Common sense and sensibility

What makes a stage designer of genius? A new exhibition of David Hockney's theatre work shows that, for him, it's a mixture of intense practicality with exceptional vision.
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Those Punchinellos from the commedia dell'arte are at it again. David Hockney's ones are a quirky lot but they have bags of stamina. In fact they are direct descendants of the Punchinellos drawn by Tiepolo in the 18th century.

Those Punchinellos from the commedia dell'arte are at it again. David Hockney's ones are a quirky lot but they have bags of stamina. In fact they are direct descendants of the Punchinellos drawn by Tiepolo in the 18th century.

Hockney loved the drawings at his first sight of them in 1980. They triggered his imagination and he brought them to life. These Punchinello outfits brought continuity, unity, movement and a zany liveliness for a whole triple bill at the Metropolitan Opera in New York: Parade (music by Satie), for which Picasso did the original designs; Ravel's L'enfant et les Sortilÿges; and Poulenc's outrageously gender-bending Les Mamelles de Tiresias.

Fifteen years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, Hockney gave the Punchinellos a different sort of job. With typical wit and command of illusionism, he painted a variegated tribe of them onto the four walls of a large room in the Haus der Kunst in Munich. Scampering hither and thither, they appeared to be actually arranging his section of an art exhibition devoted to theatre. Entitled "Pierrot, Melancholie und Maske", it was rather a grand historical exhibition which included works by Goya and Watteau.

It is not easy to turn theatre designs into an exciting, self-contained exhibition. The problem is to make relics come to life. Punchinellos can help to do the trick and now they appear to have organised a show at an old mill in Yorkshire. The Punchinellos provide a sort of prologue by fooling around in the first room, where there are chairs and tables and a bar. A different one carries each letter of the title of the show, STAGES, and others appear to hang three framed Hockney stage designs. Their installation is unarguably site-specific. Noting how fine the views framed by the windows on the mill's third floor are, it would seem that the Punchinellos have persuaded the artist to paint or draw four versions of the townscape or landscape to give windows to two windowless walls.

Their creator and patron is Bradford-born and no stranger to the beautiful landscape of the Yorkshire moors, and he used to walk past this mill as a schoolboy. Salts Mill, Saltaire, West Yorkshire, STAGES' venue, is vast, thick-walled and solid as they come. It's a fine example of mid-19th-century industrial architecture and a testament to a Titan among philanthropic Victorian industrialists. Sir Titus Salt built the whole town of Saltaire, near Shipley, for his wool workers. Now the old mill has become a combined business and arts centre, the brainchild of the late, lamented Jonathan Silver. Silver revived a dying town when the textile industry declined. His widow Maggie and his brother Robin carry on the good work with the flair and commitment of which the current Hockney show is an example. It's the largest show of its sort since "Hockney Paints the Stage" began its acclaimed world tour from the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis in 1983. It's also an exception to the general rule that most major Hockney shows are initiated abroad - in the US, Germany or Paris.

Back to STAGES. Moving out of the anteroom the visitor will be struck by a painting of a red-trunked tree on which artificial lights play, just as they did in the theatre, changing the mood and enhancing the colour in response to Ravel's heart-rending music and the feelings of the child in L'Enfant et les Sortilÿges. Then, at the far end is a ravishing, evocative reconstruction of the palace in Stravinsky's Rossignol. Here blue light intensifies the predominantly blue-and-white porcelain effect that inspired the sets. The nightingale itself, symbol of innocence and beauty, glows wonderfully gold in contrast - and above a dash of red on the right.

Facing it at the near end is a recreation of a scene from Mozart's Magic Flute. Prince Tamino's flute has attracted a variety of wild beasts, which are charmed and made peaceable by the music. "Tenors, I'm told, do not like this scene much, as the animals can upstage their singing" wrote Hockney in Martin Friedman's book, Hockney Paints the Stage. (One of those ubiquitous Punchinellos is on the front cover, shamelessly hogging the limelight and the applause.)

Hockney's rule is to be ruled by the music. Its purity made him play down shadows and eliminate chiaroscuro. The experience of designing numerous different sets for The Magic Flute made Hockney begin to think of such work as environmental sculpture.

Equally fascinating are two large three-dimensional scenes from The Rake's Progress, Hockney's first opera. On the left are 10 little doll's- house-size scenes behind a single screen, lit from within and exemplifying the definition of genius as the infinite capacity for taking pains. Hockney had designed Jarry's play Ubu Roi for the Royal Court. He had produced a suite of etchings with himself as the hapless rake in New York, in an update of Hogarth's Rake's Progress. In 1975 he designed Stravinsky's Rake's Progress for Glyndebourne. His daring and original use of Hogarthian cross-hatching continues to delight and amaze. Music experts feel that he captured Stravinsky's spirit exactly, and Glyndebourne is producing The Rake's Progress again this summer, directed by John Cox.

The final room shows Hockney's designs from Oedipus Rex and Le Sacre du Printemps, which, with Le Rossignol, formed a Stravinsky triple-bill at the Met.

When Oskar Kokoschka was asked to design The Magic Flute, his drawings were meant to do no more than inspire the theatre's technicians. When Hockney designs for the theatre he becomes a collaborator in the total vision. He immerses himself in the music, does exhaustive historical research, builds his own model of the stage, plays with the lighting and attends to every detail. He draws brilliantly and his imagination and sense of colour seem to soar. It's the combination of down-to-earth Yorkshire sense and practicality combined with high intelligence and a great array of exceptional talents that make Hockney a stage designer of genius.

David Hockney's 'STAGES' is at Salts Mills, Saltaire, Yorkshire. It will remain open, seven days a week, for about two years