David Hockney's first brushes with genius

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Not all of his early works are masterpieces, says Michael Glover, but a new show offers an intriguing glimpse of a young Yorkshire artist urgently developing a style of his own

Where to begin? It is a question that any young artist needs to ask himself. David Hockney attended Bradford Art College as a young man in the 1950s, and there he learnt the orthodoxy current in those years. You painted like Sickert and the Euston Road School, which meant sober-suited, academically correct life studies and figure studies. And perhaps, for good measure, a few local landscapes.

We saw two of those early works in A Bigger Picture, a recent show at The Royal Academy. They were very competent landscape paintings of local scenes. They also seemed tonally dull, a little dutifully repressed, unequal to any young artist's urgent wish to make an art that he might call his own. Hockney later characterised that world in a single dismissive word: greyness.

Then Hockney went down to London, a place that he had first visited at the age of 19. There, at the Royal College of Art, he began to discover the kind of painter that he wanted and needed to be. The story of those beginnings – what he was seeking, what he found, and its California-dreaming aftermath – is told in a new exhibition exploring that first decade and a half of Hockney's emerging maturity, which opens at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool this week.

Hockney wanted above all things else to be a modern painter, and he was forever fearful of the fact that his impulses as an artist were not quite modern enough. Modernity in his day meant looking in the direction of the feverish abstract experimentation of New York – Pollock, de Kooning, Motherwell. Paris was dead. New York was the new capital of world painting. The fact that abstraction was a la mode meant that figuration was inadmissible. That judgment was a great stumbling block for Hockney.

As the section devoted to early portraiture demonstrates, Hockney was very good at painting and drawing the human figure – and the desire to do so came naturally to him. He had done it all his life. The subject of his first serious painting had been his own father. But if modernity had ruled that figure drawing was unmodern, what could you do?

A fellow student called Ron Kitaj helped him to find himself. Kitaj was an opinionated American, over in London thanks to the G I Bill. He told Hockney to paint what he felt serious about. Hockney felt serious about books, politics and people.

Hockney's works from those Royal College years are the products of a mind in turmoil, a talent trying to break through to something authentic. Hockney tries to paint the figure, but it is a figure partly disguised – and even partly explained – by words added to the canvas. The figures themselves are wild things, self-consciously absurd as figurative representations, oddly cartoon-like in shape, and often near-obliterated by feverishly scribbled mark-making. The paintings are madly contested spaces, inconsistent with themselves. They are wild medleys of clashing syncopations. They include isolated passages of near abstraction, zoomed in from nowhere in particular. In short, they are all over the place.

And why add words anyway? Hockney knew that a painting needed to be a balance of form and content. Content mattered passionately to him. Abstract painting was unsatisfying, flat, barren, describable only in terms of itself. It didn't yield up enough human feeling, human response. So why not do paintings which used words to carry across some of their feeling? Hockney trusted words. He had always been a passionate reader of poetry and fiction.

So when he added words to the canvas, they gave a freight of meaning and direction to whatever it was that he was doing. And yet these paintings always feel off-kilter, unbalanced, works of slightly rash and unsatisfactory defiance, an uneasy jangling together of the public and the private, the tutored and the unsophisticated.

There was a further complication which helps to explain why content was so important to him, and it has to do with Hockney's lifestyle. Many of these early paintings came bearing urgent messages about his own situation as a young gay man in a world that not only found such behaviour inadmissible, but still deemed it illegal. In part, their urgent, heady feel is to do with the fact that Hockney is striving to be a propagandist about his own sexuality. And the coming allure of America, which he first visited in 1961, and which he begins to paint almost immediately – oh how he glories in the phallic thrust of the skyscrapers of New York! – is his recognition that as a young gay man, he would be able to live more freely there, relaxing into his art, relaxing into his own life.

At the same time that Hockney was wrestling with how to paint, he was also discovering that he had a great talent for print-making. This talent was also put in the service of words. Hockney first discovered the gay poetry of Constantine Cavafy at a library in Bradford. It was not on the open shelves. Hockney stole the book to make quite sure that he and Cavafy would not easily be parted. His passion for Cavafy's poetry prompted him to create an entire suite of etchings, loosely based on individual poems, moments of gay intimacy, drawn with great assurance of line.

And so, in 1964, Hockney went to California, and found a theme there that suited his burgeoning talents perfectly: the pool-side fantasia. Now he was at liberty to paint male beauty unfurtively, and to set the figure in combination with a substance, water, which, depending upon how you painted it, could be as abstract as you wished to see it. Water was the ideal abstract theme for Hockney because it was so humanly alluring to the partially clothed body. Though the theme of the bather was well tried, Hockney's paintings were sleek, modern and eminently saleable.

But are the paintings in this show ones we should travel to see? Not necessarily. They define a moment. They even define a new Hockney. They are good paintings, but not great ones. Hockney's best work from these years is his drawing, and we see that fleetingly here. This is a show more about the fascination of struggle than great achievement.

David Hockney: Early Reflections, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool (0151 478 4199) 11 October to 16 March

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
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
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • 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.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat