Barely a month since seeing the Walker’s early Hockney exhibition, we enjoy a much bigger, comprehensive survey of David Hockney’s long and distinguished career as a printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery. It’s a joyous celebration of his mastery of the techniques of etching and lithography, timed to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the artist’s first prints, made while he was a student at Bradford College of Art in 1954.
I was interested in everything at first … It was thrilling after being at the Grammar School, to be at a school where I knew I would enjoy everything they asked me to do. I loved it all and I used to spend twelve hours a day in the art school. For four years I spent twelve hours a day there every day.
Hockney got into lithography early, as demonstrated by the three prints from 1954 that are exhibited here. Here is his first self-portrait, in which he stares out at the viewer with folded arms, pudding-basin haircut and the round glasses that were to become his trademark, a portrait of his mother working at her sewing machine, and a drawing of the chip shop down the road.
Woman with a Sewing Machine, 1954
Fish and Chip Shop, 1954
The exhibition opens, however, with examples of Hockney’s rapidly-developing skill in etching – beginning with the mischievous Myself and my Heroes, made while he was a student the Royal College of Art in 1961 in which Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi (with haloes) stand beside a young, flat-capped Hockney. This was a period in which Hockney characteristically scrawled lines of text on his images, and here – along with quotes by his two heroes – Hockney has summed up his own achievement in the immortal words, ‘I am 23 years old and I wear glasses’. (‘I hadn’t made any quotes’, Hockney later explained).
Myself and my Heroes, 1961
Hockney in 2012, aged 74: grumpy old man with fag
These days Hockney may sound like a grumpy old man (especially when he’s on about smoking), but back then he was an angry young man. The Diploma from 1962 came about after he and four other students were told they might not be allowed to graduate from the Royal College of Art. Thumbing his nose at the college bigwigs, Hockney has etched his own diploma, lampooning senior figures and portraying he and the other four failed students bent double below.
The Diploma, 1962
From these beginnings we move on to three well-known series of illustrations: A Rake’s Progress (1961-63), Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy (1966), and Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (1969). Alongside portraits of some of his famous sitters and friends, these reveal Hockney’s growing stature as an exceptionally fine draughtsman and his rapidly-developing skills in etching and printmaking.
The Seven Stone Weakling, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961
Bedlam, from A Rake’s Progress, 1961
A Rake’s Progress was conceived in New York in July 1961; Hockney formed the idea of taking Hogarth’s set of eight engravings to ‘somehow play with them and set it in New York in modern times. What I liked was telling a story visually. Hogarth’s story has no words: it’s a graphic tale.’ My eye was caught particularly by the witty and slightly self-deprecating plate ‘The Seven-Stone Weakling’, and ‘Bedlam’ which resulted from Hockney, in 1961 New York, seeing people with what he thought were hearing aids and later discovering they were actually the first transistor radios, as yet unknown in Britain.
Browsing the plates of A Rake’s Progress evoked echoes of Grayson Perry being similarly inspired more recently – and of another curious connection. One place where you can see the Hogarth series displayed is the in the John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was a leading architect in the early 19th century, responsible for many commissions around London – including the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
The Marriage, 1962
The Marriage, an etching made in 1962, came about when Hockney was looking around a museum with a friend:
I caught sight of him looking at something on a wall, so I saw him in profile. To one side of him was a sculpture in wood of a seated woman … Egyptian, I believe. For a moment they seemed to be together – like a couple posing.
One Night, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966
The Shop Window of a Tobacco Store, from Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, 1966
In 1966 Hockney started work on Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from CP Cavafy, a book of etchings inspired by Cavafy’s poems. The series reveals Hockney’s supreme mastery of line drawing, and the curators have grouped with the Cavafy images other prints which reinforce this impression. While working on the Cavafy etchings, Hockney visited Beirut for inspiration, then an exotic and cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, which had been the setting for Cavafy’s turn of the century 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 Student – Homage to Picasso, 1973
Artist and Model, 1973
Next are two wonderful prints – made in 1973, the year after the death of Picasso – that tell of Hockney’s fascination with Picasso that began when he was a student at the Royal College of Art. Hockney has continued to acknowledge the influence on his work of Picasso’s art and of Picasso as a model of creative freedom. In Homage to Picasso, Hockney portrays himself as a student, approaching Picasso carrying his portfolio for inspection, while Artist and Model is a marvellous etching of himself with Picasso, the two of them seated at a table, the aged Spanish artist dressed in a stripy sailor’s shirt and examining, perhaps working on, a sheet of paper in front of him. Hockney is seated opposite, wearing only a pair of spectacles, his nakedness expressing his vulnerability.
Martin Gayford once wrote of this etching:
It is a poignant image of a close artistic relationship that could not exist in reality. Picasso died in 1972. The little etching, dated 1973-4, was created in his memory. Later, Hockney confessed, “I would have loved to have met him, even once. It would have been something to remember, a great thrill.” He called the print ‘Artist and Model’, and depicted himself in the latter role, as naked sitter.
Panama Hat, 1972
So much wit and humour runs through Hockney’s work: Panama Hat is his portrait of Henry Geldzahler, the influential curator, art historian and critic who was also a personal friend who had a profound influence on Hockney (for example, recommending that he read Wallace Stevens’ poem The Man With The Blue Guitar). In 1971, Henry had asked Hockney to contribute a work of art to a charity fund-raiser. Geldzahler declined Hockney’s offer to make his portrait, believing it might look vain. So Hockney made an etching of Henry’s trademark jacket and hat – a portrait of Henry without Henry.
Henry At the Table, 1976
Henry recommended that David read Wallace Stevens’s long poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’, which was itself inspired by a painting: Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. In the poem, Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality:
They said ‘You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.’
The man replied, ‘Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.’
The sentiment attracted Hockney: the idea that reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and it is why he has worked in so many media, always searching for new ways to reveal ‘things as they are’. For Stevens, as for Hockney, reality is not an object, but an activity, a product of the imagination shaping the world.
Stevens’s poem inspired Hockney to create an extended meditation on the process of artistic transformation, of print-making as being analogous to poetry. The key for Hockney came in Stevens’s line, ‘poetry is the subject of the poem’, a line that Hockney borrows and reworks as ‘Etching is the Subject’, the title of one of the Blue Guitar etchings.
The Poet, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77
Etching is the Subject, from The Blue Guitar, 1976-77
The series is also a profound homage to Picasso: as the frontispiece to the portfolio clearly spells out: ‘Etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso’. Hockney has explained that the etchings ‘were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms. Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame’.
At this time, Hockney was following in Picasso’s footsteps in another sense: through his choice of a new etching technique. While living in Paris between 1973 and 1975, he worked extensively at the Atelier Crommelynck where Picasso had made prints during the final two decades of his life. Aldo Crommelynck introduced Hockney to both the use of the sugar-lift technique, which enabled him to recreate brush marks on the etched plate, and the use of a single plate for multi-coloured etchings rather than having to register separate plates for each colour. Both of these techniques were revelations for Hockney and were essential to the genesis of his ‘Blue Guitar’ prints. Margueritas (above) was one of the first prints Hockney made using this technique developed by Picasso.
Red Wire Plant, 1998
This comprehensive exhibition reveals the extent to which Hockney has constantly evolved as an artist, exploring new artistic trends and portraying a wide variety of subject matter – including his dogs.
Horizontal Dogs, 1998
Two Vases in the Louvre, 1974
Contrejour in the French Style, 1974
There are many portraits here; rather than accept commissions, Hockney has always preferred to depict his friends, and one constant sitter over the years has been the fashion designer, Celia Birtwell. She appears here twice – in a superb 1973 drawing (below), and in a 1989 etching Soft Celia which I didn’t particularly like.
There are also the superb portraits of Henry Geldzahler, and of his lovers, Peter Schlesinger and Gregory Evans, represented in the exquisite pencil drawing Small Head of Gregory.
Small Head of Gregory, 1976
A favourite of mine for a long time has been the series of prints that Hockney produced in 1973 that depict six weather states: fog, sun, rain, lightning, snow and wind. In the gallery at Dulwich I sat for a while, entranced by a group of primary school children who had been positioned by their teachers in front of the prints, asked to decide which was their favourite – and then explain the reasons why. Most of their responses showed how intently these children had looked at the images, noticing ways in which Hockney’s differing approaches to each weather condition reflected his grappling with how to depict the particular physical properties of rainwater, sunlight, or a blanket of snow.
The Weather series, 1973
Having listened to the kids’ thoughts on the artist’s methods, it was interesting read Hockney’s words alongside on how he tackled the work. He had been inspired by a trip to Japan in 1970, and both ‘Snow’ and ‘Wind’ reference Japanese Ukiyo-e woodcuts. On the genesis of ‘Rain’, Hockney commented that it was related to a painting he had done in London very similar to it, called The Japanese Rain on Canvas, in which he had used a watering can to pour diluted paint onto the canvas on the floor. In the lithographic version he replicated this effect by dripping a dilute form of lithographic ink down the stone.
Rain, from The Weather Series, 1973
Wind, from The Weather Series, 1973
Hockney explains that the series is not just about the weather, or a homage to Japanese prints, but is also about ‘the weather drawn’. ‘Because in each one’, Hockney has said, ‘ the problem was, not just making a representation of the weather, but how to draw it. It means that the subject of the prints is not just the weather: the subject matter is drawing’.
The print here of the wind, for instance. I couldn’t figure out how to do wind, make a visual representation of wind, because normally only the effects of wind show themselves. So I kept thinking of palm trees bending and everything, and it all seemed just a little bit corny or ordinary or something, and I was just on the beach at Malibu one day and suddenly a piece of paper blew by, and it suddenly dawned on me, I’ll simply do all the other prints I’ve done blowing away across Melrose Avenue.
Afternoon Swimming, 1980
One focus of the recent exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery was Hockney’s obsession with capturing the properties of water, and it’s been such a recurrent theme in his work that the Dulwich exhibition also includes several examples of it. There is Afternoon Swimming (above) and two examples from the 1978 series Lithographic Water.
Lithographic Water Made of Lines and Crayon, 1978
Lithographic Water Made of Lines, 1978
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.
Still Life with Book, 1973
Still Life, 1965
Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, 1971
Throughout his career, Hockney has constantly returned to etching and lithograph, regarding prints as a valid alternative to his paintings rather than mere complement to them whose purpose was the cheaper dissemination of an image. Anyone looking around this exhibition could not come away under the misapprehension that etching and lithography are techniques somehow secondary to painting. And what makes this great display of prints so stimulating and entertaining is what they reveal, not just of Hockney’s skill in these techniques, but of a mind restlessly reflecting on problems of representation – often with wit and humour. So, in Coloured Flowers Made Out of Paper and Ink, for example, he deconstructs the artificiality of the image both in the title, and by arranging the coloured pencils he used to create the image in the foreground.
Matelot Kevin Druez, 2009
Hockney is an artist who constantly looks to the new – including the implications or opportunities that new technologies offer artists. Matelot Kevin Druez, from 2009, is an image drawn on a computer and then inkjet printed. There are other examples of Hockney’s fascination with computer drawings, the best being Rain on the Studio Window, a prelude to his iPad works:
I was drawing a portrait when it began to rain. Sitting under the window and watching the rain run down it, I could immediately change my subject, get as it were a clean sheet of paper (an empty screen) and draw as the rain came down. No other medium would have allowed that change so quickly. With nature the moment rules.
Rain on the Studio Window, 2009
This is a great exhibition that demonstrates Hockney’s achievement across a long career. Hockney seems as fresh and as relevant today as he was 60 years ago when he made those first prints at Bradford Art College.
In this YouTube video, Richard Lloyd curator of Hockney, Printmaker at Dulwich Picture Gallery takes us around the exhibition:
- David Hockney: the poets that make me paint: Blake Morrison, The Guardian
- David Hockney: Early Reflections at the Walker
- David Hockney: A Bigger Picture
- David Hockney’s new exhibition at Salt’s Mill