top of page

Drawing from Life: the David Hockney Exhibition at National Portrait Gallery

By Yoyo Hou

What do you expect to see in the exhibition of one of the most famous artists in the world? Some astonishing masterpieces that were sold for hundreds of millions of dollars at Christie's? Or something too philosophical or conceptual for ordinary people like us to understand? Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery takes a different perspective, revealing the most sentimental and intimate aspect of the artist’s life, from a quirky adolescent to an accomplished artist. The collection of drawings, paintings and other works of art of himself and his loved ones, truthfully capture his feelings and emotions—his happiness, depression, excitement and vulnerability.

Fig. 1: David Hockney, Self Portrait with Red Braces, 2003, watercolour on paper, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Similar to the Philip Guston exhibition at Tate Modern (which you can read about here) the curators(s) display the artworks of Drawing from Life in chronological order. However, rather than focusing on the constantly changing philosophical ideas of an artist, the Hockney exhibition is more personal and intimate, reflecting on the artist’s everyday life and his subtle emotions and feelings. Representing a career spanning 50 years, the exhibition is like a gentle time machine. We get to know Hockney by bearing witness to the ups and downs throughout his life, by befriending Hockney’s lovers, friends and parents, and by sharing the same feelings, thoughts and sometimes even irrational emotions with the artist.

Rather than the highly mature, accomplished work of My Parents and Myself (fig. 2) displayed in the first room, The Diploma (fig. 3) in the next room that caught my attention. At first glance, the 1962 etching seems like a random scribbling made by a mischievous schoolboy during break time. Having been threatened with not being graduated from the Royal College of Art for failing to complete the compulsory essays, Hockney awarded himself his own certificate of graduation. 

Fig. 2: David Hockney, My Parents and Myself, 1976, oil and canvas with masking tape, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Fig. 3: David Hockney, The Diploma, 1962, etching and aquatint, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

The eccentric etching is a truthful record of Hockey’s playful, rebellious and bold personality from an early age. Within the format of a certificate with the school emblem printed in reverse, young Hockney evokes an image of himself who just escaped from the mouth of a savage shark. Stepping on top of the shoulders of some A-grade students, he lifts an avatar of the first-class degree. This amusing work full of sarcasm and absurdity conveys Hockney’s frustration with educational institutions and his willingness to break free from these constraints. One might say that The Diploma is immature, but it is this work that suddenly narrows the distance between the world-renowned draftsman and the audience. We see the very beginning of the artist’s career, we feel his energy and frustration, which is the very personal side of the young artist.

Wandering across the exhibition rooms, we notice that some faces become more familiar to us—they are the most important people in Hockney’s life. In changing styles and different mediums, Hockney constantly makes portraits of his friend Celia Birtwell (fig. 4 and 5) and his lover Gregory Evans (fig. 6 and 7). Usually with Caran d'Ache pencils or later in ink, Hockney enriched his portraits with care and sentiment, showing a relaxed, naturalistic sitter without any pretence or stress. These drawings and paintings not only are records of the close relationships between the artist and his loved ones, but their changes in appearance through time also give us space for contemplating our own existence with time.

Fig. 4: David Hockney, Celia, Carennac, August 1971, pencil on paper, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Fig. 5: David Hockney, Ceila Birtwell II, 2019, ink on paper, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Fig. 6: David Hockney, Gregory Leaning Nude, coloured pencil on paper, 1975, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Fig. 7: David Hockney, Gregory Evans IV, ink on paper, 2019, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Next to the room with sketched portraits in an academic style, experimental works of photo collages become predominant in Hockney’s 1970s and 80s work. The artist created collages with more complex images with irregular edges from the late 70s, in which he captured simultaneous viewpoints and a continuous narrative. The collage with the title, My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov. 1982 (fig. 8) is a poignant, psychological portrait that captures Hockney’s mother after his father’s death, at the abbey where he had proposed to her. Less intrusive than a direct photograph, Hockney delicately delineates Mrs Hockney’s melancholy through this new way of looking: the viewer follows the artist’s eye and perspective, from the withered grass to the wet gravestone, from the gloomy, cold sky, to the mother’s dull, sombre eyes. This romantically sentimental work makes us feel as if we were invited to the walk with them. Hockney loved a sentence Edvard Munch said before: ‘photography cannot compete with painting because it cannot deal with heaven or hell. It's always the here and now.’ Certainly, Hockney’s collage is not a mass-produced photograph, it is a drawing with the camera that the artist dealt with temperature, and he wholeheartedly enriched it with emotions and thoughts.

Fig. 8: David Hockney, My Mother, Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire, Nov, 1982, cChromogenic print photocollage, 1982, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Yoyo Hou.

Rather than the portraits of celebrities and Hockney’s acquaintances made in Normandy during Covid-19 epidemic, works from his later everyday sketchbook are the real highlight of this exhibition. In the late 80s and 90s, Hockney entered a period of intense self-reflection due to the passing of many of his friends from HIV/AIDS, and he challenged himself to produce a self-portrait almost every day. Like the pages of a diary, the very quick sketches displaying different facial expressions (fig. 9 and 10) are a precious record of Hockney’s emotions and moods. Playful and experimental, the sketches reflect his preoccupations and observations on any day. The artist drew in front of a mirror, courageously revealing the most intimate, unveiled side of himself: the slightly distorted facial features recurrent in his sketches convey the vulnerability deep from one’s heart and soul with great subtlety. These sketches’ unfinished outcomes due to the quick process of drawing are something very precious. From their unfinished quality with flowing, single lines, the works may look irrational, but one’s emotions and instinctive feelings are inseparable from irrationality—Hockney did not shy away from them as he always drew from life. In a world full in flux, we sometimes focus on the outside world too much and neglect the very true, irrational voices from ourselves. Hockney’s drawings are thought-provoking, encouraging us to consider our own existence and irrational feelings in this busy, saturated world.

Fig. 9 and 10: David Hockney, Self-Portrait, London, and Self-Portrait, Baden-Baden, pencil on paper, 1999, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photographs taken by Yoyo Hou.

No wonder that every single exhibition room of Drawing from Life was packed with visitors on a Friday afternoon. In fact, what surprised me was the population of the audience: about seventy per cent or more were in their 60s or 70s. For a contemporary artist like Hockney with his fascination of acidic colours and experimental style, it was interesting how the millennials and Gen-Z were not the dominating age groups, especially with the portrait of Harry Styles (fig. 11) on the exhibition poster (there was still one teenager taking snapshots of this painting in the Normandy room). Perhaps the exhibition expresses a retrospective view the life of Hockney, which attracts older people who share the same experience with the artist — their contemporary? Or maybe that specific day was purely an anomaly? It is intriguing to wonder how exhibitions and artworks mean differently to different populations, and why the target audience of museums or galleries differs from the mainstream visitors.

Fig. 10: David Hockney, Harry Styles, acrylic on canvas. 2022. Collection of the artist, now on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph taken by Jonathan Wikinson.

Drawing from Life is undoubtedly a successful exhibition. Slowly and gently, we learn about Hockney’s life, his family, his lovers and friends. Ultimately, we see the works that reflect the softest part of his heart. They remind us of our existences, our feelings and emotions, through Hockney’s observations of the here and now.

Recent Posts
bottom of page