Review by Rosalind Freeborn

David Hockney, RA is about to turn 80 but, judging from his latest show at the Royal Academy in London – 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life, he is showing no signs of slowing down. This collection of portraits fills the Sackler wing at the gallery with the intense colours of California and demonstrates Hockney’s pure joy in the genre. Portraits have been an important part of his work since he graduated from the Royal College of Art in 1962. He says himself, in painting there is only Still Life, Landscape and Portraiture.

Hockney told the curator of this collection, Edith Devaney, “I think I’ve found something that I could go on with forever, because people are fascinating, they’re mysterious really.” After the untimely and tragic death of a young studio assistant in 2013, Hockney withdrew to his Los Angeles studio wondering if he would ever paint again. He felt suddenly moved to make a portrait of his studio manager, head in hands, an anxiously zig-zag carpet at his feet, in a pose which referenced Vincent Van Gogh’s Sorrowing Old Man. “It’s really a self-portrait,” he said. Hockney decided to make more portraits, insisting that visitors to the studio should sit for him, feeling his way towards a template for a series – full figure, all seated in the same white dining chair, painted in bright primary acrylic paint. He decided that each portrait should take no longer than three days to complete – demanding six hours per day for each subject. He viewed each subject carefully, scrutinising the way they arranged themselves in the chair, noting the clothes they chose to wear and devoted the first day of the process entirely to drawing in charcoal. The painting and completion followed over the next two days.

Hockney knows all of the subjects well. “I don’t do celebrities,” he says. “My friends are my celebrities.” None of the portraits was a commission but time was set aside in his studio to make each picture. The one still life – a stunning painting of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables arranged on a rich blue table – is the only exception, painted because the sitter was unable to come to the studio that day and Hockney was geared up to make the painting.

The portraits have a vibrant immediacy and a kindly intensity which is borne out of long association or familiarity with the subjects. Close up, you can see some of the charcoal lines which formed the early sketches, through the thinly painted layers of acrylic. There is an abundance of pure colour and little blending of paint which conveys the artist’s delight in the nature of medium and pleasure in the character and relationship of the sitter. I was very struck by the portrait of Celia Birtwell – who so famously figured in one of Hockney’s earlier portraits: Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Sitting upright in her chair, there is a sensation of conversation about to be enjoyed, and keen thoughts depicted by the sparkling eyes and mouth which is about to move. By contrast, the portrait of Rufus Hale, aged 11, is of a young boy, incongruously dressed in shirt, tie and waistcoat (similar to the clothing Hockney wore in one of his earliest self-portraits), holding a small notebook and pencil and gazing directly at the artist with an engaged intensity and curiosity. Rufus is the son of artist Tacita Dean, and also a Royal Academician.

The show is an absolute delight and something which any art enthusiast should make time to visit in London.

Rosalind Freeborn – www.paperface.co.uk

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