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The A-Z of David Hockney

As David Hockney, a full career retrospective, opens at Tate Britain, we offer a handy alphabetical overview of one of the most popular and influential British artists of the 20th century

A is for ‘A Bigger Splash’

Hockney’s best-known paintings are those he did of swimming pools, after moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s. A twentysomething from the distinctly darker climes of northern England, he was inspired by the brilliance of California’s light. His most famous canvas from this period, A Bigger Splash — set at around noon on a glorious, sunny day — captures the white, foaming wake in the water after a bather has just dived in. In 1973 film director Jack Hazan also chose A Bigger Splash  as the title for a docudrama about Hockney’s break-up from his long-term partner, Peter Schlesinger. 

B is for Bradford

Hockney was born in the city of Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1937, the fourth of five children to Kenneth and Laura Hockney. His father made ends meet by restoring old prams and bicycles — as a youth, Hockney used one such pram as a mobile art studio, loading it with paints, brushes and canvases and pushing it around town on the hunt for inspiration. Aged 16, he began four years at Bradford School of Art, before moving to London to continue his studies at the Royal College of Art (RCA).

C is for Celia Birtwell

The fashion and textile designer has been Hockney’s most abiding muse, sitting for numerous portraits since they first met in the late Sixties. The most recent painting of her featured in Hockney’s 2016 exhibition at the Royal Academy, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life; the most famous is the double portrait (see ‘D’) from 1971 of Birtwell with her then husband Ossie Clark (and their pet cat), Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Birtwell has also been the subject of more than 30 of Hockney’s prints. Her secret to maintaining his attention all these decades? ‘She could always make me laugh,’ he says.

D is for Double Portrait

Ever since Portrait of My Father, a painting he did of Kenneth in 1955, portraiture has been central to Hockney’s practice. Arguably his most memorable attempts have been ‘doubles’ — of two subjects at once. These include Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), and Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Most of the double portraits are of romantically involved couples and they fizz with tension. Hockney believes that portraiture need not be defined solely by the relationship between subject and painter — but also that between subjects.

David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968. Private collection © David Hockney
David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968. Private collection © David Hockney

E is for etching

Hockney discovered printmaking almost by accident, as an impoverished student at the RCA who needed a cheap alternative to paints and canvas. He has embraced the medium ever since, showing a particular fondness for etching. His first attempt, the Art Brut-style Myself and My Heroes, is also perhaps his most personal. It depicts a haloed Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi beside a young, flat-capped Hockney. As if wanting to introduce himself to his two heroes, yet still too young to have achieved anything in life, Hockney includes the snatch of text, ‘I’m 23 years old and wear glasses’.

F is for Falco

As in Charles M. Falco, the American professor of optical sciences, with whom Hockney collaborated on the controversial 2001 book, Secret Knowledge. In it they voiced the theory that the sudden rise of realism in Western art in the early 15th century can be explained by the Old Masters’ use of optical aides, such as camera obscuras and camera lucidas. Critics said that the theory grossly downplays the virtuosity of Renaissance painters. By essentially tracing from images projected onto their canvases, weren’t the Old Masters cheating? Or, as Susan Sontag put it: ‘If Hockney’s theory is correct, it’d be like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra.’ 

G is for Grand Canyon

David Hockney, 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon, 1998. Richard and Carolyn Dewey © David Hockney

David Hockney, 9 Canvas Study of the Grand Canyon, 1998. Richard and Carolyn Dewey © David Hockney

Hockney is one of relatively few artists to have tackled the Grand Canyon. In 1982 he produced a photo-collage, placing together 60 photographs he’d taken there. In the late Nineties he returned to Arizona, but this time to paint. In a manner similar to the photo-collage — albeit in brighter, Fauve-inspired hues — the two resulting works, A Bigger Grand Canyon and A Closer Grand Canyon, were each made by combining 60 canvases, mounted as if one continuous image. Drawing on aspects of Cubism, in which a subject is depicted from multiple vantage points, Hockney created an overall effect that was immersive — wanting viewers to feel as if they were in the landscape, not simply looking at it.

H is for Hero

Homosexuality was legalised in Britain in 1967, and Hockney is credited with playing a small part in hastening that change. Openly gay, he created a steady supply of pictures of male love to the popular image bank: from tentative early depictions such as 1961’s We Two Boys Together Clinging, to bold assertions of sexuality in California (such as 1966’s Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, depicting a nude Schlesinger). Hockney also illustrated a book of 14 poems by C.P. Cavafy, in which the Greek poet candidly shared his experiences in the gay sub-culture of 1920s Alexandria.

David Hockney, Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966. National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery © David Hockney

David Hockney, Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool, 1966. National Museums Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery © David Hockney

I is for iPods and iPads

Hockney has always had a reputation as a fine draughtsman. In the past decade, however, he has forsaken his sketchbook and pencil for digital technology: drawings now tend to be done on an iPod and iPad. He says the practice still requires artistic skill, and compares it to Renaissance Masters’ mooted ‘reliance on optical aides’ (see ‘F’).

J is for Joiners

In the early Eighties Hockney started to experiment with a photo-collaging process in which Polaroid snaps of a given subject, taken from slightly different angles, were assembled in a mosaic-like arrangement to create a single, composite picture. He called these his ‘joiners’. Among the subjects captured in this way were his mother Laura, Paris’s Place de Furstenberg, and the Grand Canyon (See ‘G’).

David Hockney, Billy + Audrey Wilder Los Angeles April 1982. David Hockney Inc © David Hockney

David Hockney, Billy + Audrey Wilder Los Angeles April 1982. David Hockney Inc © David Hockney

K is for Kasmin

Hockney was approached by the art dealer John Kasmin in 1961, while he was still at the RCA. Two years later his first solo show, Pictures with People In, opened at the latter’s gallery at 118 New Bond Street. It sold out. Kasmin’s preference was actually for American abstract art, hence his dubbing Hockney — whose work has always been figurative — his ‘odd man out’. Kasmin’s gallery closed in 1972, but the two men have remained close, with Kasmin serving as the subject of many Hockney portraits. 

L is for Los Angeles

Hockney’s peers at the RCA included Allen Jones and R.B. Kitaj, and the trio swiftly became lauded as stars of British Pop art. It was in California, however, that he produced his most memorable Pop imagery — such as the swimming pool paintings (see ‘A’) and 1967’s Beverly Hills Housewife. The latter depicts American philanthropist Betty Freeman standing on the patio of her luxury LA home. Hockney said later that he’d felt the city was virgin territory for an artist. ‘In London, I was put off by the ghost of Sickert. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts... I thought, my God, this place needs its Piranesi; here I am,’ he once explained. Hockney still resides in the city. 

David Hockney, Portrait of an artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Lewis collection © David Hockney

David Hockney, Portrait of an artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Lewis collection © David Hockney

M is for Movies

Hockney has always been interested in film: he cites Walt Disney as one of the great artists of all time. ‘I loved movies when I was young,’ he says. ‘I went with my father [to the cinema] two or three times a week. I’d see anything; just looking at the moving picture was enough.’

N is for the Nile

In 1963, Hockney was sent by The Sunday Times newspaper to Egypt. He produced 40 drawings and one painting, the latter — Great Pyramid at Giza with Broken Head from Thebes — commemorating his visit to the oldest Wonder of the World. The vertiginous palm tree in the foreground and opalescent blue River Nile behind it anticipate Hockney’s swimming-pool paintings later that decade. Hockney’s drawings were due to be published in The Sunday Times on 24 November, but the assassination of President Kennedy meant that the feature was pulled. Great Pyramid at Giza with Broken Head from Thebes sold at Christie’s in 2013 for £3.5 million.

O is for Olympics

When asked to design a poster for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Hockney chose to capture the moment a diver enters a pool. Forty years later, he criticised the opening ceremony of the 2012 Games in London for its section dedicated to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in which the engineer was portrayed chewing on a cigar but not smoking it — something Hockney interpreted as a piece of anti-smoking censorship (See ‘S’).

P is for Photography

Hockney’s relationship with photography has always been complex. He has made many works in the medium, yet also denies it’s even an art-form, saying it merely ‘freezes a moment’ in a ‘death-like’ process of mechanical reproduction. He also believes that, ‘considering the millions of photographs taken, there are very few memorable ones.’

‘For about three months I was painting 14, 15 hours a day. There was nothing else I wanted to do. It was a way of coping with life’

Q is for The Queen

Hockney once declined an invitation to paint the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, because he was ‘too busy’. He has, however, recently agreed to design a stained-glass window in her honour for Westminster Abbey. To be installed in the north transept in 2018, it will be known as ‘The Queen’s Window’.

R is for ‘A Rake’s Progress’

Modelled on William Hogarth’s 1735 print series of the same name, ‘A Rake’s Progress’ was a series of etchings, completed in 1963, in which Hockney relived the experiences of his first trip to New York. In one of the lighter-hearted scenes, Bedlam, he encounters young people carrying transistor radios in their pockets and listening to pop music through portable earphones. These were little-known in England at the time, and Hockney ‘thought them hearing aids like [his] father used to wear … horrified at the amount of deafness’ among America’s youth. In 1975, Hockney designed the sets for a new production of Stravinsky’s opera adaptation of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (see ‘Z’).

S is for Smoking

Hockney is an outspoken campaigner for the right to smoke, and calls the smoking ban introduced by the UK’s Labour government in 2007 ‘the most grotesque piece of social engineering’. He has smoked for more than 60 years and insists it isn’t as harmful to health as many say, citing Picasso, Renoir and Monet as heavy smokers who lived into their eighties or nineties.

T is for ‘The Artist Himself, Personally’

Hockney has never been afraid of criticising his peers, Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter among them. In 2012 Hockney and Damien Hirst both had major London exhibitions on at the same time (Hockney at the Royal Academy, Hirst at Tate Modern), and the former added a note on posters for his that ‘all the works here were made by the artist himself, personally’ — a jibe at Hirst’s practice of employing a team of assistants to help create his art.

U is for Umbrella

As in Beach Umbrella (sold at Christie’s in November 2016), a canvas painted at Sainte-Maxime on the French Riviera shortly after Hockney's break-up with Peter Schlesinger in 1971. The lone parasol and its shadow speak of absence. Hockney said he took solace in his work at this time. ‘Whereas with Peter I often went out on an evening, from then on I didn’t,’ he explained. ‘For about three months I was painting 14, 15 hours a day. There was nothing else I wanted to do. It was a way of coping with life.’

V is for Van Gogh

Alongside Picasso, Hockney’s great artistic hero is Van Gogh. In part, this is because of the Dutchman’s bold use of colour — yet also because of his work ethic. Of the time Van Gogh spent with Paul Gauguin in Arles, Hockney says, ‘He installed gas lighting... which enabled him to paint at night. Gauguin went to the brothel, but Van Gogh wasn’t that interested. Painting was his life; he had to do it.’ In homage to the Dutchman, Hockney has painted different versions of his famous ‘Chair’ paintings.

W is for Weather

Hockney has long been an admirer of Japanese art. His set of six lithographs, ‘The Weather Series’, was inspired by a trip to the Far East in 1971 — and in particular the stylised depiction of weather he saw in ukiyo-e prints. Each image depicts an element: Rain, Lightning, Snow, Wind, Mist and Sunshine. With its glistening white peaks set against a grey sky, Snow is the most obviously japoniste. Wind, in turn, playfully references Hokusai’s A Sudden Gust of Wind, a Melrose Avenue street sign replacing the distant view of Mount Fuji in the original.

X is for Xerox

As his recent work with iPads and iPods shows (see ‘I’), Hockney has always embraced new technology. In the Eighties, he made images using fax machines and Xerox printers (photocopiers). For the latter, he did a drawing; took as many copies of it as he wished for an edition; then added layers of colour by reintroducing his sheets through the paper feeder as often as he changed the colour of the toner cartridge.

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods 6 & 9 November 2006. David Hockney Inc © David Hockney

David Hockney, Woldgate Woods 6 & 9 November 2006. David Hockney Inc © David Hockney

Y is for Yorkshire

This was the county of Hockney’s birth — and although he left as a teenager, he returned in 2005, keen to paint its countryside en plein air. He’d spent most of his career avoiding depictions of the English landscape, but now he became captivated and couldn’t stop. In works such as The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011, Hockney followed seasonal changes at favourite locations.

Z is for ‘Die Zauberflöte’

Hockney has designed numerous opera productions over the years, dating back to Stravinsky’s A Rake's Progress for Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1975. Other productions have included a Tristan und Isolde  for Los Angeles Music Center Opera in 1987, and two separate triple bills for New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1981. Perhaps his most popular designs were for a 1978 Glyndebourne production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte), which has toured the world many times since.

David Hockney is on show at Tate Britain, 9 February to 29 May 2017