This blockbuster new retrospective of Britain’s most beloved living artist is the fastest selling exhibition in Tate Britain’s history. A wonderful, triumphant, unmissable exploration of the life of a cultural icon

Words Patrick Hamilton Courtney

London has been staging some truly phenomenal exhibitions over the past year. ‘Abstract Expressionism’ at the Royal Academy was a once in a lifetime treat, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alexander Calder at Tate Modern superbly explored the two American legends, and ‘Beyond Caravaggio’ at the National Gallery was an examination of how one man’s genius can influence others for centuries. And now, another epic behemoth in the form of a career-complete retrospective of David Hockney.

Unlike many artists who set exhibition records, Hockney is still alive. His most recent major exhibition in London was A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. A collection of mainly new works, it became a roaring success and was the subject of much discussion in 2012, further solidifying the artist’s contemporary relevance.

Historically Hockney hasn’t been too keen on looking back. His constantly adapting style means there is always something new to bring to the table. But now, on his 80th birthday, we finally get a show that spans painting, drawing, print, photography, and video across six decades of his remarkable life.

Hockney certainly has an eye for the iconic. So famous are some of these paintings that viewing them feels familiar, besides the fact many have not ever been on display in London before. Despite the artist being well known for embracing a chameleon-like adjustment and changing style, there is a visual language throughout his work that’s unmistakable.

The exhibition starts in 60s London, showing autobiographical works that reference pop-culture made during his time at the Royal College of Art. It’s juvenile, but there’s brilliance on show. ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’ is an enduringly significant work from this era that teases at homosexuality.

After a period of travel, Hockney settles in California in 1964. Here he creates many of his masterpieces, discovering bright white sunlight, sex, easy living, and of course, swimming pools. The language of these paintings is simpler, cleaner, and full of colour. He paints bodies of water, nude men, sun dappled modernist architecture. Though the visuals are subtle, the paintings throb with sexuality. No doubt Hockney’s frank, unapologetic gayness helped in some way to contribute to a normalisation of homosexuality in a still socially conservative era.

Next we see how growing superstardom crept into Hockney’s work. He paints glorious portraits of wealthy patrons and art collectors, usually in their exquisite homes. They are a realistic retreat from his earlier more radical work. Perhaps life had become so charmed, realism was all that made sense.

Into the 80s and 90s, a more critically challenging period for the artist, his earlier control is thrown out and he paints almost carelessly returning to abstraction and vivid, aggressive colour.

The exhibition ends with his move back to England. We see works from the A Bigger Picture exhibition, mainly landscapes, wonderful in their innocence and illustrative technique. There’s also a few more California paintings, and his opinion polarising iPad paintings.

The Verdict

Magnificent. The word iconic is one that people throw around too hastily, but this is a man who really embodies it. Whether it’s dazzling Los Angeles swimming pools, homosexual love, or the charming Yorkshire countryside, David Hockney bewitches, entices, and enthrals.

David Hockney at Tate Britain runs until the 29th May 2017. Tickets from £17.
tate.org.uk

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