There are many things a trendy Londoner can do on a Saturday night; there are exciting restaurants to try, hot West End shows to enjoy and any number of music venues, pubs, clubs and summer festivals to partake of. However, if you’re looking for something a little different then then the Royal Academy could be your new place to be. At 7pm on the biggest night out of the week while the rest of London is jostling for elbow room to eat their expensive dinner, or squeezing their wallets to afford a decent view of whichever A-List actor is treading the boards this month, you could be leisurely strolling round the new David Hockney exhibition for a mere £10 and a good 3 hours grace to take it all in.
Museum lates have become a big thing in the past couple of years with some even offering the chance to sleep there over night, and while most will open later one night per week, usually a Thursday or Friday till 8pm or 9pm, the Royal Academy (and Tate Modern) stays open till 10pm on a Friday and Saturday night, meaning while everyone you know is heading for the same tired old venues or yet another season of X-Factor, you can be starting a new trend for Saturday night gallery visits. I should note at this point, it’s only for the summer to allow more people to see its main Summer Exhibition, but who knows how influential it may be.
So over to Hockney then, and the Royal Academy has an excellent track record of exhibiting the artist’s work, particularly the stunning Bigger Picture show in 2012, comprising landscapes largely inspired by his native Yorkshire with some created using an ipad. The show was hailed for its radiance as it charted the changing seasons and it became one of the most influential exhibitions of the year. This new show isn’t quite in the same league, but it does give fascinating insights into Hockney’s use of colour, light and his social circle.
So having devoted a show to British landscapes, Hockney has returned to his beloved LA for this one, creating 82 individual portraits of his acquaintances, friends and neighbours in California. Each one is situated in exactly the same spot in his studio, against a blank wall, and uses exactly the same chair. Each sitter has been allowed to choose the position of the seat, their pose and their clothes so while there are subtle differences between them reflecting the individuality of the models, they also have a strange uniformity that is all about Hockney himself.
Each picture was created in just three days, from July 2013 to March 2016, and hung chronologically in the gallery, allowing you to see the development of the project from day one. This is essentially Hockney’s own version of Facebook and having 82 ‘friends’ is pretty respectable, especially for a 79-year old. For the most part, these people are distinctly un-famous and none of these pieces were formally commissioned, these are very-much Hockney’s choices: “I don’t do celebrities’ he explains, ‘photography does celebrities. My friends are my celebrities.”
The quality of the portraits is debatable, they’re certainly rough given the limited timescale imposed on each one and in several places pencil lines are still visible under the paint. They’re almost impressionistic at times as sweeps of colour imply form, while perspective sometimes goes awry. There’s plenty of wonky feet and oddly shaped hands, yet sitters agree that Hockney has captured them; Edith Devaney wrote that she ‘found my likeness somehow both familiar and unfamiliar’ while Hockney replied that “I have got an aspect of you”.
But looking at them altogether, it seemed that accurate depiction wasn’t really the point – or he would surely have devoted more time to them – instead it’s the process of creation, the compiling of a substantial body of work in three years and the opportunity to play with colour that seem to be the real purpose of this show, and in that sense it is very successful.
Hockney’s palate naturally changes when in California so the deep browns and greens so prevalent in his Yorkshire landscapes, become vivid blues, greens and yellows in the American sunshine. Psychologically, people are more daring in the colour of their clothes in warmer weather so be prepared to see plenty of hot pink trousers, acid yellow shirts and orange jumpers, mixed with the more conservative navies, browns and whites that are most people’s staples. To what extent Hockney has exaggerated the original colours for effect is for us to interpret, but a reunion with all 82 sitters might be a sunglasses affair! But these colours make such an impact because Hockney pairs them with a perfect background shade of green or blue. In fact every single portrait is united by this slightly changing colour scheme – a plain wall and floor painted in a wonderful variation of shades of just green or blue that help the viewer to focus on the subject or a particular item of their clothing, such as Rita Pynoos scarlet silk skirt, artist Bing McGilvray’s startlingly yellow-green shirt or Martin Gayford’s orange jumper.
But there are plenty of pictures where the subject is wearing much more muted colours, yet still these warm background tones give a kind of animation to the subject that is at odds with their expression and reticence. Hockney’s sister Margaret and her friend Pauline look like reluctant subjects and interestingly, no one looks thrilled in these pictures either, there’s a lot of grumpy faces and some occasionally aggressive postures, suggesting the lack of comfort felt by many of the sitters. Gregory Evans’s arms folded scowling gesture speaks volumes, while designer Celia Birtwhistle perches tentatively on her chair as though needing to run away any second. One of the triumphs here is the way in which Hockney has used a huge variety of peach and pink shades to give shadow and shape to the faces he depicts and up close you can see how carefully he’s observed the way light falls across the nose and cheeks to make these faces come alive.
As you walk around this gallery you begin to pay less attention to the individuals and more to the way in which Hockney has captured their gestures and body language. Despite the odd famous name, perhaps most striking of all is the ordinariness of all of these people, for the most part painted with all the lumps and bumps of middle age. The use of colour particularly in the background takes that ordinariness and illuminates it, because as Hockney said these people are his celebrities.
It’s not Hockney’s most brilliant exhibition and if you’re looking for perfectly produced portraits then that’s not really the point of this. Instead see it as a step on the road to understanding how Hockney sees the world and will certainly give useful context for the big retrospective announced at the Tate Modern in 2017 where hopefully the Yorkshire and California work will sit side by side. The decision to see this at 7pm on a Saturday was the right one as the busy gallery rapidly emptied of people off to other things. It meant plenty of space to see the work without a crowd and time to think about it properly – so thanks to the RA (and a small number of galleries) we can make Saturday night art a real option for Londoners.
David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life is at the Royal Academy until 2 October. Entry is £10 and concessions are available.