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 & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on The Crimson Field
Arts & Entertainment
Gian Sammarco plays Adrian Mole in 'The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole'
books

Sue Townsend's much-loved character will live on
Arts & Entertainment
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show
TV

Kylie Minogue quits The Voice UK

Arts & Entertainment
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Favour Asikpa and Thandie Newton in 'Half of a Yellow Sun'
film

Review: Half of A Yellow Sun

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act