David Hockney: Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery
The highly anticipated exhibition, David Hockney: Drawing from Life, has at last graced the halls of the London National Portrait Gallery, following a brief initial opening in February 2020, which was interrupted by the pandemic and subsequent extensive renovations at the National Gallery. Now reopening in a larger format, the exhibition includes 33 new pieces produced between 2021 and 2022 at Hockney’s studio in Normandy, including the much-hyped portrait of Harry Styles in his legendary cardigan.
Hockney, now 86, has been painting portraits for his entire life. He has returned again and again to the faces of those he loves – as well as his own – over the course of six decades. The exhibition invites visitors to immerse themselves in a collection of portraits capturing individuals who have marked both his personal life and artistic journey. Featured prominently are Gregory Evans, Hockney’s former partner and curator; Celia Birtwell, a fashion designer and muse; Laura Hockney, his mother; Maurice Payne, a printer with whom he collaborated and Hockney himself. Each sitter is afforded their own room, with visitors walking through the show as if through Hockney’s own life, watching his loved ones come and go.
The show includes early sketches of Hockney during his formative years at the Bradford School of Art and the Royal College of Art, offering a glimpse into a time before his signature look of large glasses and flat cap. A more recent self-portrait shows Hockney in his mid-80s, appearing relaxed and at peace. His younger, more iconic self is a memory, and now he sits comfortably before the viewer, clad in a vibrant houndstooth suit and a flat cap, with a lit cigarette in one hand and a paintbrush in the other.
Throughout the exhibition, Hockney engages in a playful fusion of historical references. Some of his portraits on paper, featuring subjects in a three-quarter profile with stern expressions, recall the Old Masters, while more expressionistic or abstract pieces draw inspiration from modernist influences, most notably Picasso. His love for him is evident in Artist and Model (1974), where Hockney envisions himself as the subject of a nude drawing by the Spanish painter.
The display primarily centres on the theme of drawing, but this focus is expanded in the final room, which showcases Hockney’s Normandy paintings. Here, 33 colourful pieces are displayed together in a spacious room, a testament to the gallery’s metamorphosis. The subjects are predominantly Hockney’s friends and acquaintances but also feature prominent figures such as music producer Clive Davis, art dealer David Juda, writer Charlie Scheips, and, of course, Harry Styles. Despite their inherent vibrancy and allure, these portraits don’t reach the emotional depth of Hockey’s earlier works on paper. Nevertheless, they are unapologetically “Hockney”, brimming with zest and life.
Hockney is at his strongest with his simplest portraits, made with coloured pencil on paper or watercolour. His 1970s portraits featuring Evans radiate a natural charm and tenderness, speaking through subtle hues and a few thoughtful lines. The watercolour sketch Gregory Reading, Vestrefjord delicately outlines the figure, while a drawing from 1977 captures Evans’s face with striking realism, allowing the rest of the image to fade away.
As the exhibition unfolds, visitors are gently led into the intimate world of Hockney’s friends, family, and lovers, and they come to know the painter as a man who lives to capture the very breath of life.
David Hockney: Drawing from Life is at the National Portrait Gallery from 2nd November until 21st January 2024. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.