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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Des Piscines aux amis et aux etres

Hockney’s Pools - Full of Friendship and Humanity

Translated Sunday 29 October 2006, by Helen Robertshaw

EXHIBITION. David Hockney, whom we took to be a Californian-style hedonist, proves to be a painter who unveils the truth and essence of human beings. In London, the National Portrait Gallery exhibits portraits spanning forty years of the painter’s career.

London (Great Britain), special correspondent.

In the 1960s, the English painter David Hockney, born in Bradford in 1937, was considered to be an enthusiast and exponent of Californian hedonism. Perhaps he was. He painted swimming pools, in which he immersed his naked friends, added a cactus here and there, a mountainous landscape evoking a sun-bathed Garden of Eden. Nobody doubted, nonetheless, that he had already established himself as a great painter. This fact is the source of his early success which was not merely due to the fact that, upon arriving in the United States, he had dyed his hair blond and openly flaunted his homosexuality. Already an idol, certainly more than he is today, but what talent and what daring he possessed! For there are swimming pools and swimming pools. Hockney’s swimming pools are most certainly figurative, but they are also abstractions, so to speak. We notice the rigorous construction of smooth expanses of colour, the definition of the figures which is not an attempt at naturalism but which constructs the figures as pictorial components, a way of depicting the reflections on a glass table, hatching them in regular strokes of white paint, the depth being defined by the relationship between the surfaces.

This was the era of hyper-realism. A myriad of American painters focused on reproducing, with photographic precision, the details of car bodywork, the reflections in shop windows. There was a strong undercurrent in this style of painting, which was more a critic of than a slave to consumer goods. Some time previously, Andy Warhol had reinvented the still life by painting the inside of his refrigerator. But Hockney was no more of a hyper-realist than Warhol himself. It’s true that he appears to conform to a hyper-realist aesthetic. But his swimming pools are always infused with a certain strangeness, with a ghostly presence. Just as in the painting American Collectors, in 1968, we see a faceless form sitting in the background in an armchair and a grimacing totem on the right hand side of the painting. In a rather casual and blasé way, Hockney alludes to death as well as to memories which are mocked. The pleasures of Californian life camouflage the victory of the West and the defeat of the Indian tribes whose spirits nonetheless continue to haunt this world.

Hockney’s paintings, during the 1970s, were haunted. The figures present in the paintings embody a lack, an absence which is not spoken. It is true that the painter’s lover and model, Peter Schlesinger, left him during this period. Hockney sank into a depression, turned to drugs for help. But he still painted and drew. And what a wonderful drawer! The small sketchbooks that we have the opportunity to see, page by page, on video, at the National Portrait Gallery are extraordinary. A few strokes of his pencil are transformed into a landscape, a house, a person. He drew everything. An ordinary car parked alongside the pavement, a cigarette lighter laid on a table, a wastepaper basket; and the object drawn exists within the space, assumes its entire weight of being. As a young man, he would draw his close friends and relatives. He often drew his father and mother together, then his mother alone, after the death of his father. Throughout the years and while he was constantly developing and renewing modes of painting, still somewhere between abstraction and representation, he never stopped painting his friends, the people who visited his house. He painted his friend Celia, in a black jacket, with the grace and lightness of touch of a Matisse. The series of drawings with pencil strokes reminiscent of Ingres and Picasso. The series of faces painted with a full impasto, accentuating the reds and the intensity of the eyes with an extraordinary relief effect.

During the last few years, he has concentrated on capturing his models in the moment, without doing a preliminary sketch, often producing full-length paintings, spontaneously, with the curious nonchalance visible in photographs which show him in front of his canvas, paintbrush in one hand, and the other hand in his pocket. By placing his models in their immediate environment, within the moment, he endows them with fragility. He doesn’t merely portray them but reveals the truth about each person. And he does so with a skill for depicting spatial elements that is confusing for the viewer. For instance in 2005 we are presented with the double portrait entitled The Photographer and His Daughter. Subdued eroticism of the young girl, satisfied expression of the photographer; it is a bizarre painting which is clearly influenced once again by Matisse and Picasso. Of all the modern painters, David Hockney is surely their natural heir. Also on display in London, at the Annely Juda Fine Art gallery, are David Hockney’s landscapes, entitled “A Year in Yorkshire”. We are already familiar with his huge landscape paintings, such as his painting of the Grand Canyon, in the United States, where he inverted perspectives and created walls of images by combining lots of small-format paintings. Here, with only a few exceptions, he has chosen decidedly medium-sized formats to paint a field of corn, the undergrowth, or a path after rainfall. He boldly depicts a waterlogged path in vibrant pink, a road in purple. These new landscapes strike the viewer as unusual. As if David Hockney had decided to liberate himself from his wealth of knowledge to become an amateur painter, with a joyful use of colour and a fresh vision, before the landscapes of his childhood.
M. U. (1) National Portrait Gallery in London. Until 21 January 2007. Eurostar offers package deals including train travel and one night in a hotel with prices starting at 103 Euros.

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