David Hockney Early Reflections is a cleverly named exhibition focusing on the early period of the artist’s career, introducing us to something more than the famous pool paintings. While Hockney’s homosexuality is touched upon, as it should be, especially since his sexual preference is prevalent in most of his creative output in one way or another, the focus lies clearly on his skills, his interest in water and superficially on homosexuality and its influence in his works. Through almost 40 pieces, we are shown the impressive artistic evolution in the early career of a man that has been called Britain’s greatest artist.
The exhibition itself consists of a welcoming hub with a few introductory activities and supporting material, an exit hub that offers supplemental material for the exhibition and the main gallery space which is divided into 4 spaces:
- In the mood for love deals with Hockney’s confidence in his homosexuality
- Picturing poetry underscores his skill as a printmaker
- On reflection deals with what the exhibition calls his obsession with capturing the properties of water
- Familiar faces deals with portraiture, an important part of Hockney’s work to this date.
(Walker Art Gallery, 2013)
Upon walking into the special exhibitions space at the Walker Art Gallery, one is welcomed to the David Hockney Early Reflection with the famous Walt Whitman poem We Two Boys Together Clinging (Fig. 2), which h olds great significance for the artist. Beyond this hallway, we are ushered into a hub presenting us with several choices. To the right we find the entrance to the main body of the exhibition while at the left we find a playful invitation to Look stylish like David Hockney! (Fig. ) This activity consists of a golden coat and tote bag, a blonde wig and a pair of black framed glasses. The information text informs us about the significance of the golden jacket and presents the visitor with a photograph of David Hockney wearing the same items offered to the visitor. Next to this display, nested between two couches we find an audio description of the exhibition. While it helpfully points out that: “this message may be of assistance to visitors with visual impairment,” the message itself is a very helpful thorough explanation of what the exhibition contains, its structure and offers us a brief introduction to the artist’s motivations within the scope of the exhibition. Finally it offers the visitor an audio guide for a small fee and mentions the sponsors and the closing date of the exhibition. The final piece in this hub prior to heading into the main body of the exhibition is an events and activities program listing related activities such as talks with LGBT artists, talks on Hockney’s skill as a print maker, printmaking workshops and student focused talks and workshops. The span of activities is wide ranging offering something for people looking into Hockney as an artist and craftsman as well as the artist as a gateway into a deeper discussion on gender roles and sexuality.
Upon entering the main exhibition space, we find an introduction panel telling us basic biographical information on the artist while highlighting the importance of the work he produced during the 1960s and 70’s. Afterwards we are told the exhibition covers this period and how the Arts Council Collection and the Walker’s own collection were used as a starting point. Then it mentions the most important pieces owned by both the Arts Council and the Walker Art Gallery, and mentioning the John Moores Painting Price and its role in the acquisition of Peter getting out of Nick’s pool.
In the mood for love
One of the first things I noticed is the fact that unlike other exhibitions in the UK, Early Reflections suggested start is on the right hand of the space, an interesting choice, probably dictated by the exhibition space, nonetheless this confuses the visitors, forcing them to go through the exhibition in the opposite direction to what was intended; during my visit this occurred several times. Within this section, we find what is probably one of the most important pieces in the exhibition after the Pool paintings: We Two Boys Together Clinging, which is placed in a highly visible position, above it, a quote by the artists explaining the importance of writing in his paintings. To the left a label, one of the largest ones in the exhibition, gives us technical information such as the date it was created and technique, but the most interesting fact, is the provenance which is located at the bottom after two paragraphs giving context to the work. These texts invite the reader to interpret the painting on his or her own instead of imposing the curators’ own interpretation. This is a very prominent feature in all of the exhibition’s information system (Fig. 5). The curator uses her knowledge to enhance the visitors experience, offering the valuable information in a challenging and inviting way. Every label contains facts, data and bits of trivia that together with the objects in the exhibition educate the visitor without pandering or being patr onising. In terms of layout, this hub consists of six pieces, four paintings and two studies. One disappointing aspect of these studies is that unlike in other parts of the exhibition, we are not shown what the finished work of art looks like.
A division in the gallery breaks the space and serves as support for two of the six pieces, hidden in the inward side of the division we find a glossary of printmaking techniques and terms, an interesting piece of information sadly hidden and divorced from its relevant hub.
The first thing one notices when walking into the Picturing Poetry hub is the layout, the prints are hung in blocks of three with the first one in the series sitting alone while to the right of it the next two sit on top of each other creating a pattern of triangular shapes. I had the opportunity to talk to the curator about the arrangement, and discovered the reason behind was to accommodate all the illustrations, it is a visually pleasing arrangement elegantly solving the space problem. While the central works in this section are the illustrations for Constantine P. Cavafy’s thirteen poems, we also find two illustrations for a collection of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, a print related to Hockney’s visit to America, and for some reason an unrelated oil painting whose aesthetic seems to relate more to the previous section than to this one, perhaps placed here for lack of space. The labelling here is slightly problematic: the main panel is hidden behind a door, the glossary on a side wall and the individual labels for the triangular arrangements can be confusing as they don’t relate physically to their corresponding prints entirely, that is, each one is aligned to the other labels, not to the paintings and while one of the labels is to the left of the group, the other two are two the right, creating an overlap when two groups of labels meet between the frames.
On reflection occupies the biggest space in the whole exhibition, with the central piece being indubitably Le Plongeur; certainly one of the most visually arresting and impressive of Hockney’s works on display; It deserves the placement it has been given. Above it, the phrase “It is a formal problem to represent water, to describe water, because it can be anything — it can be any colour, it’s moveable, it has no set visual description,” while a helpful insight into interpreting the works held in this space, it is ironically one of the driest quotes in the exhibition when compared to the more heartfelt and emotional ones found in the other hubs. The only other piece sharing space with this work is a medium sized study for another painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two Figures), a picture of the original sits below the label for it. Interestingly enough the most famous piece in the exhibition, Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, is placed to the right of the much bigger piece which dominates the space. While certainly not ignored, in my opinion, it would have had a better home in the opposite wall, giving the visitor a direct line of sight to it from the moment he or she steps into the central area, or when coming in from the previous section, nevertheless, structural issues within the exhibition space probably made this impossible. In any case, next to Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool, in a small label the Henry Moores Painting Prize and its relationship with David Hockney is mentioned, with the only other, more prominent explanation of this direct connection to the Walker is placed in an easy to miss case at the exit hub of the exhibition, around the corner a poster for the Munich Olympics can be found. To the left of Le Plongeur, is the main information panel, and two lithographs whose main theme is water, as if to underscore the importance of the liquid in both this hub and the artist’s life. Finally on the opposite wall of all the pools presented, we find another version of the often gay theme of the bathing scene (Summers, 2004, pp. 293-291), scenes of nude men showering, a connection that while visually existent is not mentioned in the exhibition at all, instead mentioning Hockney’s “obsession” with representing water.
The last section of the exhibition is at the same time the smallest one, and one of the most interesting ones, four of the works displayed, are studies for other pieces, which are shown in small pictures below their respective labels, these pieces nevertheless show us the different stages in Hockney’s work and his skill as an artist, while the finished pieces informs us on the many representational modes Hockney used, eliminating any doub t that he was no one trick pony, a thought that someone might make if only familiar with his famous pool paintings. Of all of them Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices with its colourful appearance and intimate subject is a fitting piece to close a visit to the exhibition.
As one walks out of the exhibition a final set of activities await for those visitors that wish to further their understanding of the artist and his work. A computer offers the possibility to search the museum’s website and visit the accompanying website, while a media centre plays a shortened version of the Jack Hansen’s film, A bigger splash, based on the artists lifestyle, and working methods, while a collection of books on the artist and gender are offered for further insights. Next to this, a message on the wall invites the visitors to write their opinions on post it notes and paste them on the wall. A cursory inspection of this section shows us the reactions visitors to the gallery had. While most of them seem to have really enjoyed the exhibition, negative comments can be found, mostly questioning the artist’s artistic abilities, and while homophobia wasn’t overt or hostile, the words “disturbing” and “uncomfortable” crop up quite often. The final objects before leaving, are a selection of catalogues and applications for the John Moores Painting Prize, and pictures of David Hockney wining the award in 1967.
Observations on genre
Something only mentioned in passing is the direct links between Hockney’s homosexuality and the art he created. In the mood for love, is the first section of the exhibition, we get one of the more openly gay themed works in the exhibition, We two boys…, in it, the introductory panel dedicates an eighty word paragraph to the legal situation in the UK at the time and its relationship with the artist. The last paragraph is a statement on his passion and t he risks he took in creating what Hockney himself calls homosexual propaganda. The rest of the labels explain some hidden gay symbols and codes.
The Picturing Poetry hub, features the most explicit works, depicting naked men in bed, frontal nudity and scenes that imply either the beginning or ending of a sexual encounter between the men depicted. The labels here however are mostly descriptive and analytical, explaining what is being depicted, never venturing into the realm of feeling, passion, or any kind of emotion, an interesting choice when so much is said about Hockney’s obsession with depicting water, and not the homoerotic tones underlying in pool and shower scenes (Figs. 9 and 10), a recurring reference in queer art. On the final hub, familiar faces deals with sentimental partners, close friends and family, where a sexual re lation of one kind of another exists, the labels make it explicit, either connecting this to Hockney’s own sexuality, as a lover, or in relationship to themselves, as in the case of the Angus Wilson portrait.
In terms of how this subject is handled, it is done tactfully and discretely, at times too discretely, especially for an artist the very exhibitions quotes as saying: I create homosexual propaganda. It would have been much more interesting to see how the museum dealt with the subject of genre in a much open way.
Hence, David Hockney has been subjected to the same “inning” that Andy Warhol underwent as his fame rose, we recognise the gay character but brush it aside (Butt, 2005, p. 134), reasserting the idea of the modernist macho artist. Gregory Evans and Peter Schlesinger are reduced to being lovers and muses (Butt, 2005, pp. 45-46),
the sexual overtones reduced to descriptions such as: “A photograph, in which the men look with confidence at the viewer, was Hockney’s source for this image,” in this way, marketing exploits the concept of the gay artist as a marketing hook, an invitation of sorts to come see the freak show, even mentioning in the flyer (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk, 2013b) his obsession with homosexuality, while the exhibition itself utilises the signifiers of male centred modernism as a way to not offend audiences; homosexuality as an anthropological study, kept at a safe distance from the visitor(Levin, 2013, p. 158). This is interesting, seeing how a few city blocks away in the Albert Dock we can see an open honest discussion on homosexuality in the high seas in the Maritime Museum (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk, 2013c), and an engrossing exhibition and call for equality for the “Trans” community in the April Ashley: Portrait of a Lady exhibition at the museum of Liverpool. An exhibition that uses descriptors such as lady, pioneering, successful and remarkable in the exhibition flyer alone (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk, 2013a). This however, should not be interpreted as a fatal flaw in the exhibition, the curation invites the user to think and reflect on the works independently of the viewers own sexuality, while pointing out that this is indeed openly gay art by an openly gay artist. Perhaps the dissonance is the result of a gap between interpretation and curatorial teams? Indeed, this is a common situation in museums, where teams have almost no communication between one another, or a conscious attempt at not boxing in the narrative (Keith, 2013, pp. 48-50).
Regardless of any perceived shortcomings on the sexual discourse of the exhibition, the exhibition is clearly a success, for proof one need only read the overwhelmingly positive response to it in the opinion wall. A visually captivating trek through the early years of Hockney’s career, from his initial naive paintings, to his more known and famous pools, an elegant choice that introduces us to other facets of the artist while at the same time giving us the pleasure of enjoying the pool paintings that made him famous.
The exhibition will be shown from 11 October 2013 to16 March 2014 at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool in collaboration with Homotopia, Arts Council Collection at Southbank Centre, Arts Council England, Christies and the European Regional Development Fund.
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National Museums Liverpool (2013a) April Ashley Portrait of a lady [exhibition flyer] (18 Sep 2013, Museum of Liverpool, Liverpool)
National Museums Liverpool (2013b) David Hockney Early Reflections [exhibition flyer] (4 Jan 2014, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
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