24 June – 22 October 2017
Venice, Ca’ Pesaro – International Gallery of Modern Art
- Entrance to the exhibition with museum ticket
The exploration of the human figure is a subject of inexhaustible fascination for David Hockney, whose investigation has taken various forms, going beyond appearance and probing the psychological, personal and identity-forming depths that make up man.
The year 2013 was an intense one for the artist: the Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, focusing on the work he had conducted over the preceding few years depicting his native Yorkshire landscape, was coming to an end. In the summer of 2013, a tragic incident shook the close group of friends and collaborators, throwing Hockney into a period of inactivity, a rare condition for such a prolific artist in a wide range of media.
After returning to Los Angeles following almost ten years in Britain – his longest stay in the country of his birth since the seventies – Hockney again devoted himself to portraiture, painting Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima (JP Gonçalves de Lima, 11th, 12th, 13th July 2013), his assistant and close associate in the years of work at Bridlington. He also painted some prominent figures, such as the gallery owner Larry Gagosian and philanthropist Jacob Rothschild, who for reasons of availability of time, sat for a shorter period.
Some came to the appointment in elegant clothes with silk skirts, kimono and finely decorated shirts, dark suits and ties; others instead wore polo shirts and shorts with deliberate nonchalance. They leaned forward to get closer to the host, or sat scrupulously straight, seeking to offer the best image of themselves.
Some seem to be on the defensive, retreating imperceptibly almost as though to establish a distance; others, adopting a different body language, express the empathetic bond created between painter and sitter. The expressions of the faces are changeable: relaxed and benign, restless or dubious, concentrated and serious. The hands are shown together in the lap, holding the head, quivering on the armrests of the chair. And finally there are the shoes, which according to the artist are the expression of individual personalities: they may be polished and elegant, comfortable or working shoes, with high heels, aesthetically beautiful or ugly.
The sitting session would begin early in the morning: the sitter going upstairs and sitting in the chair, invited by the artist to adopt a comfortable position, since he would have to keep it unchanged for all the sessions. Hockney would provide only a few indications to avoid the repetition of a pose previously adopted by another sitter. As soon as the subject was comfortable, the assistants would mark out the position of the feet on the floor, a device adopted from his friend Lucian Freud, for whom Hockney say in 2002.
Quickly and confidently, Hockney would trace out the features, defining the figure in charcoal: starting from the face and hands, fundamental elements in a portrait as they are the focal points on which the attention of the observer lingers, he then outlines the entire composition in summary lines.
Hockney has known most of the sitters for a long time, has already portrayed them on other occasions, and tries to capture their pose as quickly as possible, as they will not sit in the same, identical fashion in the next session. After the general sketch is done, the acrylic colour paint is quickly applied to the canvas; this is a medium that dries quickly and allows for a quick execution. At this juncture, the artist records the volumes of the face, blocking out the structure of the body and sketching the background.
The application of colour lasts for the three days of the session, and alternates with a continuous observation of the sitter for seven hours per day, interrupted only by a lunch break. Working with order and method, Hockney observes a precise pattern, painting every element, checking every nuance, angle and detail, intensely studying facial features, hairstyle and clothing. He is not only rigorous in the rendering of the subject, but equally attentive to the comparison with the earlier portraits, having in mind a series composed of single works constituting a set.
He works in silence, in absolute concentration, completely absorbed in his work. Fascinated by the individualities that emerge from this procedure, he notes how during the hours of sitting, the different subjects start to wander with their minds, pursuing their thoughts, as they are not accustomed to sitting for six consecutive hours without being able to do anything.
In the case of critic Martin Gayford, he has to “call him to order”.
Hockney does not seek verisimilitude or the approval of his sitters; their features are not beautified or transformed to conceal a defect. On seeing his portrait, a friend, Bing McGilvray, exclaimed: “I look like a refrigerator salesman!”
Both a visual catalogue and aide-memoire, Hockney’s assistant J-P documents every step of the process, enabling the artist to view the work done in a day and study the next steps to be implemented.
Uploaded into an iPad, the image of the painting is analysed and modified, functioning as a preparatory test for direct work on the canvas. “At the end of a day, you need to look at the painting to see what you’ve accomplished and what still has to be done […] So the three days of sitting are actually working days of twenty-four hours for me.”
In a contemporary era in which the visual consumption of images runs at breakneck speed, David Hockney revives the pictorial genre of portraiture, seeking the essence of the sitter through careful observation. “I think that the more I know and respect people, the more interesting the result will be.” Exhibition catalogue published by Skira.