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David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts: two exhibitions on the big screen - Drew Rowsome - 416 Scene - MyGayToronto

David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts: two exhibitions on the big screen
24 January 2018


David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts covers two major exhibitions of Hockney's paintings: 2012's A Bigger Picture and 2016's 82 Portraits and One Still Life. The film is screening as part of Cineplex's special events series "Exhibition on Screen" and while it is no substitute to actually attending the exhibitions, it is a fascinating creature of its own.

Paintings and the visceral experience of an art gallery visit are difficult to translate to film. Visual art appreciation requires time and the individual gaze wandering where it is enticed, film directs the viewers gaze. Wisely the filmmakers tackle it thematically with interviews with Hockney accompanying lingering shots and carefully chosen close-ups (which will undoubtedly be even more impressive on the big screen than they were on the screener I viewed). Hockney, a spellbinding and charming raconteur, is prompted to talk about how he views his subjects, how he observes, how he sees, and the audience's eyes are treated to a semblance of Hockney's vision.

The landscapes of A Bigger Picture particularly suit large screen film treatment. Hockney's vivid use of colour - he calls it "fizzy" - pops and one gets a real sense of the scale of the paintings. Watching his tiny figure working away at a towering canvas is a powerful image, then he shrugs and notes, "The bigger the painting, the less important the edge." It is Hockney's insights that are captivating, encouraging us to look at the paintings through a different lens. He describes his process as, "I sit and look hard. Work from memory. Does the bark on the tree catch the eye first? Painting is editing." 

After creating the series of giant landscapes, Hockney took on another challenge. "I don't mind boring others," he says, "but I won't bore myself." He began a series of portraits that were completed in three days maximum because that was how long he felt he could reasonably request anyone to pose. It became a conceptual artwork overlaid over portraiture. We see the portraits created in close to stop motion and Hockney generously shares his thought and creative processes. And a few quips: "Men dress very badly these days, but there's a lot of variety."

The camera can get close enough to the canvas to reveal the brushstrokes, the flaws, the wonder, but it is Hockney's relationship with the sitters that is fascinating. "People are the most interesting thing to look at," he says (despite having extolled the virtues of landscapes only a few years before . . .) and the segments with him and Barry Humphries or any of the others who posed prove it. There is even a sense of how the portraits impacted when hung in the gallery. As Hockney says, "None jump out. They all jump out. You have to look at them all." David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts makes one want to head to the nearest gallery.

David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts is specifically about these two exhibitions. There is only one of Hockney's previous paintings and one video installation that show up on screen. There is also, for fans of his then-radical homoerotic California paintings that brought him worldwide fame, a careful circumspect treatment of his personal life and history. The subtext and a few casual references are there but, without a historical framework, Hockney is just a very talented painter and not the innovative queer genius he is. However that is a small quibble when placed against such gracious access to Hockney's thoughts and for a chance to view two important exhibits that were far away and shortly ago.

David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts screens on Thurs, Jan 25 at select Cineplex theatres. cineplex.com

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