Hockney at Tate and the British Museum

Now is a very good time to be a David Hockney fan.  The Bigger Splash painter is starring in a major retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain, has a small but significant showing of his Cavafy prints at the British Museum and back at Tate Britain, Hockney is playing a supporting role in Queer British Art. All this, hot on the heels of a couple of massive exhibitions at the Royal Academy: hands up who saw A Bigger Picture and Hockney’s Portraits?

It’s either a sign that Hockney is a massive draw, or some of our most creative spaces are running out of ideas… Judging by the crowds at Hockney’s solo show at Tate, the former is certainly true. I’m going to be taking a quick look at these three shows and having a little think about them.

Hockney's Portrait of the artist (Pool with Two Figures)
Hockney’s Portrait of the artist (Pool with Two Figures)

It’s the crowds that have generated the buzz for this show; and it’s the crowds that are the show. Despite a price tag of nearly £20 (!) with a concessionary rate of £17.50 (!!), the exhibition was full. So full, it was hard to get a chance to really see some  any of the works. When I did get a chance to see something other than the back of someone’s head, I realised that I do in fact have a favourite Hockney period: his Sunbather period, as the booklet describes it, from the artist’s time in Santa Monica.

Hockney's Peter getting out of Nick's Pool
Hockney’s Peter getting out of Nick’s Pool

The bright blues, the geometry and the sensuality of the pieces from this period stood out. Quite staggering, really, when you consider that we’re looking at an oeuvre that spans over 60 years.

Staying at Tate Britain, Hockney’s work also forms the crescendo of the Queer British Art exhibition. Tate tells us that, along with Francis Bacon, Hockney produced some of the ‘most fearless depictions of male same-sex desire,’ and they moved away from the coded messages of earlier queer art. On a side note – one can only imagine the curatorial to-ing and fro-ing that went on at the gallery when they were putting these shows together!

The fearlessness of these depictions is clearly seen in the works on display at the British Museum in their (FREE) exhibition, Fourteen Poems from Cavafy. The etchings Hockney made in response to Cavafy’s poems, and were published together in 1967. Cavafy’s poems explore several themes, notable among them, male same-sex desire.

Hockney's In the dull village
Hockney’s In the dull village

The same geometry and sensuality from Hockney’s Sunbather period can be seen, but with less restraint.The poolside vista has been replaced by a bedside view. The desire that was implied when we were by the swimming pool has become much more explicit.

One of Hockney's Cavafy etchings
One of Hockney’s Cavafy etchings

As I mentioned earlier, the publication of a special edition of Cavafy’s poems alongside these etchings came in 1967. They were published in same year that Homosexuality was partially decriminalised with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. It would have been nigh-on impossible for them to have been published prior to this. This small display can be seen in a number of ways; it can be the British Museum noting that the 50th Anniversary of the passing of this act needed to be acknowledged; it can be a major museum celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of work by one of the UK’s most-beloved artists; it could be the British Museum getting us warmed up for more LGBTQ history to come.


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