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Exhibition of 82 portraits and 1 still life by David Hockney on view in Venice
David Hockney, Earl Simms (detail) © David Hockney. Photo: Richard Schmidt.

VENICE.- Exclusively for Italy, the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia presents the first exhibition of the paintings of David Hockney, one of the most renowned and influential of contemporary artists.

The Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna di Ca’ Pesaro is hosting the David Hockney - 82 portraits and 1 still life exhibition, brilliantly curated by Edith Devaney, Curator of Contemporary Projects at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and with the scientific direction of Gabriella Belli. After the show in Venice, realised with the support of Crédit Agricole FriulAdria, the exhibition will move to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and then to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

English by birth but Californian by adoption, David Hockney is one of the greatest contemporary figurative artists. Born in the industrial town of Bradford in 1937, he moved to London after graduating from the Bradford School of Art to attend the Royal College of Art (1959-1962). Following his participation in the Young Contemporaries exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1961, together with other Royal College students such as Allan Jones and R. B. Kitaj, he gained a certain fame among the specialised critics and enjoyed his first public success.

His first trip to the United States took place in 1961, during which he visited New York. In 1964, he was in Los Angeles, a metropolis he would subsequently interpret and paint, translating the atmosphere of American life into famous works with saturated fields of colour depicting the dazzling Californian light. The figurative element plays a fundamental role in his oeuvre, reflected in the genres of portrait and landscape, associated with a constant interaction between traditional and new media. From pastel drawings to oil paintings, photo collages with different points of view to laser printers and even drawings on iPad, Hockney has unceasingly portrayed the life around him, distilling the essence of individuals, capturing the constant movement of water and revealing the spectacular scenery.

Painted between 2013 and 2016, and considered by the artist as a single corpus of works, the eighty-two portraits displayed at Ca’ Pesaro offer a vision of Hockney’s life in Los Angeles, his relationships with the international art world, and specifically with galleries, critics, curators, artists. These pictures portray famous faces, such as those of John Baldessari, Larry Gagosian and Stephanie Barron, but also family and others who became part of his daily life.

Hockney paints each portrait in the same way, taking three days for each picture or, as the artist puts it, “twenty hours of exposure”, during which the subject is accommodated in a chair on a pedestal with the same neutral background as backdrop.

The eighty-two canvases, all of the same format, bring together a taxonomy of types and characters, offering a visual essay on the human condition and form that transcends classifications of gender, identity and nationality.

Within the seemingly limited format of the figure shown against a twotoned backdrop, an infinite range of human temperaments is fragmented and expressed, once again testifying to the greatness of this master of our times.

82 portraits and 1 stille life
The exploration of the human figure is a subject of inexhaustible fascination for David Hockney, whose investigation has taken various forms, going beyond appearance and probing the psychological, personal and identity-forming depths that make up man.

The year 2013 was an intense one for the artist: the Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, focusing on the work he had conducted over the preceding few years depicting his native Yorkshire landscape, was coming to an end. In the summer of 2013, a tragic incident shook the close group of friends and collaborators, throwing Hockney into a period of inactivity, a rare condition for such a prolific artist in a wide range of media.

After returning to Los Angeles following almost ten years in Britain – his longest stay in the country of his birth since the seventies – Hockney again devoted himself to portraiture, painting Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima (JP Gonçalves de Lima, 11th, 12th, 13th July 2013), his assistant and close associate in the years of work at Bridlington. He also painted some prominent figures, such as the gallery owner Larry Gagosian and philanthropist Jacob Rothschild, who for reasons of availability of time, sat for a shorter period.

Some came to the appointment in elegant clothes with silk skirts, kimono and finely decorated shirts, dark suits and ties; others instead wore polo shirts and shorts with deliberate nonchalance. They leaned forward to get closer to the host, or sat scrupulously straight, seeking to offer the best image of themselves.

Some seem to be on the defensive, retreating imperceptibly almost as though to establish a distance; others, adopting a different body language, express the empathetic bond created between painter and sitter. The expressions of the faces are changeable: relaxed and benign, restless or dubious, concentrated and serious. The hands are shown together in the lap, holding the head, quivering on the armrests of the chair. And finally there are the shoes, which according to the artist are the expression of individual personalities: they may be polished and elegant, comfortable or working shoes, with high heels, aesthetically beautiful or ugly.

The sitting session would begin early in the morning: the sitter going upstairs and sitting in the chair, invited by the artist to adopt a comfortable position, since he would have to keep it unchanged for all the sessions. Hockney would provide only a few indications to avoid the repetition of a pose previously adopted by another sitter. As soon as the subject was comfortable, the assistants would mark out the position of the feet on the floor, a device adopted from his friend Lucian Freud, for whom Hockney say in 2002. Quickly and confidently, Hockney would trace out the features, defining the figure in charcoal: starting from the face and hands, fundamental elements in a portrait as they are the focal points on which the attention of the observer lingers, he then outlines the entire composition in summary lines.

Hockney has known most of the sitters for a long time, has already portrayed them on other occasions, and tries to capture their pose as quickly as possible, as they will not sit in the same, identical fashion in the next session. After the general sketch is done, the acrylic colour paint is quickly applied to the canvas; this is a medium that dries quickly and allows for a quick execution. At this juncture, the artist records the volumes of the face, blocking out the structure of the body and sketching the background. The application of colour lasts for the three days of the session, and alternates with a continuous observation of the sitter for seven hours per day, interrupted only by a lunch break. Working with order and method, Hockney observes a precise pattern, painting every element, checking every nuance, angle and detail, intensely studying facial features, hairstyle and clothing. He is not only rigorous in the rendering of the subject, but equally attentive to the comparison with the earlier portraits, having in mind a series composed of single works constituting a set.

He works in silence, in absolute concentration, completely absorbed in his work. Fascinated by the individualities that emerge from this procedure, he notes how during the hours of sitting, the different subjects start to wander with their minds, pursuing their thoughts, as they are not accustomed to sitting for six consecutive hours without being able to do anything.

In the case of critic Martin Gayford, he has to “call him to order”.

Hockney does not seek verisimilitude or the approval of his sitters; their features are not beautified or transformed to conceal a defect. On seeing his portrait, a friend, Bing McGilvray, exclaimed: “I look like a refrigerator salesman!”

Both a visual catalogue and aide-memoire, Hockney’s assistant J-P documents every step of the process, enabling the artist to view the work done in a day and study the next steps to be implemented.

Uploaded into an iPad, the image of the painting is analysed and modified, functioning as a preparatory test for direct work on the canvas. “At the end of a day, you need to look at the painting to see what you’ve accomplished and what still has to be done [...] So the three days of sitting are actually working days of twenty-four hours for me.”

In a contemporary era in which the visual consumption of images runs at breakneck speed, David Hockney revives the pictorial genre of portraiture, seeking the essence of the sitter through careful observation. “I think that the more I know and respect people, the more interesting the result will be.” Exhibition catalogue published by Skira.

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