TALK ABOUT GETTING the full measure of the man!
David Hockney’s new exhibition at the Royal Academy features eighty two large acrylic portraits of an eclectic group of his friends. They’re all very stark: all sitters are posed on the same chair with (more or less) the same blue and green floor and wall. Within the self-imposed rigidity of the format (like the constraint and formality of a sonnet) eighty two distinct personalities emerge to stare back at you, as they did the painter: bored, amused, haughty, curious, thankful, self conscious, inquisitive. The sitters exude power, charm, fragility, arrogance and for many, wealth, which is in itself for some, a statement of character.
When you think of “the portrait” (so dominated by Rembrandt) the imagination immediately conjures up images of faces; all else – clothes, poses, background – usually become either of symbolic or secondary importance. Not so for Hockney. His portraits…these evocations of personality … arise initially from the very direct responses of the sitters to the artist (they aren’t staring past him into some imagined space; they’re very aware of his presence), the clothes they’ve chosen to wear (sloppy, elegant, sporting, understatedly posh, formal…some clearly dressed for the occasion, others as though they were on the way to the supermarket) and (the most telling), posture.
Hockney’s use of the same slightly uncomfortable chair for all the sitters is one of his brilliant character signifiers. Some of his sitters – powerful, confident people, clearly accustomed to being listened to – have colonized the chair. Their bodies and abundant clothes seem to swallow it up, so that barely its spindly brown legs are all that is seen, Others – retiring, hesitant, in awe of the great man, unaccustomed to such a prolonged stare – seem shrunken in the chair; they seem shy, wary of even touching its sides, as though fearing it would reveal too many truths. And yet others drape themselves all over it as if in defiance of its talismanic power, willing its stiff-backed discomfort to yield to their demands; some of the sitters slouch into it, seemingly unfussed by the artist’s probing eyes; and yet others sit stiffly upright…uptight, self conscious and awkward.
And then there are the hands: restless, prim, nervous, gently resting on casually crossed legs or gripping the arms of the chair tensely. These are portraits of gesture. Despite the stiff flatness of acrylic (he uses just enough colour to give a semblance of depth, but his main tonal variations come from varying the density and opacity of the pigment) you can almost feel the hands move, the fingers twitch, the legs jiggle. It’s as though the artist waited patiently for his subjects to do something – twist, lean forward, scratch…some revealing gesture that he would freeze and turn into an yet another unsuspecting expression of mood and character.
And do they capture the likeness? Who knows (most of the sitters aren’t known celebrities…Hockney says “I don’t do celebrities, photography does celebrities”) and who cares.
What they capture in a 4′ X 3′ rectangle of paint is an entire life. How miraculous