David Hockney at the Royal Academy

By Martin Vogel


David Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition, 82 Portraits and 1 Still-life, is a welcome respite from the bewilderment and despondency of Brexit-Britain.

The exhibition consists of a series of portraits that Hockney began on returning to Los Angeles after the untimely death of one of his studio assistants. In his grief, he lost his purpose and motivation. The series charts, therefore, his turning back to life and a gradual healing. The first portrait is of another of his studio staff, head down in anguish. He appears again towards the end of the series – two years later – more open, engaged and accepting. The series as a whole has a similar trajectory. Hockney begins with busyness and disharmony in the backgrounds but these give way to calmer backdrops, the better to study the people before him.

Each painting is completed over two to three days, twenty hours of sitting time. The portraits therefore are representations of people in contemplative space. Many are gallery owners and business people. They look harassed; like they need the withdrawal in order to recover their ground. Many others are middle aged to elderly, the men paunchy. Hockney generally captures more character in these than in the younger sitters, and more in the men than the women. That said, among the most memorable are: a portrait of his older sister, whose connection and engagement with the artist is plain to see; one of the curator, who sits forward, quizzically studying the artistic process; and another of a female gallery owner who looks chuffed to be his subject. There’s also a portrait of a woman, Celia Birtwell, who has been a sitter for Hockney over the years, the Mrs Clark in the famous portrait of a successful-looking young married couple in the 1970s. She’s no longer Mrs Clark and is now an elegant elderly lady. Her comfort with Hockney and with the practice of sitting is manifest.

How people choose to sit is interesting. As a meditation practitioner, I was curious to see how people would approach the opportunity of stillness. I was looking for those who adopt grounded, erect, dignified, self-supporting poses. Few did and it’s hard to imagine most of them holding the poses portrayed for days on end. Hockney’s own meditative quality is discernible though. The one still-life is there because a sitter failed to turn up for an appointment at the last moment. Hockney, psychologically prepared for some days’ painting, arranges a subject anyway and goes ahead.

One thought that occurred viewing this exhibition amid the loss and uncertainty of our times is that it portrays an easygoing Los Angeles lifestyle that seems remote from where we are now – and that may itself be on borrowed time.

None of the paintings moved me in the way that a single Freud or Richter might. But the body of work as a whole does. It’s a testimony to the nurturing value of human endeavour: focus, dedication and mastery. His representation of faces is the work of a man who has pushed the boundaries of his capability for a lifetime. And the project, as a re-engagement with life after grief, communicates the courage and obligation that we bring to mourning. In time, life returns to a state of warmth. We don’t forget who we’ve lost but we find a way to resume, while honouring the memory.