Hockney and Queer British Art at the Tate Britain

Tate Britain has two exhibitions running in parallel echoing each other and therefore best seen together during the period they overlapped in April and May:

  • The very successful David Hockney retrospective
  • The surprisingly demure Queer British Art exhibition

David Hockney is a major British artist who is renowned for pushing boundaries both on content and expression of his art. His intimate depictions of his friends and their relationships placed their universal humanity ahead of gender politics. His art therefore provided one of the best illustrated defence for acceptance of gay relationships when social pressures led to a revision of the related laws.

I  know Hockney best for the paintings he made in his LA lifestyle in the sixties with the bright Californian summer colours and the playful description of swimming pools. I must admit these remain a favourite of mine (and for many others given their declination in an ever expanding range of products by the Tate). Still, this exhibition shows how much more there is to this artist, how he explored the possibilities of his colour palette in the eighties, and how throughout his career he continued to reflect on how to draw thoughtful portraits. In those portraits (particularly when representing couples), his storytelling is so pervasive that I would not risk it to say it is the truth of his subjects, more a view into the artist own speculations.

Throughout, Hockney’s search for a pictorial language struck strongly in his more recent  intense efforts which are devoted to the same in the creation of a virtual reality:

  • The Kerby (After Hogarth) useful knowledge (at home at MOMA) could serve as user guide to the Minecraft like world building software.
  • His exploratory pieces on photography, like the most beautiful and poignant Scrabble (recently sold at Christie) shows all the emotions playing through the game.
  • The Four Seasons as an immersive video (at home in Victoria) are a kaleidoscope of fleeting impressions left by a scenic road.

The Queer British Art exhibition has merit in putting forward artists who were dismissed during their lifetime out of social conventions. Yet it feels like a heavy handed demonstration. Detailed notes on tiny cards accompany each display, but this feels like the context has taken over the art. Only in the later rooms does the mood lift, where less commentary is provided, presumably reflecting the increase in society’s tolerance.. I would have preferred less text and a thematic approach to the art rather than the adopted chronological one. Or that the history be fully assumed and better presented through an adapted scenography rather than having it to piece it together from tiny writings. Still the pieces on show have intrinsic qualities and are moving in their own merit, such as the book covers from Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell or the paintings from Dora Carrington.

The exhibitions enhanced each other ; the latter a useful reminder of the context against which David Hockney bloomed as well as a kaleidoscope of artists who were held back by prejudice to what they could have become, had they lived in more tolerant times. Their art was lost to the greater benefit of all and whom hopefully we will see more of.

David Hockney is on until 31st May 2017. Queer British Art is on until 1 October 2017.
Visited on 17 May ’17.

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