David Hockney: Early Reflections is a wonderful – and wonderfully concise – exhibition at the Walker exploring the first decade and a half in the ascending arc of Hockney’s career, focussing on his experiences and the work he produced during the period of his growing success from 1960 to the mid-1970s.
In 1959, aged 22, Hockney left Bradford, where he had studied at the College of Art, for London and the Royal College of Art. There, between 1959 and 1962 he would begin to find himself, both as an artist and as a person. In an interview Hockney gave a few years ago on the occasion of a return visit to the RCA he said:
I had only visited London three or four times before that – I was very provincial, and the College was so lively. I’d left home, was living in a room in Earl’s Court and had about £100 a term to live on. You could do exactly what you wanted. You could even smoke. I remember having to sandpaper off the nicotine stains on my fingers before going to visit the registrar to borrow some money. They couldn’t be seen to be lending to fellows that smoked.
Hockney wanted to be modern (intrigued by Abstract Expressionism, he had hitchhiked down to London to see Jackson Pollock at the Whitechapel in 1956), but at the same time, as he explained in the same interview, he was still interested in ‘depicting what the world looks like’. While at the RCA, a fellow student, Ron Kitaj, helped Hockney to get his bearings, telling him to paint what he felt serious about. Hockney felt serious about books, politics and people.
Michael Glover, reviewing the exhibition in the Independent, wrote that:
Hockney’s works from those Royal College years are the products of a mind in turmoil, a talent trying to break through to something authentic. Hockney tries to paint the figure, but it is a figure partly disguised – and even partly explained – by words added to the canvas. […] Many of these early paintings came bearing urgent messages about his own situation as a young gay man in a world that not only found such behaviour inadmissible, but still deemed it illegal. In part, their urgent, heady feel is to do with the fact that Hockney is striving to be a propagandist about his own sexuality. And the coming allure of America, which he first visited in 1961, and which he begins to paint almost immediately … is his recognition that as a young gay man, he would be able to live more freely there, relaxing into his art, relaxing into his own life.
In the RCA interview, Hockney put it this way:
In 1961, homosexuality was illegal, but I never gave it a thought. The first straightforward gay men I met were at the College – Quentin Blake and Adrian Bird. The Bohemian world was different. There weren’t people telling you off because you weren’t prim and proper or respectable. You were a free spirit and did what you wanted to do. Bohemia was classless. It’s kind of lost now. These days, even the gays, they want to get married. I’m glad that I’ve lived when I have. It was freer.
Hockney on a return visit to the RCA
David Hockney:Early Reflections presents work which Hockney completed at the RCA and in the years soon after. Both the Arts Council and the Walker Art Gallery acquired works early in the artist’s career, and the exhibition takes as its starting point a selection of his paintings, drawings and prints held by both collections. The Arts Council Collection holds major paintings, including Hockney’s iconic We Two Boys Together Clinging, and preparatory studies for others. It also holds prints from his series of etchings inspired by the poetry of Constantine P Cavafy, which cemented his reputation as a printmaker. Through the John Moores Painting Prize the Walker Art Gallery was able to acquire one of Hockney’s most famous pictures, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, when the artist won the competition in 1967 at the age of 30.
The exhibition identifies and explores four key themes in Hockney’s work in this period: a growing confidence in expressing his homosexuality; his skill as a draughtsman and printmaker, particularly seen in his responses to Cavafy’s poems; his obsession with capturing the properties of water; and lastly, portraiture, which has continued to play a central role in his output. Let’s take a look at each of these themes.
‘I’m In the Mood for Love’, 1961
In the Mood for Love
The exhibition opens with a section that looks at some of the major early paintings produced by Hockney at the Royal College of Art between 1959 and 1962. They are works which still, half a century later, take your breath away with their cheeky determination to challenge a repressive status quo.
When Hockney entered the Royal College of Art in 1959, a homosexual act between two men was illegal in the UK. It was not until 1967 that this was partially decriminalised. Against this backdrop, Hockney pursued his personal and artistic identity as a young gay man. He found acceptance and inspiration within London’s homosexual sub-culture and later the more liberating environment he encountered in New York and California. Alongside his artistic development, Hockney became a pioneer of gay subject matter.
Introducing this section, the curators have written:
As a student, Hockney wanted to develop an individual and modern style in which to express himself and explore the formal concerns of painting. He found inspiration in the visually raw work of artists like Francis Bacon and Jean Dubuffet. Hockney evolved an approach that was part abstraction, part representation, in which the energetic and expressionistic surface of his pictures appeared scrubbed and smeared. Gradually, language also appeared, like the graffiti in public toilets: ‘I still hadn’t the nerve to paint figure pictures; the idea of figure pictures was considered really anti-modern, so my solution was to begin using words. . .’
Text soon became a code through which his gay identity could be both hidden and – to those in the know – revealed. Hockney took risks in expressing his sexuality in this way, but was passionate in his reasons for doing this: ‘What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something I felt hadn’t been propagandised as a subject: homosexuality.’
The work which gives this section its title – I’m In the Mood for Love– was painted in 1961 and is an autobiographical celebration of Hockney’s first trip to New York trip that year. In the format of a diary page open at July 9 – his birthday – he portrays himself as a prowling wolf or devil with the distinctive glasses and recently bleached blond hair. He stands between two skyscrapers whose shapes are sexually suggestive. Hockney’s raised arm signposts the New York district of Queens, which is obviously a pun. It is hot – ‘temperature 96°’ is written across the patch of cloud. This is one of the works acquired by the Royal College of Art during Hockney’s studies, or on graduation, in 1961 or 1962, as an example of his student work.
‘Study for Doll Boy’, 1960, chalk on paper
Doll Boy was a slightly earlier work that similarly contained coded references to Hockney’s sexuality. The oil painting is not on display – instead we see a study in chalk on paper. ‘Doll Boy’ was inspired by that year’s Cliff Richard hit single ‘Living Doll’. Hockney explains:
I’m not a great pop music fan, I wasn’t then and I’m not now. But I’m a lover of music and a lover of songs and I like singing. Cliff Richard was a very popular singer and I used to cut out photographs of him from newspapers and magazines and stick them up around my little cubicle at the Royal College of Art, partly because other people used to stick up girl pin-ups, and I thought, I’m not going to do that, can’t do that, and there’s something just as sexy, and I stuck them up. He had a song in which the words were, ‘She’s a real live walking talking living doll’, and he sang it rather sexily. The title of this painting is based on that line. He’s referring to some girl, so I changed it to a boy.
‘Doll Boy’, 1961
The study, like the finished painting, represents unfulfilled desire. The heavy abstract shape at the top of the canvas suggests a burden carried by the figure.
‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’, 1961
We Two Boys Together Clinging, painted in 1961, references a 19th century poem by Walt Whitman who, like Hockney, was challenging the prevailing social mores in code:
We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going – North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying – elbows stretching – fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning – sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.
The painting was completed towards the end of Hockney’s second year at the Royal College of Art and incorporates two lines of the poem which have been scribbled on the right-hand side to offer a commentary on the men’s activities. The painting also references a newspaper clipping detailing a climbing accident (‘Two Boys Cling to Cliff all Night’), which Hockney interpreted as an allusion to his idol, Cliff Richard.
The two protagonists in this painting are seen exchanging a passionate embrace and kiss in front of a lavatory wall covered in grafitti. The use of an untutored or child-like style was suggested to Hockney by the work of the French artist Jean Dubuffet. Like the graffiti, this style gives the painting a crudity and vigour but also shrouds the identity of the artist in mock-anonymity.
‘Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria’, 1966
Hockney is an exceptionally fine draughtsman, and the second section of the exhibition presents several superb examples of his developing skills in etching and printmaking whilst a student. The curators have married this to an exploration of Hockney’s interest in poetry and, in particular, how he was inspired by the poems of one of his favourite writers, Constantine P Cavafy. Hockney liked his direct and simple poems about doomed homosexual love.
David Hockney started printmaking at the Royal College of Art in 1960 having heard that materials were provided free in the Printing Department. He was a natural draughtsman and the medium of etching in particular suited his love of line drawing. In 1966 Hockney started work on Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems.
For inspiration Hockney visited Beirut, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, the setting for Cavafy’s poems. Back in London, Hockney worked from photographs, his own drawings and directly from life onto copper printing plates. Hockney did not have a particular poems in mind when working – they were matched up afterwards, chosen from about twenty etchings made in around three months. Some images visualise incidents in the poems. Others are less specific, reflecting a mood or shared experience. Hockney’s bold images were defiant in their representation of homosexual love. The etchings were published as a limited edition book and loose-leaf portfolios.
‘Two Boys Aged 23 or 24’, 1966
Constantine Cavafy was born in the Egyptian port of Alexandria in 1863 to parents of Greek heritage. His father was a merchant, whose family business had offices in several cities including Liverpool. Cavafy actually lived in Liverpool for a short time after his father’s death, but after further travels he settled in Alexandria, and later in Athens, where he died in 1933. As a young man Cavafy led a mundane existence, working as a civil servant. But he led a double-life, and in private he pursued secretive homosexual encounters. In his youth Cavafy had been tormented by his desire for other men, but as he grew older he came to terms with his sexuality.
Cavafy began writing poetry in his teens. As well as historical poems making reference to Greek history, Cavafy wrote poems set in the exotic, cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, about doomed love between young men. The events in his poems were largely drawn from his erotic imagination rather than from real life. For illustrations for fourteen poems from CP Cavafy, Hockney worked with the poets Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos, who provided a translation of the selected Cavafy poems.
One of the finest drawings here is Portrait of Cavafy in Alexandria, the etching used to accompany Cavafy’s poem, ‘The mirror at the entrance’. The poem describes an old mirror that briefly enjoys reflecting the perfection of a boy’s face as he delivers a parcel to the house. Cavafy’s poetic idea of giving feelings to an inanimate object appealed to Hockney as an artist. Like him, it had the ability to appreciate and reflect male beauty.
In the entrance of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.
A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s shop-assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package. He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt. The tailor’s shop-assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and left.
But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.
The Beirut seafront provided the setting for this drawing. Cavafy’s portrait was based on photographs Hockney was given.
‘Two Boys Aged 23 or 24’ is an etching with aquatint that accompanies the Cavafy poem in which two hard-up young lovers celebrate a card win by renting a room in a ‘house of vice’:
Their good looks, their exquisite youthfulness,
the sensitive love they shared
were refreshed, livened, invigorated
by the sixty pounds from the card table.
Now all joy and vitality, feeling and charm,
they went—not to the homes of their respectable families
(where they were no longer wanted anyway)—
they went to a familiar and very special
house of debauchery, and they asked for a bedroom
and expensive drinks, and they drank again.
And when the expensive drinks were finished
and it was close to four in the morning,
happy, they gave themselves to love.
The drawing was based on a lithograph of Hockney’s friends, the artists Mo McDermott and Dale Chisman, in bed. The striking bed cover was created using aquatint, an etching process that gives areas of softer tone to an image.
‘According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians’, 1966
I’ve selected a third etching from those on display – According to the Prescriptions of Ancient Musicians – that on publication was matched to Cavafy’s poem in which a man wishes for a potion to roll back the years and reunite him with the lover of his youth: ‘bring me back the age of twenty-three again; bring my friend at twenty years old back to me again – his beauty, and his love’.
‘The Sexton Disguised as a Ghost Stood Still as a Stone’, 1969
Also on display are etchings, drawn directly onto copper plates, which Hockney made for Illustrations for Six FairyTales from the Brothers Grimm in 1969. For the story ‘The Boy who left home to learn fear’, Hockney interpreted descriptive passages of text from the sinister story in which a sexton disguises himself to frighten the boy: ‘He stood there like a stone, not making as sound’. Hockney draped a handkerchief over a pencil to use for his model.
This was my favourite section of the exhibition, showing a selection of Hockney’s paintings in which he meets up to the challenge of depicting water. The paintings he made in California of swimming pools are probably the works for which he is best known.
Hockney moved to California in 1964. There, he began to engage with the problem of portraying water – something which has remained an obsession throughout the years as he has sought to capture its constantly changing appearance, whether in the ripples of a swimming pool or the sprays and drops of a shower. He said in 1976 that ‘the idea of painting moving water in a very slow and careful manner was (and still is) very appealing to me’.
Hockney’s submission slip for the 1967 John Moores
Since the Walker owns the most famous example of this obsession, Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool, it’s not surprising that it should form the centrepiece of this section. Hockney made the painting in 1966 and entered it for the sixth John Moores Exhibition in 1967 (his submission slip is on display). The painting won first prize and was given to the Walker by Sir John Moores.
In 1966 Hockney had travelled to Los Angeles for the second time. Attracted by the sunny climate and relaxed atmosphere of West Coast America, he began to record the lifestyle there in his work. He went on to produce a series of paintings based on the theme of the swimming pool. Here, Hockney’s friend Peter Schlesinger is depicted climbing out of the swimming pool of Nick Wilder, a Los Angeles gallery owner. The painting is a composite view. Schlesinger did not actually model in the pool; the pose derives from a snapshot of him leaning against his MG sports car. The white border and square format of the painting are reminiscent of the Polaroid prints Hockney used as studies for the composition.
‘Peter Getting out of Nicks Pool’, 1967
It’s a painting of a dream come true. Since his teens, America had been for Hockney a kind of fantasy – vibrant, rich, unstuffy and full of good-looking young men. California, with its sunshine, blue skies and relaxed gay scene was central to this dream of a place far removed from the dull skies and prudery of Bradford and England at the time. During his first visit in 1961 he found, to his delight, that his romantic fantasy was in fact a reality. In early 1964 Hockney settled full-time in Los Angeles.
David Hockney after winning the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967
The movement of water, and the effect of light upon its surface offered Hockney the opportunity to introduce areas of abstraction within his figurative paintings, and an artistic challenge:
It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything – it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description.
To evoke water, Hockney evolved a highly stylised technique influenced by advertising graphics. Hockney used the human figure, whether swimming or showering to produce shape and movement into water.
1972 Munich Olympic poster
There’s a poster here that Hockney was commissioned to design for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. By then his reputation was well-established and prints were an important part of his artistic output. The five artists who were commissioned to produce posters were left free to choose their themes, but encouraged to incorporate a relationship with the Olympic idea. Hockney’s passion for representing water and reflections made swimming an obvious choice.
Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), 1978
For me, though, the work that leapt out from this section (and indeed my favourite of the entire show) was Le Plongeur (Paper Pool 18), one of 29 experimental ‘paper pools’ made in 1978. This one is owned by Bradford Art Gallery and, like the others in the series is a vast, Matisse-like work made of coloured and pressed paper pulp.
The ‘paper pools’ were made during a six-week period in 1978 with Kenneth Tyler, a well-known New York printmaker. Tyler’s unique, water-based paper pulp technique combined painting and printmaking. He encouraged Hockney to try it. Hockney was enthusiastic about the challenge of a new medium using his favourite preoccupation, water. He liked the pulpy tactile surface texture and irregular outlines. These offered a change from the flat, regular areas of colour given by acrylic paint. Hockney’s subject was Tyler’s swimming pool. To enhance the effects of light and movement in the water, Hockney introduced the diver (le plongeur), his friend Gregory Evans. The large scale of the paper pools creates an immersive experience.
John Edwards, a Liverpool-born lawyer, lent ‘Study for Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures)’ to the Walker for the exhibition
Hung alongside Le Plongeur is a study for one of Hockney’s best-known paintings, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures), that dates from the time of his break-up from his partner and muse Peter Schlesinger in about 1971.
In the finished painting, Peter Schlesinger is the figure looking into the pool. Edmund White told the story of the relationship behind the painting in an article for the Guardian:
In the summer of 1966, Hockney was teaching a drawing course at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he met a 17-year-old student, Peter Schlesinger. They soon became lovers – and Peter became Hockney’s muse. As Schlesinger put it, “On the first day of class, the professor walked in – he was a bleached blond; wearing a tomato-red suit, a green-and-white polka-dot tie with a matching hat, and round black cartoon glasses; and speaking with a Yorkshire accent. At the time, David Hockney was only beginning to become established in England, and I had never heard of him.”
For Hockney, the memory was just as striking: “It was incredible to me to meet in California a young, very sexy, attractive boy who was also curious and intelligent. In California you can meet curious and intelligent people, but generally they’re not the sexy boy of your fantasy as well. To me this was incredible; it was more real. The fantasy part disappeared because it was the real person you could talk to.”
‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)’, 1971
A caption beside the painting tells the story of its creation. It was inspired by two photographs accidentally coming together. One, from 1966, was a distorted figure swimming under water. The other was a boy staring at the ground. Hockney destroyed his first unsuccessful version of the painting. To prepare the second version he photographed a boy, John St Clair, swimming in a pool in southern France. Hockney’s friend Mo McDermott stood in for Peter. Studies like the coloured pencil drawing on paper displayed here, also helped Hockney resolve the finished painting.
‘Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon’, 1978
‘Lithographic Water Made Of Lines Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash’, 1978
Hockney explored the swimming pool motif intensively in his work during his time in California in the sixties. Returning to America in 1978, the visual possibilities of the subject still fascinated him. This lithographic print of Water Made Of Lines Crayon and Two Blue Washes Without Green Wash is one of a series in which Hockney experimented with the same image, but added different washes, colours, tones and stylised squiggles to capture shifting colours, depth and reflections in the water. These variations were mirrored in the detailed titles of the individual prints, which were produced in New York by the American printmaker and publisher Kenneth Tyler. The pool was Tyler’s.
‘Man in Shower in Beverly Hills’, 1964
Then there were the showers. Arriving in America in the early sixties from an England where such things were barely dreamed of, Hockney marvelled at the showers, and at the American fondness for them. Man in Shower in Beverly Hills, painted in 1964 in acrylic, explores the artistic possibilities of moving water, shower curtains and glass doors – all of which excited him. He was inspired to update a traditional artistic theme – the bather – saying:
For an artist the interest in showers is obvious: the whole body is always in view and in movement, usually gracefully, as the bather is caressing his own body.
In this painting, the figure and tiles were based on a voyeuristic photograph he bought from the homoerotic Physique Pictorial magazine. Hockney called the painting ‘conceptual’. In it he experiments with pattern, the illusion of surfaces and falling water, and composition. Some challenges were unresolved – he struggled to paint the man’s feet and bent the plant to cover them.
‘Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices’, 1965
The final section of the Walker’s exhibition presents a snapshot of one of Hockney’s greatest achievements – portraiture. Portraits in painting and drawing have always been central to David Hockney’s artistic output and the Arts Council Collection contains a broad range of portraits acquired in the 1960s and 1970s. These demonstrate Hockney’s insight into the characters and lives of his subjects alongside his evolving skills as an artist. The Collection includes Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices, considered one of Hockney’s most complex portrait paintings.
As a young artist in the sixties, Hockney worried that his work was not sufficiently ‘contemporary’. Discussing his early years, he once said: ‘I have never thought my painting advanced, but in 1964 I still consciously wanted to be involved, if only peripherally, with modernism.’ So, briefly, in the mid-1960s, he experimented with ideas about modern painting and these issues are the focus of this painting of his father. Kenneth Hockney is seated amidst ‘artistic devices’- his son’s visual exploration of the way artists create images in two dimensions. Around his father’s portrait, Hockney plays with colour, shape, picture depth and geometry, responding to Cezanne’s innovatory suggestion that all nature could be reduced to cylinders, spheres and cones.
Hockney has always preferred to make portraits of people he knows, and the group on display includes an informal image of Gregory Evans, a companion and model of Hockney’s from the 1970s. Schlesinger had left him in 1971 and by 1974 Hockney had taken up with the younger man. He was hung-over after a night out in London when Hockney drew this portrait.
There are also revealing preparatory studies for some of his famous large-scale double portraits, such as that of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Hockney’s California lifestyle is also never far from the surface, including his encounter with the art collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman.
‘California Seascape’, 1968,watercolour and pencil
Tucked away in a corner of this last section is an exquisite watercolour that is not a portrait. On Hockney’s return to California from England in 1968 he worked on three big pictures. One of these was California Seascape,for which this is a study. It depicts the view through the window of the home of fellow artist Dick Smith, who lived in Corona del Mar on the Pacific coast. The picture was Smith’s suggestion. Hockney was pleased with his studies and the unusual ‘picture within a picture’ composition in which the interior is of equal importance to the exterior. The finished painting is in a slick realist style in contrast to the fluid watercolour.
Introduction to the exhibition
This is an excellent introduction by Head of Fine Art at the Walker, Ann Bukantas, to the exhibition which formed part of the 2014 Homotopia Festival.
- David Hockney’s first brushes with genius: exhibition review (Independent)
- Exhibition review: Liverpool.com
- David Hockney: a portrait of the artist as a gay man (Guardian)
- David Hockney’s gay art made a splash when it mattered (Jonathan Jones’ blog, Guardian)
- John Kasmin remembers a trip with David Hockney in 1965 (Telegraph)
- David Hockney: the poets that make me paint (Blake Morrison in the Guardian)
- CP Cavafy: official website with prose and poetry