Visually Spellbinding, Celebrating Eighty Years of Hockney
Despite having visited the City of Lights countless times and almost exhausted all its major league tourist attractions, I'd somehow never found myself scaling the exposed plumbing of the Pompidou Centre until last Wednesday. Whilst these tubular escalators offer spectacular views all over the city, on a hot summer's day one does feel somewhat like an ant being boiled alive by a sadistic magnifying glass-wielding schoolboy.
They are currently hosting a summer exhibition celebrating the life and work of perhaps Britain's most famous 20th-century artist, David Hockney.
As a relative newcomer to Hockney, I was quite simply bowled over by the sheer range and variety of his work. The array of techniques, influences and different media showcased by the exhibition is nothing short of astounding.
As you pass from room to room, expect to encounter everything from strikingly provocative abstract paintings to Polaroid collages and even stunningly high definition video installations.
Celebrating his 80th birthday, we are taken on a journey through Hockney's entire artistic career, ranging from his salad days in humble Bradford to hedonistic summers spent lounging by swimming pools in the blazing Californian sunshine.
Given his age, you'd be forgiven for imagining that Hockney had packed away his brushes for the last time, but you'll discover that he's very much still at it, producing work every day. In fact, almost all the works in the final room are labelled 2017 and of course, he's never stopped innovating his style, experimenting with new media and even trying his hand at iPad drawing. No doubt he sends a mean Snapchat.
Hockney has been quick to embrace new technology
For even the amateur art historian, there are many links to be made in Hockney's work. Most noticeably influenced by fellow artistic innovators, Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, Hockney also lifted many a subject from a homoerotic American magazine called Physique Pictorial, which along with the novels of John Rechy played a pivotal role in triggering his move West to the far sunnier and far more tolerant California. And yes, there are several copies of said magazine on display.
Given that Britain's oppression of homosexuality was a key factor in his move, it's unsurprising that in the California period you'll spot a fair few naked male bodies posing in beds, taking showers or swimming in almost-too-perfectly transparent pools.
Hockney is best known for this period; his naturalistic paintings of crisp blue Californian skies and sexually liberated young people basking in the sun. He became the painter of this idyllic, modern and hedonistic California of the late 60s and early 70s.
Most famous of all, is the iconic 'Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures)', inspired by two Polaroids he took and created in the aftermath of a breakup with long-term boyfriend Peter Schlesinger. Younger visitors might also recognise a parody of this painting from Netflix's Bojack Horseman.
One of my favourite rooms shows off a more obscure collection of Hockney's work. Produced as a series of 16 prints in the early 60s, 'A Rake's progress: from London libertine to New York dandy' tells the familiar tale of a young man whose desire for pleasures of the flesh and luxurious merriment lead to his downfall. One of the etchings refers to Hockney's own physical transformation- after seeing an advertisement in the subway declaring "blondes have more fun", he decided to bleach his hair.
Whilst Hockney's prints loosely track his initial visits to New York and excited discovery of its thriving gay scene and the associated pleasures, it's a direct reference and modernisation of a series produced between 1733 and 1735 by William Hogarth.
As well as harking back to traditional techniques and taking influence from his predecessors, Hockney has been quick to embrace new technology all throughout his career. Be it a Polaroid camera back in the 60s, a prehistoric computer in the 90s, or even an iPad, Hockney has consistently taken full advantage of any new opportunity to experiment. Apparently whilst still in bed, the artist will regularly draw bouquets of bright flowers on his iPad to send to friends.
The fruits of Hockney's technological ventures are proudly displayed in the latter half of the exhibition. Most notable is a striking video installation called 'The Four Seasons.' Upon walking in, you're surrounded on all four sides by large, exceptionally high definition screens, each showing a drive along the same stretch of woodland road in a different season. The final result is an entrancing representation of the changing of the seasons.
there is an overriding sense of joy
One of the most striking sections of the exhibition is perhaps not the most obvious. Attempting a reconsideration of cubism, Hockney set about creating a series of 'joiners' in the 80s. Using a vast number of Polaroid snaps, a 'joiner' creates one overall picture from many single pictures, effectively a collage.
This technique results in entrancingly intricate collages possessing a real sense of movement such as one depicting a game of Scrabble from one of the four player's perspectives. Visually spellbinding. The multiple photos of each player and their expressions give the collage a real sense of movement and psychological insight that is truly captivating.
Whether you're a veteran art aficionado or have a spare couple of hours before your train, this summer's Hockney exhibition has something for everyone.
We're used to imagining artists as estranged outcast figures, tortured, yet able to create beautiful work.
Hockney is different.
Throughout the exhibition, there is an overriding sense of joy, of excitement, and above all, happiness. We are witnessing the work of a happy man.
Famously, Hockney said "Art should be about joy", and he certainly wants to remind us of this, having scrawled on the wall just before the exit: "Love life, DH."
The exhibition runs until 23rd October 2017 at The Pompidou Centre, Paris.
About the author
Despite sharing the company of Rimbaud, Voltaire and co. for the third year in a row, Alec's real passion lies in writing. When the French degree permits it, he can be found scribbling away for a variety of publications, including The Spectator's Coffee House blog, Spiked-Online and - oh, how could he forget? - Disclaimer Mag!
A self-professed bon vivant, Alec is currently busy sunning himself in the South of France, whilst gleefully perusing the bountiful array of vin on offer. He's also been known to dabble in unscrupulous cheese-pairing.
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