David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria

David Hockney

David Hockney (from video at NGV)

It’s a while since I wrote about an art exhibition, not because I haven’t been to any but because this is a litblog (and I’m even less of an art critic than I am a literary one). However, I did feel the urge to write about the David Hockney Current exhibition, which is now showing at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), because I have a long-standing – if rather rudimentary – interest in him.

It all started when, early in my film librarian career, I selected for the library a documentary about Hockney. That would have been the late 1970s or early 1980s. I hadn’t heard of him before that, but I was attracted to his larger than life, big, bold, art. This film featured, among other works, his famous 1967 painting, “A Bigger Splash“. My next memorable encounter came about twenty years later when, in 1999, the National Gallery of Australia acquired Hockney’s immense work, “A Bigger Grand Canyon”, and we hot-footed it to the Gallery to see it (having seen the Canyon itself several times in the preceding two decades). Looking at it again now, I can see that the issues Hockney was exploring then, including point-of-view in place and time or, as the NGV describes it, “multi-point perspective”, are still fascinations for him now – even more so, in fact, given the way visual media has developed in our digital age. And so, this current exhibition, which focuses on his work of the last decade, includes not only canvas paintings, but digital prints, videos and iPad/iPhone drawings.

Bigger Trees on Water detail

“Bigger Trees Near Warter” (large detail)

I’m not going to write a comprehensive report of the exhibition, but just share a few thoughts and highlights, starting with his work “Bigger Trees Near Warter ou Peinture en Plein Air pour l’age Post-Photographique“. (Are you seeing an ongoing “bigger” theme here!!) Like the Grand Canyon painting, it’s a multi-canvas work. Its dominant image is, by definition (not that painting titles are always so easily defined), trees. In the delightful 9-minute video interview with Hockney, which was created especially for this exhibition, he says that he has “always liked trees”. (A man after my own heart, obviously). The painting occupies the whole wall of one gallery room, with the other three walls containing digital same-size-as-the-original prints of the work. Beautiful – and rather mind-bending to be in a room surrounded by the original and its copies.

Enlarge iPad artBut, the exhibition comprised other works as well. The first thing that confronts attendees is a wall containing a row of iPhones, each containing drawings by Hockney. These little works are whimsical and fun, but have a serious edge too, reflecting, for example, on how new media can be used to create – and share – art. There are also bigger (ha!) screens displaying iPhone and iPad art in a larger easier-to-see format. These digital drawings include still lifes, portraits and landscapes, including some stunning, very large ones of Yosemite National Park (which, like the Grand Canyon in our gallery, had increased appeal for Mr Gums and me because of our familiarity with the park).

Some of the digital drawings are animated to show Hockney’s drawing process. Made me think – almost – that I could do it too but, funnily, whenever I put finger or stylus to a screen the result never looks quite as it does in my mind’s eye. The curators’ label suggests that these works “demonstrate that for Hockney art-making is a daily activity.” Hockney suggested in the interview that drawing had been dying until these little devices started bringing it back. He was amazed, he said, that the telephone could bring drawing back! Anyhow, these digital works, whether tiny or large, made for fascinating viewing, but there were so many of them it was impossible to take them all in. If I lived in Melbourne I’d happily go back.

Barry Humphries portraitThe last work I want to mention is a little different from the landscapes and still lifes. It occupied a long narrow hall/gallery and contained 82 (I think) recently painted acrylic portraits of Hockney’s family, friends, colleagues and other artists. I didn’t recognise any by face, except for Barry Humphries. In the interview, Hockney mentioned these portraits, each of which was painted in just 2 to 3 days, and said that he sees them as one work. He then quipped – partly seriously – that at his age he now sees all his life as one work. I love portraits and could have spent hours pondering each one – the poses, the expressions. Why did this one sit that way, but that one sit this way, for example. What did their choice of clothes tell us about them? (So many men seemed to wear blue and cream/beige. Not Humphries though!)

Finally, I want to share another comment Hockney made in his interview. He said that “happiness is a retrospective thing”. Interesting, we thought. Of course, as life is happening we feel things – happy, sad, proud, and so on – but I think his point is that it’s only in retrospect that we can obtain a “real” perspective on the sense of those times. That is, at the time it is experienced, happiness, for example, is usually an ephemeral thing, or so it seems to me. In that sense it could be described as superficial? But later, we can look back, reflect and perhaps comprehend a more mature, lasting form of the feeling? I’m not sure what he meant, but this is the meaning I came away with!

It’s a great exhibition. It can be easily enjoyed on the surface, but if you spend time with it, you can see things going on underneath. Hockney comes across as whimsical, charming, engaging but also alert, ever-curious, always-thinking, and above all excited by new ideas (or perhaps, by new ways of exploring old ideas). We came away on a little high.

NB: In previous art posts I have not included images of the art for copyright reasons, but I’m now thinking that using a small number of low-resolution pics will not infringe copyright.

16 thoughts on “David Hockney at the National Gallery of Victoria

  1. Interesting write up. David Hockney is a name that is very familiar to me, but on reading your review, I find I know very little of his work. Might be time for a trip to Melbourne!

    • Interesting isn’t it, 36views, how much we “know” but don’t “know” either! It would be well wroth a trip, and the Viktor and Rolf exhibition which I didn’t write up is well worth seeing too. Really fascinating.

  2. Some time earlier this year – was it here in Australia or elsewhere (maybe while in Savannah GA – a niggle in my brain suggests) I saw the documentary parts of which are illustrating your visit to the NGV. Amazing. And d’accord re a love of trees! I visited the History of the World in 100 Objects at the NMA here in Canberra – among which a David HOCKNEY line-drawing sketch! He’s here and there – everywhere!

    • Now that’s terrible Jim, because I’ve seen that exhibition too but I don’t recollect his sketch. I do plan to go back with Husband, as last time I went with Brother, so I’ll look out for it. So much to see and take in in that exhibition isn’t there?

  3. I haven’t gone to the Hockney exhibition yet, but plan to do so in the New Year when the crowds have dropped off.

    Apropos the images, NGV generally allows you to photograph some paintings if you don’t use a flash, which I never use.

    I’m familiar with Hockney’s work in a vague sort of way, but look forward to expanding my knowledge of the artist.

    BTW Merry Christmas Mrs Gums and a very Happy New Year.

    • Thanks Anne. Yes, I knew that let you take photos sans flash (and I think with no tripod too?), which of course I did, but I’m not sure about how publicly you are allowed to display them BUT I think if they are small and low res it’s OK. Some of this stuff is a bit murky and open to interpretation rather than enshrined in copyright law.

      We do the same as you re exhibitions here – like the current Versailles one. We’ll go after schools go back.

      I wish you a very Merry Christmas too, and a great 2017.

  4. Thanks for your review, Whispering Gums, I plan to visit the exhibition in 2017. I have also been fascinated by Hockney’s art over the years, and was intrigued by the story of how he developed that whole ‘back to roots’ thing doing life-sized trees in different seasons in Warter Yorkshire and exploring new technologies, all partly instigated by his going back to the UK to be with his ageing mother.
    And now he’s had several further phases since then – how inspiring!

    • Thanks Moira. Let me know what you think when you get there – but from what you say I can see you will enjoy it. There’s another room with the same scene – digital photograph – of a road through trees taken in the four different seasons.

  5. I am in Hobart at the moment, but when I am back in Melbourne I will definitely visit the NGV. There was an enjoyable article written about David Hockney’s attitude to life and painting in The Australian, last month. He and his work is fascinating.

  6. I agree with you re copyright and low res representations of the work, especially as most of what we do advertises the work rather than profits from it.
    I generally go to the NGV on my annual visit to.mum so hopefully will get to see this exhibition.

  7. i’ve just been to the Hockney exhibition, on your recommendation. Thank you for your review which I’ve reread now with new understanding!

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