With photography as the dominant way of seeing others and ourselves, the portrait is often perceived as a medium that belongs to the 20th century, if not the 19th century. This is adamantly not the case for British artist David Hockney. Predominantly a painter, he has embraced the portrait as a means of penetrating the soul since 1966 when he did his first portrait, that of his art dealer friend Nick Wilder.
It is Hockney’s belief in the inherent honesty of the portrait which makes him faithful to the medium, like his predecessors Balthus and Francis Bacon. He once said, “I’m quite convinced painting can’t disappear because there’s nothing to replace it. The photograph isn’t good enough. It’s not real enough.”
The traveling exhibition David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, currently showing in Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, tells it as it is (like the title) and is a much more ambitious effort from the 80-year-old, compared with the 30 plus large-scale double portraits in watercolor he made between 2002 and 2003. Even in his twilight years, Hockney is unstoppable and possesses an enviable work ethic – he did the first of 82 portraits in July 2013, just nine months after he suffered from a minor stroke, a testament to the healing power of art.
Painted in Hockney’s studio in Los Angeles from 2013 to 2016, the 82 portraits, each completed in just three days, showcase his close-knit family and circle of friends. Even though each portrait is of the same size, with the same blue-green background (harking back to his 1960s swimming pool series which catapulted him to fame) and the subjects sitting in the same decidedly unglamorous yellow upholstered chair, the personality of each sitter shines through thanks to Hockney’s acute observation of and emotional bond with them.
I myself am particularly touched by his portrait of his constant muse and trusted friend fashion designer Celia Birtwell, whom he has been painting since the 1960s throughout most of her adult life. With her hands placed squarely on her lap and her gentle and steady gaze, Birtwell’s portrait exudes the tenderness of Hockney’s paintings of his late mother, who was also his constant muse.
The full-length portraits, which include the feet of those portrayed, demonstrate that the chosen footwear is just as telling as an overarching eyebrow or fingers clenched together or a lopsided smile. Hockney understands that it’s the footwear that makes the man and in as early as 1975 he took the iconic and idyllic photo Self-Portrait Gerardmer France in which he did some feet flaunting with his signature mismatched socks and shoes.
Hockney made no attempt to airbrush his subjects’ imperfections from the 82 portraits – each lively brushstroke was honest and amounted to a truthful testimonial – this is why his body of work is a celebration of the quirks that make us unique snowflakes in the dance of life.
David Hockney: 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life
2017.10.10 – 2018.2.25
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao Spain
2018.4.15 – 7.29
LACMA Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photo courtesy to the artist