney's own work. Firstly, he is a consummate master of line. Behind every picture one can see it's accurate, though never laborious graphic conception. 

The point is, of course, emphasised by the etchings and lithographs; there can be little doubt that he is the finest practitioner in this field since Hogarth. Secondly, it underlines the fact that Hockney, for all his close associations with the American sensibility, is very much a painter in the English tradition.

One can draw many analogies with Hockney's work and the Pre-Raphaelites and British portrait painting traditions, and the more one sees of his work, the less fortuitous these comparisons become. It would probably irritate Hockney if one said that he had more in common Ford Maddox Brown than with Lichtenstein, Oldenburgh, or even British painters such as lilton or Allan Jones but there would be an element of truth in it. 

Inevitably, all that Hockney stands for is concerned with the contemporary scene. But he is like a catalyst within his environment. He reminds me of poets such as Wallace Stevens who, using techniques formulated on the English tradition, took it through frontiers of landscape and consciousness through which it had never dared to pass before. Certainly, in his paintmgs, he is not creating the fabric of pop culture, but quietly observing it as it goes on around him. 

It is interesting to note that he likes to work at one remove. Among the canvases ia his studio was a still-life of a miniature television set. The actual set stood on his desk, among a melee of brushes, glossy male magazines, ash-trays and wine glasses, but stuck half way up the canvas was a small snap shot of the set, and it was from this that he was working. 

A great many of his recent works are being painted from photographs. He is workmg on several canvases simultaneously, shifting from one to the other as he chooses. But pictures of a hotel, a port and a chateau, which were stacked around the walls of his studio, were all being recreated from snapshots. 

Many of the pop painters have chosen to work in this fashion, Lichenstein, of course, used comic strip cuttings, and blew them up into works of art, but the process which Hockney is using is radically different. 

Unlike Lichenstein, he works from a two dimensional original in order to intensify "photographic" realism, sending that the static accuracy of the camera will result in greater exactitude than that which can possibly be afforded by the changing qualities of light and atmosphere which play upon objects. The transpositions from photographs, which often retain the tonal qualities of the off-colour prints, are astonishing works.

On an initial and superficial level, they are the kind of representational works which, one could guarantee, would not cause Grandma or Aunt Emily to throw up her hands in despair of modern art; they are immediatley explicit. But it is the haunting insistence on detail which is so disturbing, again 

I am tempted to call it Preraphaelile. Combined with the strange intensity of colours, it has an extraordinary cumulative effect on the viewer, leaving him slightly disturbed and suspicious, although he would find it difficult to say why. 

This seems to be one of the main problems in coming to terms with Hockney. He never answers the question " Why ". Apart from the fact that critically speaking it would be spurious, in front of the man and his pictures, I felt an overwhelming desire to ask him why he painted such and such a subject. But the question would have been ridiculous; when Sir John Hunt was asked why Everest had been climbed he simply said "Because it's there", and I am sure that Hockney's answer would have been the same. 

This is not to say that Hockney is not an eclectic painter. On the contrary, he is aware constantly of the influence of each stated image. Although he is not a symbolist, when he introduces an object into a picture he is aware of the inherent value which that object possesses as an entity in itself. 'He does not burden it with moral or allegorical implications.

When the Magritte retrospective was hung at the Tate, there was a problem picture entitled 'L'assassin menace". Predictably, it caused something of a critical dilemma: was it the great exccption in Magritte's work. The one picture which implied time before the moment depicted and indicated the probable course of subsequent action? Was it, in fact, a narrative painting? 

No one really answered the question. Magritte had been sewn up as the painter of meaningless, timeless imagery, and the obvious implications of this work upset everybody's prejudices. 

Hockney's pictures are all like this. He is perpetually flirting with the narrative genre. When he shows us "Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool", what is stated implies what is outside the boundaries of the canvas. We are justified in entertaining some notion of Nick, who is featured only in the title, and not even suggested in the paint. 

The point is important; like the Victorians, and unlike his contemporaries, Hockney is implying in a picture an existential reality which is not depicted in the brush work. Hockney, Magritte, and the Victorians, however, stand on three extreme corners of narrative painting, if we accept the genre as a closely related triangle. 

If Augustus Egg, or Frith, or any of the Preraphaelites had painted a palm tree they would have made a moral point about Christ, Palestine, growth or fruition. If Magritte did it, he would have enchanted us by incongruity. It might, for example, be sprouting cannon balls as fruit.

When Hockney does it, as in "The First Marriage", he says nothing except that the essence of the object " palm-tree" is relevant for itself alone. It is observation, close and internal, rather than fantasy or moralising. 

The element of sincerity, fidelity to- the world as he experiences it, is underlined by the way Hockney lives. His studio-flat is a perfect Hockney picture. Everything is chosen. It is relevant. 

The stereo record player, the men's glamour books, the Bellmer drawing on the wall, the pop poster, the notable absence of chairs, a collage by Richard Hamilton, and the big empty floor spaces which throw the people present immediately into relief against the back-ground, the cut out palm trees, the low level, unobtrusive furniture : it is all carefully chosen. Nobody can hide in a Hockney room; they must participate in the environment. 

Hockney himself is the same. His disarming appearance; his peroxide hair, black-rimmcd spectacles, Emmanuel College Cambridge rugger shirt, one bright red and one bright blue sock: it all sounds a random, incongruous mixture, but that is not the impression which his presence gives. Hock ney is quiet and modest, perpetually watching, assimilating and evaluating. He 

is like an Innocent in the Aladdin's cave of pop culture, observing and bringing together with seeming indifference.

This whole concept of the Pop world seems almost accidentally imposed, a result not of art but of the eclecticism of the homosexual world in which he lives. As a painter, he resembles the English tradition more than the pop generation. His choice of subject seems more arbitary than integral, as it is in the case of painters such as Alien Jones. It is interesting to note that he copied pictures by Ford Maddox Brown when at art school, and that the Arts Council bought an abstract expression ist work off him during his first year there. 

He is that rarity of English painting, unknown since Millais, a natural master, a man who has an instinct for paint, and for the potential of straight easel painting. If Hockney was involved in the world which he paints, he would not confine himself so- austerely to the traditional means of expression, canvas, paint, etchings and drawings. He does not rush with open arms towards the plastic media which form his subject matter, and exploit them as substances. 

Hockney is one of the few great painters working today who are delightfully reassuring about the continued possibilities of easel painting as such. 

The discipline of technique and subject matter, as so often happens, has paid off with Hockney. He has become increasingly cool, accomplished, supremely in command of the paint on the canvas. From the slight roots of his materials and limited vision has grown an extraordinary, exotic flower, which nobody can afford to ignore.

PETER FULLER 1969

See the full Synthesis here