David Hockney prints @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Disappointing. But then I’ve never liked Hockney. I’ve been to innumerable exhibitions, including the big one at the Royal Academy in spring 2012. Big, bright and empty, was my sad conclusion.

The show

It took 20 minutes to stroll through the half dozen small rooms at the DPG. In the first were the earliest prints from his 1960s student days. In the next room a series of etchings illustrating the homoerotic poems of Cavafy: Hockney’s Cavafy etchings. Drab. Passionless.

Elsewhere were big portraits of friends of the artist’s in early 1970s California eg Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Ugly. Very English in their graceless lumpiness.

Some prints of flowers, one or two of which I liked. Hockney flower print. One of his two brightly coloured pet dachshunds. The last room contained massive overcoloured recent prints, very much like the vast paintings of Yorkshire landscapes which clogged up the RA two years ago, only without their naive landscape appeal. Several horribly garish prints of the atrium of a hotel in Mexico, some others with wackily-shaped frames.

Why Hockney bores me

What they all have in common, for me, is:

  • it’s all figurative; it’s all about conveying what he sees
  • but all done in a sketchy, distorted, 6th form/art school way; the figures are scratchy, unappealing, unattractive; the architecture is distorted, the swimming pools are… abstract, cold, empty. Only the dogs and some of the flowers bore an attractive resemblance to their subject
  • I struggle to think of another artist whose images of the human figure are so unerotic, unsensual, passionless and blank e.g. Portrait of Cavafy II
  • throughout the works are jokey references to other artists, including some tiresome homages or whatever to Picasso, all which serve to highlight how empty and subjectless Hockney’s own art is
  • which leads on to the blah in the catalogue and the interviews/articles always emphasising what a ceaseless explorer and pioneer and innovator he is: Polaroid art, computer art, ipad art and the rest of it – who cares: is it any good?

Define ‘good’. Well: passionate, engaged and engaging, exciting. Pretty much none of the works on display here engaged, excited, amused, entertained, stimulated, frightened or moved me. Or even made me look at them twice. Yep another horrible portrait from the 70s. Yep another so-so print of a vase of flowers. Yawn.

In the final room one of the better pieces Matelot Kevin Druez 2  is obviously, as a study, as a piece of representational art, good, very good. But would you buy it, would you have it in your living room, can you even be bothered to look at it for more than 30 seconds, do you want to come back and look at it again? No.

Is anything at all in this exhibition beautiful? No.

The video

The DPG’s video is a triumph of marketing: the use of rostrum camera and close-up on detail of the prints makes them all look much more powerful and attractive than they actually seemed, hanging limply on the big white walls of the gallery. Maybe his art is best seen in videos and TV documentaries…

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture @ the Royal Academy

11 March 2012

I was out in woods and fields all day yesterday which set me up nicely to go this morning to the Royal Academy for ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’, an enormous exhibition of recent landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds where he now lives.

Over the years I’ve been to various Hockney exhibitions and never felt a thing. Blank. Here I chatted to a curator who gave some reasons:

  1.  The paintings are immediately there with little or no friction, quick and easy to swallow.
  2. The tonal range is limited – lots of violent reds and purples and greens which get very samey.
  3. They’re soulless: big, slick, there are hundreds and hundreds of them, but no one image struck me, shook me.

That said, we all liked the roomful of ipad art best, images he drew on an ipad, then printed blown-up. There was more attention to the detail of flowers and leaf shapes, trees and puddles, than in the huge oil paintings. Paradoxically, though, the biggest painting of all, ‘The arrival of spring in Woldgate’, was wonderful and, along with a handful in the last, cramped room in the same style, had much more balance and abstraction, like a book illustration or an opera set.

Regardless of my petty preferences, for a man approaching his 75th birthday, the exhibition is an amazing, inspiring achievement.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

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