David Hockney believes there are just three genres of painting: landscapes, portraits and still life. Having successfully packed a wing of the Royal Academy in 2012 with varied (sometimes iPad created) drawings of hawthorn-pocked East Yorkshire hills, he returns now to tick the art world’s two remaining boxes.
The Royal Academy’s 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life charts the 78-year-old artist’s exploration of portraiture, a deep-dive into people-painting told through an extensive series of bold acrylic snapshots. Experimental in the scientific sense, the giant collection sees confounding variables stripped away to emphasise only the raw aspects of his subjects. Every canvas is identical in size and shape, every sitter is seated in the same yellow (and deliberately uncomfortable) hardback chair, and all sat for three days against the same backdrop in Hockney’s Los Angeles studio.
Three days is all Hockney felt he could ask of his sitters, all plucked from his contact book of close associates, siblings, friends, their children and the man who occasionally washes his car. With the familiar backdrop soon evaporating into meaningless repetition, what’s left is purely human.
His sitters position themselves as they please. Some slouch, others sprawl out or cross their legs. Each meets the artist’s scrutiny differently, with a relaxed smile or some crooked expression of mild, numb-bottomed discomfort. His studio manager and friend Gregory Evans, a man with plenty of experience sitting for Hockney, casually crosses his arms and stares confidently down the barrel of the brush. Textile designer Celia Birtwell meanwhile sits upright and to attention, effecting a more traditional portrait pose.
Just as expressive is the clothing the sitters have chosen. With a sharp eye for the vivid, Hockney renders billowing red skirts, green sports t-shirts and the loud pink trousers of a grinning Barry Humphries, rediscovering in colourful detail a passion for a medium he hadn’t used in two decades.
Only rarely do we see much of the artist in these paintings. The first in the series, in which a despairing J-P Goncalves de Lima appears with his head in his hands, is a clear reflection of Hockney’s own depleted mental state following his return to Los Angeles. Unique among the collection, it’s the only portrait in which the sitter’s face isn’t visible.
Unique also is the exhibition’s only still life, the result of a late cancellation that left Hockney with pent up painting energy which he subsequently let loose on an unsuspecting bench of fruit.
Hockney’s 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life is an inventory of the people around him; by taking stock in such plainly conservative artistic terms, he has flexed his fascination for the mundane and the domestic. Far from the artist’s most adventurous work, this exhibition is close to his most personal.