David Hockney’s latest exhibition, Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery, claims to be a major retrospective of the veteran artist’s work. Let’s just say at the outset: there’s nothing major about this exhibition.
Drawing from Life’s bait is the lure of previously unseen works, notably a large double portrait (triple if you include Hockney’s reflection in the mirror) of his parents.
My Parents and Myself feels itchingly familiar; in fact, it’s a stuffed-away sketch of the more famous – and dare I say, much better – My Parents, which hangs in the Tate. It’s almost there, but something about the painting’s looseness leaves you wanting.
This feeling sets the precedent for the rest of the exhibition, featuring 150 drawings made throughout Hockney’s life, from his youth in Bradford right up to the present day in LA and Normandy, between which the 82 year old splits his time. This is a survey of the man’s life, his shifting styles, and his lifelong friendships. But it is not Hockney’s best work.
Hockney is best known for his depictions of glamour and the vibrancy of LA life. Other than glimpses of muse Celia Birtwell’s 70s chiffon here and there, this is nowhere to be seen.
The best bits are where Hockney pays homage to his artistic heroes. Indeed, this exhibition is as much about Picasso and Rembrandt as it is about Hockney. He borrows Rembrandt’s walnut brown ink to paint some rather tender portraits of his mother, returning to the colour in his latest drawings of Birtwell and two other lifelong muses – ex-boyfriend Gregory Evans and close friend Maurice Payne.
In the next room, Hockney’s two etches The Student and Artist and Model, that fall just short of deifying Picasso, are Hockney in his element. Hockney is known as a master painter, but he’s also a pretty good etcher. It’s no coincidence these two works draw the most leering heads in the gallery. A crowd lingers around the neighbouring drawings, craning and peering at the delicate checkered tablecloth and soft fuzz of Hockney’s naked body.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, and throughout Hockney’s career, Picasso’s legacy looms large. The ripples created by cubism lay the ground for Hockney’s famous photo montages, but, as seems to be a pattern with this exhibition, we are only allowed flashes of them. His Polaroid patchworks hang like horseshoes at the doorway of each room of the gallery, but do little more than signpost tangents of this artist’s life. It leaves the impression that the National Portrait Gallery is not quite sure whether to fully commit to the man’s portraiture, or to give us a whistle stop tour of his other, many feathers.
Hockney’s portraiture is best understood laterally, as we see him grapple with shifting faces throughout time. This exhibition, to its credit, gives airtime to the intimate process of aging, returning to familiar faces over the space of seven decades. In the same room, Hockney’s mother goes from sitting bold and upright to crumpled and hunched. His lifelong friends shift across rooms from harsh lines to feeble wibbles. And of course, the show lends its reddest carpet to Hockney’s greatest muse – himself. We see a teen Hockney playful and collaged, and later a wrinkled old man, confronting the contours of his face.
The punchline is supposed to come in the final room of the exhibition – a portrait hall evocative of other, grander floors in the gallery. The room acts as an update – the most recent installation in a career-spanning “portrait” of his three closest friends. But his muses have faded, and so too has Hockney’s pizazz. Lines are softened, colour diluted. As encores go, it’s a bit of an anti-climax (perhaps made worse by the lack of stage left – you have to wind back through better work to exit through the giftshop).
There are moments of brilliance in this exhibition, but as a retrospective of Hockney’s prolific career, it feels slightly cobbled together. Drawing from Life might be testament to Hockney’s capability as a draughtsman, but overall it is in need of a slightly bigger splash.