At once radiant and intimate, David Hockney’s Antheriums marks the painter’s triumphant return to painting after a decade spent behind the camera lens. Deeply affected by a string of his friends’ deaths, Hockney turned to painting flowers as a way to channel his emotion and re-engage with the medium he so dearly loves. Having attended the Art Institute of Chicago’s Claude Monet survey and the National Gallery of Art’s Johannes Vermeer exhibition in Washington, D.C. the year the present work was painted, Hockney was buoyed by the profundity with which the two artists, as well as his lifelong hero Vincent Van Gogh, approached their humble subjects. “When I came out [of the Monet exhibition] I started looking at the bushes on Michigan Avenue with a little more care, because Monet had looked at his surroundings with such attention,” said Hockney, reflecting on the experience. “He made you see more. Van Gogh does that for you too. He makes you see the world around just a little more intensely. And you enjoy seeing it like that, or I do” (D. Hockney, quoted by M. Gayford, “A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.” London, 2016). Spurred on by a renewed love of painting and a heavy but determined heart, Hockney returned to the canvas and created the triumphantly theatrical Antheriums.
Sitting in a sparsely decorated green vase, the pink, white and red titular Antheriums sprout their upright yellow blooms in all directions. Situated in front of a rich blue curtain woven from staccato, multidirectional brushstrokes, the vase and flowers assume the role of an actor on stage, a concrete reference to Hockney’s career-long fascination with the theater. The turquoise painted frame, likewise, serves to heighten the picture’s drama and unite the scene in a pointillist stream. In his paintings of and for theater, Hockney often defines the painting’s edge with a painted curtain. Writing about that vein in Hockney’s art, Martin Friedman says, “…what action there is takes place in a box-like enclosure. Though he used frontal, one point perspective to define the walls that contain these little events, their settings, nevertheless, are ambiguous. They take place in some no-man’s-land between reality and theatrical illusion. In using the stage metaphor, fact and fantasy dissolve into one another, and ordinary events take on mythic connotations” (M. Friedman, in M. Freidman, D. Hockney & J. Cox, “Hockney Paints the Stage,” exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1983. p. 23). For Hockney, the theater represents a liminal, transitional space between the real and the fictional, performative space that his painting so often inhabits; Antheriums, then, becomes an homage to both the theater and his departed friends, like an actor taking one last curtain call on closing night.
Appearing in the artist’s paintings in various forms since the 1970s, vases of flowers eventually became subjects in their own right. In his 1970-71 Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, a vase of elegant lilies acts like an insurgent, adding levity to the cool scene and quietly foregrounding the two subjects. Nearly anthropomorphic in its prominence, the group of flowers approaches the symbolic, despite the pervasive literalness of the rest of the scene. For Hockney, objects assume unconventional roles, often becoming powerful signifiers of both space and meaning in their own right. In Antheriums, though, the flowers are center-stage. With little to divert the eye, he gives them a star treatment and paints, with great confidence, their searching, serpentine stems and suggestive, mature petals. With the mastery and bravura that accompanies artistic maturity, Hockney achieves great drama and composes a captivating scene reminiscent of the Old Masters he so admires. Nevertheless, Antheriums is elegiac in its tone, never letting the viewer forget that all beauty fades and is extinguished; none faster, perhaps, than a vase of flowers.
Indeed, Hockney’s Antheriums should be understood within this storied still-life tradition to which many of the artist’s greatest forbears contributed. Remarking on the exhibition Claude Monet 1840-1926 in Chicago, Hockney said “I came out of that exhibition and it made me look everywhere intensely. That little shadow on Michigan Avenue, the light hitting the leaf. I thought: ‘My God, now I’ve seen that. He’s made me see it’. I came out absolutely thrilled” (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, David Hockney: A Pilgrim’s Progress, New York, 2014, p. 320). For Hockney, this powerful connection to past painters spurred him to action and gave him a new cause to paint. His heightened naturalism coupled with expressive, emotive colors recalls Monet, but also Van Gogh and earlier painters like the Dutch Golden Age master Ambrosius Bosschaert, whose own deeply rendered colors preceded Hockney’s by over three centuries. Deeply connected to the past yet irreverently contemporary and visually progressive, Hockney’s Antheriums, just as it straddles the real and the imagined, spans past, present and, in predating his impressionistic iPad paintings, future.
Born in 1937 in Yorkshire, England, Hockney rose to fame amid the frenzied London art scene of the 1960s. Originally producing feverish images of schematic men on partially unprimed canvas, Hockney’s aesthetic sharpened, in the ‘70s, into a unique brand of Pop suffused with magical realism and periodic allusions to pre-war Modernism. Subsequently, in the ‘90s, Hockney’s colors began to saturate and assume a more prominent role in his paintings. Antheriums is a salient example of this return to form, in which Hockney the colorist and nimble painter returns his painting to the fore. The present painting’s deft composition and subtle, emotive cues—from the straining stems of the titular flowers to the watery hatching on the frame and curtain—convey the full extent of Hockney’s sorrow. Nevertheless, Antheriums strikes a quietly optimistic tone, the detectable excitement of a master once again infatuated with his craft and working at the very height of his powers.