David Hockney’s new retrospective at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is a testament to the continuing relevance of one of Britain’s most profound and challenging artists. Hockney’s career began, so we are told, when he made his first print while studying for a design diploma at the Bradford College of Art. He created a charming lithographic self-portrait of himself staring at the viewer with folded arms, straight hair and his trademark round glasses. This is just one of over a hundred works displayed in six different rooms, all of which are dedicated to the longevity of Hockney’s varied and exciting career.
The exhibition concentrates on two of Hockney’s main print techniques – lithography and etching. Famous works, including A Rake’s Progress, Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and his Weather Series, are all available to view alongside each other in this comprehensive retrospective.
One of his first pieces – entitled Myself and My Heroes – is as enigmatic and attractive as his most recent artworks. It presents a rather timid Hockney next to two of his seemingly beatified idols – American poet Walt Whitman and Indian pacifist Mahatma Ghandi. Enclosed just above these historic figures is one of their famous quotes, while inscribed above the relatively shy Hockney are the simple words: “I am 21 years old and wear glasses”. Even at such a young age, Hockney was exceptionally confident albeit slightly cheeky.
Close to these first etchings is an antagonistic piece of art that Hockney created when he was deprived of the chance to receive his degree because he passed up writing his final essay – he told his university that he came to study art, rather than writing. He consequently created his own certificate, playfully etching an obviously false diploma complete with an image of students abashedly kowtowing to the heads of the university. In the future, Hockney, somewhat felicitously, received his diploma from the Royal College of Art once they recognised his significant talent and his growing reputation. This little playful piece symbolises an argument won.
The succeeding rooms chronologically display the exciting introduction of effulgent colour into his repertoire, along with unique and experimental artworks. His heroes can be seen throughout this exhibition. Friends, family, renowned literary figures and, of course, great artists are displayed on Dulwich’s vapid white walls as a tribute to the effect they had on Hockney’s life and work. Pablo Picasso is a particular favourite and the influence of Cubism is noticeable at various stages of Hockney’s artistic development. Allusions to poet Wallace Stevens are displayed in pieces reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘blue period’ in the appropriately titled: The Blue Guitar: Etchings by David Hockney Who Was Inspired by Wallace Stevens Who Was Inspired by Pablo Picasso. His inspirations are flagrantly obvious and delightfully exposed.
Hockney is an ever-evolving, ever-challenging artist who manages to keep up with artistic trends, setting some of his own in the process. This exhibition demonstrates Hockney’s dedication to artistic ideals and simultaneously refutes any notions that an artist’s career need be one-dimensional or ephemeral. Hockney seems as fresh and as relevant today as he was 60 years ago when he started making a name from himself in the artistic community, and the 76 year-old Yorkshireman’s constantly evolving project, demonstrated so delightfully in this Dulwich retrospective, may have many more chapters yet. All the different stages of Hockney’s long and diverse career are displayed in this wonderful exhibition for the visitor to admire. Each section deserves be thoroughly explored as they differ so much in technique, style, tone and perspective. Luckily, this exhibition will be at the Dulwich Picture House until May the 11th, allowing any fans of British Art the chance to explore Hockney’s diverse project for themselves.
How do artists manage to remain significant in the ever-evolving artistic world? To what extent is Hockney’s willingness to experiment essential to his ostensibly perpetual relevance?