Mark Glazebrook

Hockney’s controversial experiment

The artist is a great draughtsman but is he a great watercolourist? asks Mark Glazebrook

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The last David Hockney show at Annely Juda Fine Art was in the summer of 1997. It was a large show of oils on canvas with the alliterative and rhyming title Flowers, Faces and Spaces. In one prominent, large painting called 'Sunflowers' no fewer than five different blue, purple or green vases containing these fiery yellow blooms, previously thought to have been patented by Vincent van Gogh, were arranged against a bright-green background on a plain, bright-red tablecloth. By out-Vincenting Vincent in the colour contrast department, these works seemed positively to court accusations of being over-the-top. Gone was the restrained but individualistic colour of Hockney's early work. Gone was the magical colour of some of his stage designs.

Were we witnessing a deliberate attack on good taste? Or were these very bright flower paintings being thrown in as shock troops in Hockney's extended love/hate battle against photography? Or is there another, unthinkable explanation? The most extreme and at the same time the most logical reaction of a painter who is disenchanted with the inadequacy of camera vision is to become an abstract artist. Hockney, however, remains stubbornly and admirably concerned with the difficult and arguably important task of creating original, legible images from what is in front of him.

Downstairs at Annely Juda there were smaller paintings; rows of pink and red faces (shockingly so at first sight) against green backgrounds. These were portraits of people whom David Hockney knows well. The self-portraits among them touchingly revealed a little introspective anxiety behind the extrovert aspect of a great performer. The intense, thoughtful, empathetic way in which the faces were observed provided a sort of foil to the flowers blazing away upstairs and in some ways the faces better rewarded return visits.

The 'Flowers' section of the catalogue was introduced by a classic Hockney dictum. 'People are timid about colour.' If that's a stricture, I plead guilty. I like subtle colour, muted colour and judicious contrasts - in other words I prefer CZzanne and Gauguin to Van Gogh. (Van Gogh's drawings and letters are a different matter.) That said, the world badly needs talented painters. Hockney's numerous, rapidly painted flower paintings of 1996, a sort of merging of Post-Impressionism with Post-Modernism - plus a dash of Punk perhaps - remain astonishing achievements of confident execution. Their cumulative effect and the sheer fearless energy with which they were painted helped to create an outstandingly vibrant atmosphere in the gallery upstairs at Annely Juda. Hockney's loyal public duly poured in to enjoy.

After the 1997 show, Hockney reverted to his love/hate obsession with the camera. This time it took the form of writing a book called Secret Knowledge which was published in 2001. His thesis was that Western realist painters took advantage of camera vision long before the invention of the printed photograph; that they used lenses, mirrors and the camera obscura both earlier and more extensively than had been thought. The book, and a BBC television programme on the same subject, starring Hockney himself, had a predominantly good press. The general feeling was that Hockney was onto something. He had used intuitions based on his own technical experience as an artist to unearth an interesting line of enquiry about other artists' techniques. Secret Knowledge was perhaps marred by Hockney's scarcely disguised lack of respect for the techniques of art historians - a line he has consistently taken since his rebellious student days at the Royal College of Art.

Martin Kemp, the art historian who helped him most with the book, pointed out that some of Hockney's arguments were circular. A rather unfair article in the Burlington magazine by a National Gallery picture restorer thought the book nonsense, as did Brian Sewell, who preferred the notion of genius to the mundanities of optical aids. Hockney himself made a series of drawings using the camera lucida - including a good one of the writer of this article, who blushed with pride to see his face reproduced in the Los Angeles Times. These experiments served Hockney's purposes but his drawings without optical aids have tended to be better. The upshot was to make Hockney once again increasingly attracted to the possibilities inherent in naturally observed painted images.

It is against the background outlined above that the current Hockney exhibitions of portraits and landscapes at the National Portrait Gallery and at Annely Juda face the world. 'I knew I had to paint the Christies from Glyndebourne,' Hockney writes in the catalogue. 'I had agreed three years ago, but how does one make an interesting portrait in the 21st century?'

Good question.

There is no doubt that what Marco Livingstone, in a helpful catalogue essay, rightly refers to as an 'experiment' has had controversial results. David Hockney's answer to his own question has been to set himself the superhuman task of painting more than a dozen outsize full-length double portraits in the notoriously difficult medium of watercolour. He has completed each 4ft x 3ft picture in a day because, in theory, watercolour painting should be done fast, although Edward Burra, for example, took more time over his large, sought-after watercolour landscapes. Hockney is often adept at getting a likeness, even if this likeness sometimes includes an element of caricature.

From a technical point of view these portraits are not really classic watercolours as experienced practitioners of the art know them. Many of the faces are quite simply too red. There is too much pigment and not enough water. They are drawings with a brush by a great draughtsman and therefore remarkable. A true watercolourist attempts to articulate the light in the paper and only occasionally does Hockney succeed in doing this. Hockney uses the same chairs and the same background each time. He has the confidence not to lose sleep if some portraits work out worse than others or if some passages work out worse than others; nor does he seem to worry too much about inaccurate details or the balance of the picture as a whole. The paintings are more about process than perfection. You could see them as records of a species of performance art: they represent an heroic capacity for concentration and pictorial planning.

Almost every combination of couple from the world of art, architecture and theatre, including father and daughter, brother and sister, are represented. There is body language to study and a slice of social history to savour. Sitters include Jacob Rothschild, Anthony Page, the Chassay family, Howard Hodgkin, Lucian Freud, Marco Livingstone and Norman Rosenthal. Hockney does not flatter. Why should he? The acceptance of the National Portrait Gallery's commission to paint George and Mary Christie was a rare event for David Hockney, who, unlike Gainsborough, normally summons his own sitters. Michelangelo, who fought for the status of the artist, would approve. The two shows will buzz with discussion.

The Norwegian landscapes have a certain raw vitality but just as I sometimes prefer Van Gogh's drawings to his paintings, so I tend to prefer Hockney's preparatory sketches in ink. Hockney remains a great draughtsman, stage designer, illustrator, etcher, educationalist, entertainer and visual diarist - plus a great friend. He is capable of producing memorable paintings but he is not yet a great watercolourist -like CZzanne, say, or Emil Nolde.

Painting on Paper at Annely Juda Fine Art, 23 Dering Street, London W1, runs until 1 March; Five Double Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery until 29 June.