Portraits Tame, Wild and Savage
Family and friends matter to David Hockney, while George Stubbs was fascinated by the animal kingdom
In 2012 David Hockney was responsible for the biggest exhibition of the year: 600,989 people visited the Royal Academy to see A Bigger Picture, a collection of his large — verging on the Brobdingnagian — paintings showing the landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds. Not long after the exhibition Hockney left Bridlington and returned to Los Angeles where he embarked on a very different project. The results are at the RA in an exhibition called 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life (until October 2).
Hockney considers the portraits (the still life was painted to fill the time when a sitter didn’t turn up) not as 82 separate works but as a single installation. They depict many of the people who matter to him, among them his brother and sister, Margaret and John, fellow painters such as John Baldessari, the starchitect Frank Gehry, the gallerists Larry Gagosian and David Juda, and the likes of Barry Humphries, Lord Rothschild and his literary collaborator Martin Gayford.
Hockney’s portraits are among the most significant works of his career and this suite marks a return to a genre he has set somewhat to one side. While he regularly refuses portrait commissions these pictures are all at his own instigation. None of the sitters knew he wanted to paint them until he asked. Once in his studio he depicted them all on identical 122×91 cm canvases, sitting on the same chair against the same blue background and teal floor (though sometimes he reverses the colours). There are no props, the sitter is the be all and end all.
The portraits’ uniformity extended to the sitting time too. “I thought I could ask people to give me three days,” Hockney says. “It is a 20-hour exposure.” Seated at an electric easel that meant he painted at the optimal level, he used the time to work directly on the canvas, with no preparatory studies but rather drawing the figure in with charcoal before turning to his paints.
Hockney’s self-imposed constraints account in part for the paintings’ lack of finish: the faces are the necessary focus of observation but the paint is rarely blended, with one shade laid on top of another. A sharp pink is the dominant colour which makes all the sitters look as though they have spent rather too long in the LA sun. Hockney’s portraits traditionally have a closeness of observation and a delicacy of draughtmanship that transmit something of the sitter’s personality. Here the sense of psychology is cursory and the subjects have a near-identical posing-for-a-portrait expression.
Hockney has admitted that he painted these pictures because he likes to be challenged. In 2000 he painted various warders at the National Gallery as a set, 12 Portraits After Ingres in a Uniform Style, to “prove” that the 19th-century Neoclassicist used some sort of optical device. His object here is less pedagogical and more experimental: an attempt to see what variety might emerge from uniformity. Not a lot is the answer. This does not invalidate the exercise. Despite a lifetime of work and recognition, Hockney still can’t sit on his hands or rest on his laurels.
One of the great unacknowledged portraitists was George Stubbs (1724-1806). During his lifetime he laboured under the tag of “Mr Stubbs the Horse Painter” and he resented it. His horse paintings are true portraits in every sense of the word but real people — grooms, jockeys, huntsmen and gleaners — play supporting roles in them too and Stubbs depicted them with just as much care and individuality.
Stubbs, though, was a true son of the Enlightenment, a natural scientist as well as an artist; his The Anatomy of the Horse (1766), the result of his own dissections and drawings, was to become a standard veterinary work into the 20th century. While horses and hounds may have been his stock in trade, the animals brought back from the ends of the earth by Britain’s golden age explorers also caught his imagination. Stubbs and the Wild at the Holburne Museum in Bath (until October 2) examines his fascination with the natural world.
Stubbs famously depicted the cheetah that was given by the Governor-General of Madras to George III but he also documented a whole menagerie of creatures that found their way to England during the late 18th century — kangaroos and dingoes (or at least their skeletons and skins, from which the naturalist Joseph Banks commissioned him to paint the living animals), zebras and moose (commissioned by the physician William Hunter), apes and leopards. It wasn’t just the big fauna that interested him: the exhibition also includes his exquisite drawings of a tiny mouse lemur collected in Madagascar.
Lions were a consistent theme. As a friend of his fellow experimentalist Josiah Wedgwood he painted them in enamel on Wedgwood’s ceramic plaques and also etched and painted various scenes of a lion attacking a horse, a theme he treated repeatedly over the course of 30 years. He had, of course, never witnessed such a scene but based the encounter on a Hellenistic statue he saw on his sole trip abroad, to Rome in 1754. While some of Stubbs’s animal pictures were intended as zoological studies, his lion and horse pictures were works of proto-Romanticism and intended to show something of the emotional depth of history rather than genre painting: they combine violence, energy, a frisson of horror and the mystique of the non-human, all portrayed with neoclassical clarity. In these pictures Stubbs is one of the artists who bridged the stylistic divide that defined the period.
Stubbs’s relationship with animals is encapsulated in an anecdote that has the painter in his late sixties hearing that a tiger had died at Pidcock’s menagerie in the Strand. He rushed straight there, bought the corpse and spent “the rest of the night carbonading the once tremendous tyrant of the Indian jungle”. He always had an ear for the call of the wild.