Two thought-provoking exhibitions have just opened in London. At the Sackler Gallery of the RA are “82 Portraits and One Still-life by David Hockney”; and at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, “Painters’ Paintings: from Freud to Van Dyck.” Each of these is at least slightly novel, and indicative of changes that must be afoot in the art world.
None of Hockney’s 82 portraits was commissioned by the sitter or anyone else. They were done by him, for himself, as a project in his California studio, starting in July 2013 and continuing until last February. The sitters range from the team who work with him to family, friends and acquaintances, and sometimes their children. Most readers will recognise at least one or two of the names of his subjects (who are not celebrities: “I don’t do celebrities, photography does celebrities”) from among Larry Gagosian, Gregory Evans, John Baldessari, Martin Gayford, Jacob Rothschild, Maurice Payne, David Juda, Celia Birtwell, Barry Humphries, Frank Gehry – and the sharp-eyed and –witted will notice that “Sir Norman Rosenthal” alone is given his honorific.
All have the same size canvas (121.9 x 91.4 cm, 48 x 36 in), and each subject is seated in the same, dining-room-style chair, against coloured backgrounds, on a coloured platform, using turquoise, a couple of blues and mauve, and painted in acrylics – though the colours get more saturated as the series progresses. It is displayed at the RA in chronological order of when they were painted. The subjects chose their own clothes and pose, and each sitting lasted two or three days.
The word “series” is here slightly misleading, as the artist says that it comprises a single work. Thus the show as a whole is the work, and not the individual canvases. (Though we are told in the pamphlet that accompanies the exhibition that he made “over 90” of these portraits, editing out “a number of portraits of sitters who had been painted more than once,” says Edith Devaney, who curated the show for the RA. So perhaps what is on show is only a large fraction of the actual work of art?) The sitter having installed himself in the chair, one of Hockney’s assistants outlined the sitter’s feet in charcoal, making it relatively easy to resume the pose. David then made a fairly rapid charcoal drawing directly onto the primed canvas, and proceeded directly to the painting.
It certainly occurred to me at the press view that what I was seeing was a single work, not 83 individual works of art – and that though some were “better” than others, none was a conventional, stand-alone portrait. I also spotted a large number of echoes and tonal shifts in the background and platform colour-fields, made more evident by the tight hang. I felt the exhibition was as much about colour as about, say, faces, posture and body-language. What convinces me I am right is the inclusion of the single still-life, “Fruit on a Bench” painted 6-8 March 2014, where the background is a darkish blue, the platform turquoise and the bench rendered in an almost electric blue. Bananas, lemons, an orange, a red pepper and darker red tomatoes (plus a blotchy yellowy-greeny mango or pear – I couldn’t make out which) and two green leaves, were painted and (otherwise inexplicably) included in the exhibition, I feel certain, not just to demonstrate Hockney’s mastery of colour, but because colour is part of what this provocative and exciting show is all about. The splendidly printed catalogue does justice to this aspect.
So the Hockney RA show is a different kind of monographic exhibition, one in which a single work is composed of 82 different parts, each being what, in a different context would be individual works of art, and open to the normal and usual judgement of quality. It is, indeed, hard to avoid passing critical judgement on the 82 canvases, as you cannot really keep yourself from preferring, say, the portraits of Celia Birtwell and John Baldessari to that of Lord Rothschild, merely on aesthetic grounds – as “better” paintings. But that does not seem to be appropriate here – how confusing. The National Gallery exhibition, “Painters’ Paintings” is about painters as collectors, and purports to inform us about the contents of, and let us see examples of the collections of paintings owned by Lucian Freud, Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Lord Leighton, G. F. Watts, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Anthony van Dyck.
The inspiration for this show is supposed to be, what the catalogue calls Lucian Freud’s gift to the British nation (in the shape of the National Gallery) “in gratitude for giving his Jewish family a refuge from persecution in 1933”: Corot’s magnificent “Italian Woman, or Woman with Yellow Sleeve (L’I, talienne) c. 1870.” Freud bought the large painting at auction in 2001, and it hung in his sitting-room with his tiny Cézanne and his small Constable paintings. At the NG it can be seen alongside a self-portrait and one of his very flesh-and-bones female nudes, both from about the time he bought the Corot. Are there connections? The position of the right-hand of Corot’s Italian woman has nicely obvious similarities with Freud’s right hand in the self-portrait. Is this enlightening? I’m sure I don’t know. The spaces devoted to Matisse and Degas include some jolly good paintings. It’s always a thrill to see the NG’s Manet “The Execution of Maximilian” (c.1867-8) in Degas’ reconstruction and it’s a real treat to see Jasper Johns’ also tiny Cézanne study “Bather with Outstretched Arm” (1883-5), formerly owned by Degas. Nice to see Lawrence’s Raphael and Guido Reni; Reynolds’ Giovanni Bellini, his doubtful Michelangelo, his Jacopo Bassano, his Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Poussin; and Van Dyck’s pair of Titians.
However, these are all from the NG’s permanent collection, where you can – normally – see them for free. Instead you’ll be asked for about £12 to see these, and some loans (as in the instances above), some but not all of which are masterpieces. Still, with cuts to arts subsidies and the ridiculous present political situation making everyone nervous about everything, you can see that all the national art institutions are going to have to find ways to produce revenue from their assets. If this means mix ‘n’ match and slap on an entry charge for a temporary exhibition, so be it – but it does have to be done in an intelligent fashion – which this does, but only just.