Transforming words into images

David Hockney’s work is probably best characterized in the popular imagination by the color and airy feeling of space and light so prevalent in his «swimming pool» scenes, which the artist made in Los Angeles. But Hockney is also an excellent graphic artist, one of the best of our time. The series of etchings he has produced, especially during the 1960s and early 1970s, showcases his talent as a draftsman and hints at his interest in literature. A small but tight exhibition of his prints – under the title «David Hockney, Words and Pictures» – are on display now in an elegant exhibition at the Benaki Museum. The British Council, through its collection, supplied the works. The curator is Richard Riley, who also wrote the informative essay included in the exhibition’s supplementary catalogue. In 1960, a year after Hockney entered the Royal College of Art in London, he began using literary sources for his work, bucking the trends at the time. A year later, he used a line from Walt Whitman’s poetry for the title of his work «We Two Boys Together Clinging,» a painting which also referred to a mountaineering accident that newspapers headlined as «Two Boys Cling to Cliff All Night.» Riley, the curator, says the painting’s narrative also indirectly reflects the artist’s campaign for homosexuality, which was still illegal in the United Kingdom at the time. A few years later, a series of etchings based on the poetry of Constantine Cavafy – which Hockney had read in a new translated version – make more open references to homosexuality. Twelve of those etchings are included in the Benaki exhibition, among them a portrait of Cavafy set in Alexandria, the poet’s home city. Hockney had visited Alexandria during a four-week tour in Egypt in 1963, when the London Sunday Times had asked him to produce a series of drawings of the sites for the newspaper’s magazine supplement. Hockney was already familiar with the poetry of Cavafy and had produced several etchings based on the poem «Alexandrian Kings.» This was in 1961, the same year Hockney’s work was shown at the Young Contemporaries Exhibition (an exhibition of works by British art students held annually in London since 1949). Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and R.B. Kitaj also participated in the exhibition, which established Hockney and his peers as the leaders of pop art, a label Hockney disliked and felt did not describe his work. The 1960s marked one of Hockney’s most creative periods. Success came early. Hockney was only 24 when he received an art prize shortly after graduating with the gold medal from Royal College. He used the money to travel to New York for the first time. (He settled permanently in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.) When he returned to London from his first American trip, he produced «A Rake’s Progress,» a series of copper-plate engravings narrating his experiences in New York. The series was actually inspired by a suite of the same title by the 18th century British painter William Hogarth. Hockney’s contemporary and autobiographical adaptation of Hogarth’s moral tale consists of 16 plates, all of them included in the Benaki exhibition. The collage-like combination of different elements within the same composition, the use of red color and the free style of the etchings in «A Rake’s Progress» bears no resemblance to the orderly, geometric and contained «Illustrations for Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm,» another of Hockney’s print series, which he produced in 1969. Hockney had read all 350 tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the German scholars and folklorists, and chose six – including «Rapunzel,» «Old Rinkrank,» and «The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear» – for his art. The etchings at the Benaki show the artist’s humor and ironic wit. The etchings also look more like drawings. Despite their strict geometrical structure, they have an airy quality rarely seen in prints. But Hockney was also well-versed in printing techniques and actually had a knack for combining different techniques in a single work. He expanded his knowledge of techniques during his extended stays in Paris in the early 1970s. He worked for the prestigious Atelier Crommelynck, whose founders Picasso had worked closely with for his prints. Picasso died in 1973, the year that Hockney began experimenting with new techniques in Paris – particularly the sugar-lift method, a variation of the traditional aquatint, which resemble the flat tints of an ink or wash drawing. The turn of events probably inspired him to produce a series of prints as a homage to Picasso. His reference to Picasso continued through «The Blue Guitar,» a suite of colored etchings that Hockney made between 1976 and 1977. The series were actually inspired by a poem by the American poet Wallace Stevens which, in turn referenced Picasso’s blue period. The most colorful of the series included in the Benaki exhibition, «The Blue Guitar» etchings are filled with motifs taken from the work of the great cubist painter. Just as with literature, Hockney used the work of other artists as one of many resources for his own work. Gifted with extraordinary imagination, talent and a capacity for versatility, David Hockney combined and reinterpreted this firsthand material into an in-depth and varied pictorial language, into intriguing stories that opened a new window to the world and made an important mark in the history of 20th century art. «David Hockney, Words and Pictures,» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, tel 210.367.1000) through September 15. Marco Livingstone, art critic and worldwide expert on Hockney’s work, will visit Greece to give a lecture on the artist’s work (info: British Council, tel 210.369.2333). Chivas Regal is the exhibition’s exclusive sponsor.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.