A Perpetual State of Becoming

A Review of “David Hockney: Rétrospective”

/ by Jacqueline Raoul Duval

This exhibit runs at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, June 21- October 23, 2017, and is curated by Didier Ottinger


In the open air, the escalator rises to the sixth and last floor of the Centre Pompidou. And I contemplate, as they steadily diminish in size, the multitude of young people, seated or casually lying on the hard, dusty, cobblestones of the vast esplanade. Their bodies are so supple and at ease that one would think they were having a picnic on the grass. These calm, youthful lovers of this temple of modern art are celebrating culture, nature, and the future which, like them, are always in motion and in a perpetual state of becoming. (I love to remind myself of something I learned not very long ago: That culture, nature, and the future all derive from the Latin urus, which means “in the making.”)


It is a very gentle summer Sunday. The milky sky diffuses a subdued light that definitely goes well with the flamboyant David Hockney. He celebrated, a few weeks ago, on the 18th of July, his eightieth year, and his career--a long triumphant flow.


The exhibition, which features 160 works (including books, drawings, videos, photographs, and the most famous paintings), fills twelve rooms, and features a number of themes: Landscapes, swimming pools, shower scenes, portraits.


The curator of the exhibition, Didier Ottinger, arranged the works in chronological order, from the birth of David Hockney, in the small industrial town of cold, gray Bradford in northern England, to his move to California in 1964, which marks a decisive turning point. His is the California of sumptuous Beverly Hill villas, pools, stars and the richest collectors on the planet. Under a sky stretched like an acrylic canvas of intense, luminous blue, a sky towards which rush erotic palm trees, cypresses, cacti.


At the entrance to each room, all admirably illuminated and shadow-free, where the audience is "fluid" and strangely courteous and silent, intelligent texts, richly informative and bilingual (English, French), answer all your questions and guide you through the time and the seasons represented in the prolific work of this very hedonistic British citizen. You will know everything about his different styles--representational, pop art, obsessive naturalism--and about the influence of his favorite painters, like Piero della Francesca, Fra Angelico, Matisse, Dubuffet, Degas, Vermeer, Chardin, Gauguin, Hopper, Balthus, Pollock ... Oops, I forgot Picasso!


When he arrives in this American El Dorado, Hockney is a young man of 27, thin, full of good humor, very elegant, with bleached blond hair, eyes encircled by large round glasses that accentuate his cheerfulness, his boundless pleasure in painting and being able to love and freely express his homosexuality, whereas in England he risked the worst punishments. When his love affair with Peter Schlesinger, his first lover, ended in 1972, Hockney, who was very distressed, painted one of his most famous paintings: Portrait of an Artist. Peter, in a suit and standing in front of a swimming pool that overlooks an idyllic mountainous landscape, contemplates the swimmer who, at his feet, with his head under water, seems to be drowning.


Hockney will never tire of California landscapes; he will sometimes paint some, in series, over the course of a year, in order to follow the passage and ravages of the seasons and time.


And this highly-cultured man, who reads and rereads Proust, appropriates all new technologies as soon as they appear. He is impassioned by the camera, the fax machine, the photocopier, the iPad, the iPhone--everything that allows him to multiply, split, paste, recompose and infinitely circulate the image.


I lingered long in the last room, that of the "Double Portraits.” There are seven, some very large, but only six canvases represent two characters. On the one titled Looking at Pictures on a Screen, a single man who has, with age, become pleasantly filled-out, admires the copies of four famous canvases taped on a screen. And we, the spectators of this work of art, have the same experience and feel the same pleasure as the rejoicing man whom we contemplate.


Four paintings depict collectors, or friends (homosexuals) of Hockney, including writer Christopher Isherwood and Dan Bachardy. The smallest is called My Parents. David Hockney's white-haired mother, smiling but looking embarrassed, wears a very simple blue dress. She looks her son in the eye, her two hands crossed on her lap, while his father, who is shown in three-quarter view, is literally immersed in reading a book of photographs. On the apple-green dresser that separates his parents, rests a white vase from which emerge three yellow tulips and three red tulips. You will find almost identical versions of this modest bouquet in a number of Hockney’s paintings.


It was now a little past 8PM. I had taken my time moving from one work to another, noticing at each one a new detail that made these paintings a little less enigmatic to me.


This vast room is pierced by three long, narrow windows. I approached one of them. In the foreground, as if through the lens of a camera, one could see the multitude of gray roofs bristling with chimneys, intertwined with each other. Farther up were Sacré Cœur, the Eiffel Tower not yet illuminated, and at the very end of the horizon, the towers of La Défense, so high that they were capturing the last rays of the setting sun. The pale gray display of the roofs, the darker mass of the monuments, the blue sky and the colorful portraits of Hockney merged into a single picture, a living posed tableau, from which surged emotions that lightly free us from the pull of gravity, make us believe in the beauty of the world, in the future, and in culture! And in the humor of David Hockney, when he exclaims in the face of his work, "Portraiture, landscape and still life...what else is there? "


Some numbers and practical information:

Today France is still the world's leading tourist destination, even more popular than the United States. It welcomed nearly 86 million visitors in 2016. “Welcomed” is perhaps not the appropriate word. Some say that the French are not very warm people. But I hope that this summer you have been among those who came to discover or to see again the châteaux of the Loire, or Provence. The David Hockney is, in any case, worth the trip. And Paris, even more so.


This retrospective, which opened on June 21, hosts an average of 6000 visitors every day (except Tuesday, when the museum is closed) from 11 am to 10 pm (11 pm on Thursday). Among its viewers, European, Chinese, and Japanese tourists predominate.


Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney

Jacqueline Raoul Duval
born Lily Khayat in Tunisia, was first professor of history and geography. Literary director for years in Paris, she wrote as a ghost-writer for others until the day she decided to write for herself. "Kafka, l’éternel fiancé"(Flammarion) has been translated in eleven countries. Her last one « La nuit de Noces »( L’Age d’Homme) is quite autobiographical.