New David Hockney exhibition in Yorkshire shows his early works

A new exhibition of one of Yorkshire’s most famous artists David Hockney’s early works has gone on display in his home county. Catherine Scott reports. Main picture by James Hardisty.

You may think that David Hockney is synonymous with big bright landscapes or tranquil poolside prints, but his early works are very different. A new exhibition of some 60 works dating from the early 1960s has just gone on display at the new Gallery One at Thirsk Hall. “We have been trying to put this collection together for 15 years,” says curator Georgie Gerrish.

“It is really exciting to have so many of David Hockney’s early works in one place. You can see so clearly how he has progressed and how quickly he became accomplished at etchings and print. But there’s still something very beautiful about the naivety of the early etchings. It’s really fascinating and shows a side to Hockney’s work that not everyone is familiar with. He went through so many changes. Throughout Hockney’s career you can see he is fascinated by the process of whatever he is doing.”

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Several important themes emerge through the work presented in Gallery One. First is an emphasis on autobiographical elements, such as the artist’s nascent homosexuality. This is at first subtly hinted at in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (1961), via the graffiti-esque line from a poem by the gay literary icon Constantine Cavafy, and the name of Hockney’s college crush, “Peter”, on the male figure.

By 1964 he felt free to address his sexuality more overtly in his image of a young man showering, Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, in which the nude is lifted directly from a photo in a pornographic magazine he owned.

Another enduring influence on his work is that of literature and visual storytelling, as seen in his Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm’ (1969) and The Blue Guitar (1976-77), in which he interpreted the poem by Wallace Stevens. Hockney is in constant dialogue with his art historical predecessors; A Rake’s Progress (1961-63) is a reimagining of Hogarth’s famous series. He quotes directly from older paintings by masters including Carpaccio, Picasso and Matisse or updates long-standing motifs such as the bather of Cezanne or the Garden of Eden in a more personal contemporary vein.

“Hockney has followed in the footsteps of his great hero Picasso, to become one of the most versatile practitioners of the graphic arts of the last century,” says Georgie.

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“The artist’s deep commitment to printmaking was cemented in these early years and his work in print is a key part of his broader practice. The etchings, lithographs and screenprints on display introduce us to a veritable who’s who of the international printmaking world of ateliers, master printers and publishers: John Kasmin, Editions Alecto, Chris Prater, at Kelpra Studio, Ken Tyler and the Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Maurice Payne, Petersburg Press, Gemini GEL and Aldo Crommelynck.

“Together these artworks form a fascinating portrait of the young Hockney’s literary and art historical influences, personal life and artistic evolution.”

Hockney studied at Bradford School of Art from 1953 to 1957 where he showed his talent as a draughtsman. He attended the Royal College of Art from 1959 until 1962 and worked in a style that combined figuration, abstraction, and text, which identified him with the British Pop art movement. Hockney was awarded the Royal College of Art gold medal in 1962 in recognition of his mastery as a draughtsman and his innovative paintings. His early work was stylistically diverse, combining graffiti-like images with quotations from the poetry of Walt Whitman.

“For him, getting to the Royal College was a game changer. There were new freedoms there and new experiences that he probably didn’t find so accessible in Yorkshire. He was unashamed about his sexuality and he felt others should be too and so was happy to use his sexuality in his art very early on,” says Georgie.

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His initial trip to New York, in 1961, inspired his first major group of etchings, A Rake’s Progress, which reinterprets the famous cycle of 18th-century engravings by William Hogarth.

“Hockney had won a printmaking competition with his early works and the prize was a trip to New York. The Rake’s Progress series was exhibited almost immediately and he started winning praise,” says Georgie. “MOMA (the Museum of Modern Art) bought every single print he had taken out to America and people immediately responded to his work – he was just 24 years old.”

But it was his move to Los Angeles in 1963 that really opened up Hockney’s experimentation and creativity. There he produced highly evocative, sometimes homoerotic, iconic images of urban life many deeply autobiographical. By the late 1960s, his work had become more naturalistic but it was always characterised by Hockney’s alertness to the psychological and emotional resonance of his subject matter.

Hockney’s work also includes landscapes, photography, printmaking and stage designs for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera and the Los Angeles Music Centre Opera.

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The exhibition at Thirsk Hall, which opened on Hockney’s 85th birthday on July 9, runs until October. “It has taken us years to put this exhibition together and we have secured 60 works from Japan, America and the UK. Some were already in our collection but others have been sourced from far and wide. This is the first time that so many of Hockney’s early works can be seen in the same place together which is really exciting for Yorkshire,” adds Georgie.

Most of the works, some of them signed prints, are for sale, with prices ranging from £250 to £13,000.

“Hockney did very limited print runs of his early work and there is huge demand for his work at the moment from all over the world – he is probably Yorkshire’s greatest expert,” says Willoughby Gerrish, organiser of the exhibition, who lives at Thirsk Hall.

“He is such a recognisable face with his big glasses and, although he doesn’t do many interviews, he does still appear in public and because he keeps reinventing himself there will always be demand for his work. That’s what makes him exciting. Many of his contemporaries stick to a winning formula, Hockney is not frightened to try new techniques and push those techniques to their limit.”

“Besides Picasso, there is no artist of the 20th century who has remained so visually impressive,” adds Georgie.

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