Art exhibition review: David Hockney – Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

The David Hockney: Drawing from Life exhibition has made a triumphant return to the National Portrait Gallery after a brief interruption due to Covid. With the programme concluding this weekend, this is your final chance to dive into Hockney’s world, covering six vibrant decades through portraits of five key figures. The exhibition adds a fresh twist by unveiling over thirty new portraits, all painted from life, showcasing Hockney’s zest for capturing the beauty of existence.

Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

Entering the recently revamped gallery, I was greeted by Hockney’s self-portrait, a jubilant celebration of his mid-80s self, dressed in a multicoloured houndstooth suit, cigarette in hand, and paintbrush in the other — a cheerful masterpiece of self-acceptance.

One of the exhibition’s highlights is Hockney’s enchanting portrayal of Celia Birtwell, stealing the limelight with timeless portraits reflecting a lifelong friendship. From soft crayon sketches in Paris during the ’70s to ethereal pinks, blues, and greens, Celia emerges as a captivating muse, a true love in Hockney’s artistic narrative.

The narrative takes us through Hockney’s rebellious journey, embracing absolute personal freedom. From his breakout in the ’60s to capturing the vibrant gay culture of early ’60s America in the A Rake’s Progress series, the exhibition immerses us in Hockney’s boundless joy for life.

The show also unveils Hockney’s admiration for artistic giants Walt Whitman and Mahatma Gandhi, exploring the mystery of being alive and the power of love. Hockney’s love affair with beauty transcends conventional labels.

The journey gracefully navigates through Hockney’s life, from the early shaky yet exciting works to experimental ’80s, aging, and the post-pandemic additions. Hockney’s new series of portraits post-lockdown depict friends and neighbours, including the famous pop singer Harry Styles, encapsulating the joy of being alive.

Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

However, the weight of time becomes evident in the show’s latter additions. Faces appear formless, reflecting the effects of time on Hockney and his loved ones. Despite the imperfections, the exhibition resonates as a poignant portrait of Hockney’s aging and changing artistry.

While the post-pandemic additions may not match Hockney’s earlier mastery, the exhibition, in its entirety, offers an intimate, often touching exploration of one of Britain’s contemporary greatest artists. The portrayal of time passing and the tender portrayal of relationships make it a unique experience, albeit with a few bumps.

David Hockney, born in Bradford in 1937, is celebrated as one of the master draughtsmen of our times. His advocacy for drawing, which has underpinned his work throughout his life, takes centre stage in this exhibition. From early pen and ink drawings to recent experiments with watercolour and digital technology, Hockney’s inventive visual language has taken various stylistic turns.

Over the past six decades, he has remained inquisitive, playful, and thought-provoking, generously sharing his ideas with his audience. Drawing from Life explores the artist’s unique vision of the world around him, manifested in portraits of himself and his intimate circle.

A room dedicated to new ‘painted drawings’ of visitors to his Normandy studio in 2021-2022 offers a glimpse of Hockney’s continuing working life even at the age of 86.

harry Styles poortrait - Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

Hockney’s early influences and passion for art, evident since his school days, laid the foundation for his remarkable career. His academic training at Bradford School of Art focused on drawing, painting, and the study of anatomy, setting the stage for his artistic journey.

The exhibition also showcases Hockney’s homage to Picasso, depicting an imaginary meeting between the modern master and himself. Appetite, a shared trait, defines both artists, capturing the meat of existence.

picasso and hockney - Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

Textile designer Celia Birtwell emerges as a central figure, showcasing a lifelong friendship with Hockney. Their collaboration goes beyond the conventional artist-muse relationship, with Hockney capturing Celia’s distinctive fabric designs in his portraits.

Hockney’s Parisian chapter in 1973 marked a shift towards a new stimulus for drawing, emphasizing intense scrutiny of the human figure from life. The exhibition features large academic and naturalistic portraits, showcasing Hockney’s technical accuracy and attention to detail.

The artist’s mother, Laura Hockney, played a pivotal role as a patient and loyal model. Her image reappears frequently in Hockney’s sketchbooks, acting as a visual diary capturing scenes of family life.

Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

Hockney’s exploration of various mediums includes pen and ink portraits, Rapidograph drawings in California, and watercolour experiments in the 2000s. His ever-evolving artistic journey reflects a commitment to capturing the essence of his sitters.

vogue - Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

The exhibition also sheds light on Hockney’s unique approach to self-portraiture, from intense self-reflection in the ’80s to playful and vulnerable drawings inspired by Rembrandt. In 2002, Hockney embraced watercolour, describing the series as ‘portraits for the new millennium,’ emphasising the human eye, hand, and heart as essential tools.

Art exhibition review: David Hockney - Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery

The ‘painted drawings’ from 2021-2022 capture the joy of holding brushes again, reflecting Hockney’s delight in portraying familiar and unfamiliar faces.

Drawing from Life is an enjoyable, touching journey through Hockney’s eyes. The exhibition offers a nostalgic stroll through the artistic evolution of one of Britain’s contemporary masters, showcasing the enduring beauty found in every stroke.

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