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Review: David Hockney, 'Drawing from Life'

Lucie-Lune Lambouley and Louis-Martin Lambouley, 8th January 2022 by David Hockney. Acrylic on canvas. 914.4 x 1219.2 mm © David Hockney. Photo Credit: Jonathan Wilkinson, Collection of the artist.

From naturalistic observations with acrylics, to sketches of friends and family with a loving eye, and back to acrylics once more, David Hockney has done it all. In a current exhibition at National Portrait Gallery, ‘David Hockney: Drawing from Life’ charts a colourful history on the prince of pop art and his array of portraits young and old.

This insightful exhibition opens with a duality of David, as two self-portraits are neatly positioned side by side; one being his very first self-portrait as a wee nipper, arranged in a block of crisp collage and the other a much more recent self-portrait in his fine old age. The latter sees Hockney dressed up in a criss-cross patterned suit, as he clutches his trusty paintbrush in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The master-sketcher is shown in full form, sitting lackadaisically, staring back at the viewer with a cheeky grin as if to say “me, I did all this lovely work, hope you enjoy.”

Soon after this the exhibition moves onto first his carefully crafted line-drawings during his days at the Royal College of Art and then on to his first few portraits fresh out of school. One piece titled ‘Artist and Model’ places emphasis on creator and subject as Hockney and an unknown model sit directly opposite each other. An unfinished quality in this piece highlights the immediacy of a model performing in the moment for the spectacled superstar, with shading blurring out the edges bringing an equally rustic quality to his early work (in contrast to his later smooth-toned work with the likes of ‘A Bigger Splash’).

This smorgasbord of an exhibition then moves onto a series of rooms exploring Hockney’s love of drawing and the huge hive of love that also swarms around him, his family and friends. One notable highlight is a room that explores a close friendship between Hockney and Celia Birtwell. In one image, Hockney uses only coloured pencil to capture his lifelong friend in a beautiful floral dress while she perches herself on a garden chair, sporting a sensitive smile and bright eyes. Hockney once again showcases his passion for multimedia forms of sketching, with various works in this Celia section ranging from pencils to paintbrushes and pastels (oh my!).

An equally important section that again explores Hockney’s formalised portraits of sitters is through another good friend, Gregory Evans. Spanning a modelling career well over 50 years, Gregory is clearly another person that meant a lot to Hockney. Predominantly sketched in pencil, he is captured more in a more romanticised, Renaissance style than other sitters as most sketches see him in the nude, creating a natural intimacy that we don’t really see with some of Hockney’s other subjects.

A final ode to joy in this exhibition sees Hockney recently picking up his paintbrushes again as a range of celebrities sit in his Normandy studios to have their portraits whipped up. Emphasising Hockney’s interest in the staged subject once more, these stars (yes, one of them is Harry Styles) are repeatedly shown sitting in a wicker brown chair. This chair sets the stage for all portraits in this recent collection, a dummy throne in which all are transformed into royalty after being complimented by the smooth strokes of Hockney’s brush. These colourful last pieces are a delight to scan through, a true testament to the artist’s everlasting vibrant index of work and the love that he warmly expresses not just for his art, but also a love for people that he’s connected with in his life.

David Hockney, 'Drawing From Life' is on at the National Portrait Gallery until 21 January 2024. Students go for £18.90, and under 25s can go for £5 on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.


Edited by Samuel Blackburn


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