Picture frames are often merely pompous and distracting, but sometimes, as here, they expand and complete the work. This tiny piece by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c.1465 – c.1495) sits in its frame as in a window, the repeated gold rectangles almost describing a house with its protective shutters mostly but not entirely open. Gentle, simple, sheltering, like its subject, and forming together a perfect ensemble.
Variations can be a perfectly sound way of paying homage or making a joke, or, as in the self portrait here, making a point about beginnings and ends. Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” is so iconic that the mere presence of the foreground canvas frees Hockney from having to make any further references to his starting point, and gives him freedom to play. The simpler, colorful space, the cool seated figure instead of las meninas, and his own, defiantly prosaic pose speak for themselves. And the engaging thing about it is that it’s a strong and typically Hockneyesque piece. He isn’t copying, he isn’t sneaking a ride; he’s quoting, and demonstrating how he can take Velazquez’s elements to a very different place. A strong, bold piece.
So far, so good.
But then we get to “A Bigger Message,” based on “The Sermon on the Mount” by Claude Lorraine. Hockney has executed this in several wall-sized versions. As with the Velazquez, the Claude is both legendary and sui generis, so that the significance of whatever new path Hockney chooses to follow will be right up front.
Or would be if there were some. But while Hockney does elegant, playful things with his self portrait, “A Bigger Message” is a pretty literal, paradingly gaudy copy of the Claude. It’s unclear to me what the Bigger Message might be. Perhaps it gets spelled out in the exhibition catalogue, which I haven’t read. But whereas “Las Meninas” is no more than the superb
depiction of a social moment, leaving Hockney free to play with the room and the clothes and the personalities without missing anything essential, the Claude is about Jesus preaching. The landscape is designed to dramatize the story. But the religion thing doesn’t seem to engage Hockney at all. Without that, he’s just riding on a famous piece and saying, “See, my style is different.” Which I would never have doubted, and didn’t need to see proved, especially in such a loud voice.
So that one’s a disappointment.
And then we come to a truly odd whim, “The Massacre and the Problems of Depiction.” This is a feeble copy of “Massacre in Korea,” one of Picasso’s misguided ventures into social commentary.* Picasso really had nothing to say about war; Hockney’s “problem of depiction” seems to be that he also has nothing to say about it, or about Picasso, either, so far as that goes. He adds that odd little image of a photographer at the bottom, but the shared frame and its gray tones are its only points of connection with the principal image. Perhaps he’s saying that we are witnesses. Or at least he is. Or Picasso was. Or something. But with all the substantial portraits and landscapes to be encountered elsewhere in the exhibition–or the striking self-portraits–this “Massacre”–a dud elaborating on a dud–is definitely a distraction, and another disappointment.
*For more on Picasso and war, see the posts for December 28, 2013, and February 13, 2012.
David Hockney is your archetypal large-scale, pedal-to-the-metal sort of artist. His output is prodigious in quantity if irregular in quality. Either way, it shows the working of a systematic and quick-witted painter. These two qualities go together: the system enables the quickness. There were many examples of how this works in “David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition” now nearing the end of its run at the de Young Museum in San Francico.
This self-portrait watercolor demonstrates the quickness. What makes it sing is the liveliness of its shapes. Three blue background shapes, all different; three varied black shapes; red suspenders, one thin, rising almost nervously, almost-but-not-quite straight to the ear, the other fatter, curving smoothly out to the shoulder; the yellow pants, not repeating but echoing the warm tones of the face; the face, sharply delineated by the black shirt, modeled in two tones, and the gray hair in four, echoed by the third-gray glasses; the eyes, intenser shades of the blue surround that prevent the face from bouncing out of the picture plane. Face and hair are the only overtly modeled shapes; for the rest, Hockney relies for visual action on slightly wandering, washy paint rather than background details or textures. He also doesn’t draw tightly: the eyes are pretty firm, but the tones of the lower part of the face wander. So: everything straightforward, but knowing and immediate, even at some cost of precision.
His best landscapes are more elaborate, but similarly methodical. The sky is laid in first from side to side in short, streaky strokes of several closely-related blues. Then the low green band of background forest, again from side to side. The foreground gets more complicated, but the red band appears intermittently, and the purple path shapes enfold the middle distance like loving arms. The foreground shapes are laid in. Then the principal tree trunks, very directly over the sky in big, wet strokes. Then smaller trunks and branches between, brushed in until they almost hit larger, nearer shapes, but don’t quite hit them. Then modeling on the larger forms such as the trunk to the left and the ground shapes, which enlivens those shapes, and by dabbing colors around ties them into the rest of the composition. This process continues from large to small, elaborating, touching in, seldom if ever changing or correcting, until the point of compositional repletion is reached.This process builds the sense of receding forms because you can see that this one is behind that one, while at the same time emphasizing the flatness of the picture plane because you can see that the background shapes lie right together with the foreground shapes. Hockney’s device of breaking a piece up into abutting canvases—in this case, six—divided by frame strips reinforces the flatness, and further prevents the eye from getting lost in pictorial depth. Descriptive though it is, the eye settles on the pattern, the abstractness of it. In the Winter Tunnel the process is similar, but the colors are pushed: the blues of the sky, reds of the bushes, greens of the trees. The bright, unshadowed snow is the white canvas simply left untouched.
Hockney revisits the same motifs repeatedly. His sitters are individuals, but handled in the same way, as a basic, interesting shape with variations; his landscapes will have different seasonal colors or changing foliage, but essentially the same composition for piece after piece. This is a virtue in his work, not a weakness. He can treat his subjects so swiftly and assuredly because in working variations he knows pretty well where he is going before he starts. His quick eye for elegant shape and delightful pattern enables him to pull each view off without fumbling or hesitation. We are watching a performance rather than an exploration.
Before its reconstruction a few years ago, the de Young Museum in San Francisco had a wonderful paneled French period room with windows opening on a patio and pool in a quiet copse behind. It was used for parties and receptions. It was spacious and gracious and every good thing. I painted events there a couple of times, above in 1992, and below, ten years later.
But the old building was vulnerable to the major earthquake that the area is sure to have sooner or later. It was torn down, but the architectural oddity that replaced it could not have spread its stylistic wings wide enough to embrace the French room. Instead it was reinstalled in an internal room at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Which was better than losing it altogether, but whereas in the de Young it was a live space, at the Legion it is merely paneling on display. The views and spaciousness are gone. The windows are reduced to mirrors, the questing, shaping daylight to boring, flattening ceiling floods, the flocks of art lovers to this or that item of furniture and objet d’art in plastic cases. A mummified room. A real loss.
So, you may ask, have you any bright suggestions? Alas, I do not.