‘I thought, this is an interesting thing you can play with, style as a subject … the canvas was in a way shaped like a figure, so that you didn’t have to have illusionism in the painting because the illusion was outside in the canvas shape; the style of the real painting could be completely flat. It is simply a very abstracted figure made up of the obvious figurative connections of a small rectangle on top of a larger one, which when resting on an easel looks like a figure; the base of the easel becomes the legs’
‘...the four pictures I sent had the same general title, A Demonstration of Versatility, and then a subtitle; each painting was supposedly in a different style. I had become interested in style then. I realized you could play with style in a painting to make a “collage” without using different materials; you could paint something one way in this corner and another way in another corner, and the picture didn’t need unity of style to have unity’
‘...the big works of 1961 – which I started in 1960 – are the works where I became aware as an artist’
‘For he strove in battles dire
In unseen conflictions with Shapes
Bred from his forsaken wilderness,
Of beast, bird, fish, serpent, & element,
Combustion, blast, vapour, and cloud’
Figure in a Flat Style (1961) is an important early work by David Hockney, first shown at the Royal Society of British Artists exhibition ‘Young Contemporaries’ in 1962. The figure is constructed of two canvases, which formally echo a head and torso, and a pair of easel legs. On a coarsely woven canvas painted flat brick red, the face is schematically represented by a downturned white line and a grey circle; the body is painted in three broad bands of red, black and burgundy, and contains a playing-card style heart and the white outlines of a pair of arms, whose hands cover a stylised set of genitals. A Twombly-esque flurry of white paint across the midriff seems to gesture to this sense of masturbatory shame, while a phrase adapted from William Blake’s poem Urizen – ‘the fires of furious desire’ – is inscribed quietly to the upper right, further underscoring the figure’s supressed libidinal energy. For the juried ‘Young Contemporaries’ exhibition Hockney submitted four works: as he explains, ‘the four pictures I sent had the same general title, A Demonstration of Versatility, and then a subtitle; each painting was supposedly in a different style. I had become interested in style then. I realized you could play with style in a painting to make a “collage” without using different materials; you could paint something one way in this corner and another way in another corner, and the picture didn’t need unity of style to have unity’ (D. Hockney in N. Stangos (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p. 66). This was a foundational body of work for the artist. Tea Painting with Figure in the Illusionistic Style (1961) is now in the Tate collection, while Swiss Landscape in a Scenic Style (1961, retitled 1962 Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape) is in the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf. Figure in a Flat Style encapsulates this experimental period in Hockney’s oeuvre, and in its innovative structure becomes something of a self-portrait; the work embodies the artist’s insatiable pictorial curiosity, and is also linked to his iconic early Love Paintings in its expression of clandestine sensuality that he would come to explore more openly after his first visit to America in 1961.
While A Demonstration of Versatility was exactly that – the young artist proudly displaying his clever resourcefulness and adaptability – these works proved more than an art-school flourish. In 1965, Hockney recalled that he had ‘deliberately set out to prove I could do four entirely different sorts of picture like Picasso. They all had a sub-title and each was in a different style, Egyptian, illusionistic, flat – but looking at them later I realized the attitude is basically the same and you come to see yourself there a bit’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Livingstone, David Hockney, London 1981, p. 41). He recognised the paradoxical coherence of his project: the choice of quoting from rather than adopting wholesale any particular style, of course, is a style in itself. Shaking free from the idealised emotional self-projection of the Abstract Expressionist mode that predominated at the time, Hockney declared as much control over the style of his painting as over his chosen subject matter. His delight in exploring the objecthood of his canvas and easel – the basic tools of the painter – is palpable: the picture-plane investigations of illusionism, space and surface evident here would come to form the keynote of his artistic career. As Hockney writes, ‘the canvas was in a way shaped like a figure, so that you didn’t have to have illusionism in the painting because the illusion was outside in the canvas shape; the style of the real painting could be completely flat. It is simply a very abstracted figure made up of the obvious figurative connections of a small rectangle on top of a larger one, which when resting on an easel looks like a figure; the base of the easel becomes the legs. (The wooden legs were added to look like an easel base; they are attached to the painting and lie flat on the wall.) My excitement at the time was in the way the picture was expanded outside the stretchers by the easel itself’ (D. Hockney in N. Stangos (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, pp. 66-67).
Beyond Hockney’s innovative painterly formalism, the personal connotations of Figure in a Flat Style also relate to another crucial early body of work, his Love Paintings of 1960 and 1961. In these works, the most famous of which is We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961, Arts Council Collection) he explored homoerotic themes in a wryly elliptical style, quoting lines from Walt Whitman alongside lavatory graffiti and newspaper clippings, and referring to himself and his love interests through a code of numbered initials. The hallmarks of these large-scale paintings – fragmented text, swathes of warm abstract colour, stylised figures and limbs, and iconographic Valentine’s hearts – are all displayed in Figure in a Flat Style. Hockney’s frank evocation of homosexual passion in these works was bold at the time: homosexuality was illegal in England until 1967, and the mock-anonymity of this series, completed while Hockney was still in his second year at the Royal College of Art, made an audacious statement of rebellion. Figure in a Flat Style’s ‘fires of furious desire’ take on a similar power in the context of the figure hiding its genitals, hinting at frustration and repression. While sexuality was never the dominant subject of Hockney’s work, these early motifs were an important precursor to his later paintings. He first visited Los Angeles in 1961, and there he found a hedonistic new world of openness and glamour that provided the inspiration for many of his most iconic work of the 1960s. Rejoicing in artistic freedom, Figure in a Flat Style sets the stage for one of the most remarkable careers in British art: Hockney embraces both painting’s insistent materiality and its powers of illusionism, creating a triumph of playful inventiveness that also makes a spirited, romantic claim of self-identity.