New David Hockney exhibition: From Gandhi to gay love

Hockney has always had a rebellious streak, as Adrian Hamilton discovers at a show spanning his 60-year career

Of all the artists working today David Hockney is by far the most assiduous in his respect for the traditions of art and his concern to push it to new limits. However modern his subject and experimental his style, there is always the sense that here is a painter who feels himself part of a history that he reveres with past masters whom he wishes to emulate.

What you can say of his paintings and  drawings you can also say of his prints, even more so as he has wrestled and developed the techniques of the craft, as a comprehensive show of his talent as a print-maker at the  Dulwich Picture Gallery splendidly shows.

He started etching at the Royal College of Art. The story goes that he took it up because, short of money for paints, he was told that the print-making rooms gave out their materials for free. He was reputedly taught how to etch in a 15-minute lesson from a fellow student.

Like most stories that have accrued round this bluff, obstinate artist, this one needs to be taken with a good dose of Yorkshire salt. He had in fact already studied lithography at Bradford College of Art. Etching, where the lines are drawn by incising the wax covering of the plate, is easy enough to grasp at its most basic level. It is the art of shading and depicting textures which is difficult.

What the story does show is how confident a graphic artist he was right from the start. What it also shows is how cheeky he was in  his approach to work. The first print on show  is entitled Myself and My Heroes with pictures of the poet Walt Whitman and the Indian  proponent of passive resistance, Mahatma  Gandhi, each with quotes from them. Hockney himself appears on the side, presented in  the manner of a donor in a mediaeval diptych, and simply inscribed “I am 21 years old and  wear glasses”.

Nearby is the print he made when told  that he wouldn’t be awarded a degree after  he refused to write an essay. He declared the exercise was pointless as he came to study art not writing. So he produced instead an etching of a faux diploma satirising the heads of the  college crushing the bent figures of the five refuseniks beneath. It’s witty but also done with great panache.

‘Rain’ (1973) from the ‘Weather Series’ ‘Rain’ (1973) from the ‘Weather Series’ (David Hockney/Gemiini G.E.L.) It is now 60 years since Hockney made his first print when studying for a design diploma at Bradford College at Art: a lithographic portrait of himself done with a nod to Vuillard in its concentration of pattern and wallpaper but with a youthful assertion of self as he sits staring straight at the viewer through round glasses, his arms folded and his hair plastered down.

Dulwich divides its six rooms into half,  the first part devoted to his etchings and  the second to his more colourful and expansive lithographs. It makes sense. For what you  lose in sequence you gain in the revelation of how he applied himself to the possibilities of the medium.

The etchings start off with works quite  similar in tone and composition from the drawings and paintings he was doing at the same time. There is the same use of words with image, the brushed ink flows and cartoon characters that formed his Pop art style of the period. He tried, with increasing confidence, to add colour (usually red) but never seemed entirely happy at the result.

It is with his series illustrating the poems  of Constantine Cavafy and the stories of the Brothers Grimm as well as the portraits of the mid-Sixties that you really feel him finding  himself as a print-maker. He abandons colour and texture for line. He also feels rising  confidence in coming out as gay. The etchings of the naked male couples from the Cavafy series of 1966 are full of tenderness and delicacy, the figures drawn in fine lines and little tone. As interesting are the plates he rejected, not least because it’s so difficult to figure out why he rejected them.

The Grimm series from 1969 is more  ambitious in its etching of textures, their literary interpretations (the enchantress of the Rapunzel story is pictured as an old hag too ugly and too worn to have a child of her own) and in the references to the images of other artists. With his portraits of the Seventies and his flower still lifes he becomes much more probing in his use of hard and soft ground etching and aquatint, particularly after his visit to Picasso’s printers in Paris, who had developed a way of allowing the artist to use colour with greater accuracy.

‘Lillies’ (1971), lithograph ‘Lillies’ (1971), lithograph (David Hockney) When it came to lithography – a process that uses the opposite attractions of water and grease to produce plates – Hockney, one of the great colourists of contemporary painting, is more experimental, artistically and technically.

Preferring to use friends and those whom he knows well rather than commissioned portraits, he’s extraordinarily good at capturing presence in his sitters. A full-length portrait of his long-standing friend, Celia Birtwell, has her in a long dress of delicately washed black, while Henry Geldzahler, the driving force of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is shown poised at a richly covered table, his hands clasped as he stares over a potted plant.

The lithograph portraits are in many ways an extension of his pencil, crayon and ink drawings of the period, immensely subtle but confined by the print process, except when he tries (and succeeds) in reproducing the effect of rapid brush strokes as in Big Celia Print 2 from 1981. His lithographs of flowers are much nearer his watercolours, quite static in composition but delicate in colour and lines.

His landscapes in contrast took a dramatic turn with the development by his printer,  Tyler Graphics, of a “Mylar Layering system” by which the artist could draw separate colours on any number of plastic sheets and then have them superimposed on each other to produce a final print.

Already experimenting in paint with  fractured compositions after being struck how, in Chinese art, a scene was viewed from multiple viewpoints, Hockney now used the new process in the mid-Eighties to make highly  coloured prints of the inside courtyard of a Mexican hotel he’d been stuck in and also Cubist portraits in which he deepened the effect by putting layer on layer of Mylar sheets of the same colour.

‘Two Boys Aged 23 Or 24’ (1966-67) from illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy, etching ‘Two Boys Aged 23 Or 24’ (1966-67) from illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy, etching (David Hockney) The Dulwich exhibition was originally intended as a companion piece for a major  retrospective of Hockney in London. The artist typically chose instead to burst forth with a whole new series of monumental landscapes of his native Yorkshire at the Royal Academy, including a room devoted to inkjet-printed enlargements of his digital iPad sketches.

Dulwich ends with two of his recent prints from computer drawings together with a group of earlier prints made on a copying machine. They puzzled the critics, as indeed the public, as to whether they were genuine artworks or merely the products of machines. Hockney, clearly delighted with the tease, is in no doubt. However mechanical the printing, the act of photocopying a drawing, sometimes several times over, to deepen its colours, or of manipulating a computer tablet, is an act of creation.

Of course, he’s right. After a century of  Dadaism and Arte Povere, the question of what is true art and what manufactured product has long been exhausted. The issue is whether Hockney is merely playing with technology or using it for a purpose. Of the brilliance of effect in Hockney’s prints there can be little doubt. Some of his series – the Cafavy etchings, the Weather Series and some of the portraits in both print forms – must rank as among the finest print works produced over the past century. But in other works you feel the medium is the message at the cost of content.

A rewarding exhibition which firmly establishes, if it was needed, Hockney as one of the most innovative and imaginative print-makers of our time.

Hockney, Printmaker, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 (020 8693 5254) to 11 May

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence