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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn