Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Depiction

As you walk down Trumpington Street to the Fitzwilliam Museum, banners of Hockney’s 2021 self-portrait line either side of the street, looking down on you in all its vibrancy. These culminate in two giant banners at the front of the museum, which become new pillars. Hockney is really “tak[ing] over Cambridge” (brochure) and transformed both the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Heong Gallery into his own vibrant green, multimedia, iconoclastic pathway.

This self-portrait encapsulates much of what the exhibition aims to achieve; a presentation of Hockney’s work, yes, but also an examination of the art itself, its rules, through the ‘eye’ of Hockney. Hockney’s brush extends beyond the confines of the painting – placing himself at the center but drawing our attention away from him to the path of art that lies beyond the illuminated green archway. What remains of the usual exhibition at The Fitzwilliam is largely relegated to the background, the Old Masters the Fitz notorious for being relegated to examples upon which Hockney can argue his theories or form his own notions. They are contrasted (often literally) with Hockney’s own pieces, as with the base oil paintings of flower vases, which now revolve around a screen displaying a collection of Hockney’s own flower drawings created on his iPad. Hockney is front and center, catching our attention.

Hockney’s model of Poussin’s Extreme Unction (1638-42) viewed through a peepholeAnna Piper Thompson

Throughout, the viewer is asked to get involved with the art; from a peephole with miniature models positioned directly in front of the painting (Poussin’s “Extreme Unction”) it depicts, or “The Perspective Window” where guests lined up to practice the theory of linear perspective in the exact space, in which we stood, or the large camera obscura outside, where children happily cock the camera at a dizzying view of the busy street, watching the images blur as they raise the panels to the ceiling. The exhibition is not satisfied with spectators – it not only wants your commitment, it demands it.

“The Perspective Window”Anna Piper Thompson

This creates a lively atmosphere and on several occasions other guests have included me in their discussions and through this discussion we have been able to switch the artistic processes to ourselves and communicate through them. This circumvents the problem of alienating visitors who have no prior understanding of the artistic notions that Hockney is subverting or intending to redefine, a problem encountered in the Perspective, Orthodox and Versa room, in which the central cabinets with Textbooks The perspective remained hidden under fabric, as most visitors either chose not to uncover it, or took a peek and fled.

The documentary will be screened at Heong Gallery, with a view of Downing College through the window Anna Piper Thompson

However, this element of physical interaction does not carry over to the Heong Gallery; The vibrant green of the Fitzwilliam becomes ribbon lines on the floor in this gallery, creating a distance between the viewer and the art – a more typical gallery experience, perhaps due to its limited size. In contrast to the sheer, sprawling expanse of the Fitzwilliam, the Heong Gallery is an intimate space. This is not to say that a coherent whole is not emerging within this gallery as well; Hockney’s voice echoes throughout the space from the 45-minute documentary, blending with the audience’s own conversations to create animation and energy in the space that reflects the extraordinary vividness of his play, Grand Canyon I. There are two current paths through the artworks. The first, focusing on Hockney’s career over time, begins with ‘Study Skeleton II’ from his days at the Royal College of Art and ends with another screen showing a carousel of his recent iPad drawings. The other way is through the Hockney quotes that accompany each piece and highlight his own creative process ideologies.

“Grand Canyon I, 2017”, “Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool, 1971” and “Onlooker Looking at Readymade with Skull and Mirrors, 2018”Anna Piper Thompson

The description for “Grand Canyon Arizona with My Shadow, Oct. 1982” notes that “space is a constant preoccupation of Hockney’s”. While this relates to an interest in the representation of space in his art, it also extends beyond the canvas to influence the design of these exhibitions. It really is like being in Hockney’s world. The Fitzwilliam explodes with an intensely luminous green that is usually only represented electronically; As the exhibition caption suggests, “Hockney goes beyond what is possible with pigments. His amazing range of greens comes directly from light that is not reflected.” While I understand the purpose behind the choice of colors and the desire to shift the space into the digital world of Hockney’s latest work, it felt overwhelming to be so dominated by it to become, and also had the effect of spoiling the liveliness of the works themselves. This expanded connection also stripped away much of the individuality of the pieces, denying them the confines of their own canvases and denying us the opportunity to fully engage with them as artworks in their own right. Speaking to several employees about color choices, it seems like a color that needs to “grow on people.”

The Hockney’s Eye exhibition truly immerses you in Hockney’s perspective while showcasing his immense multimedia palette and the creative possibilities that can be explored in modern modes, bringing reflections on the process of artistic creation to the forefront of our minds. It is an exhibition that fits Hockney’s own expansive experimental career and brings his career-long obsession with the “arts and technology” of performance into a collected whole.

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