Contemporary Art

David Hockney: Tradition Reimagined

By Hugo Cobb

D avid Hockney's Guest House Wall is a work of immense chromatic variation and brilliant painterly beauty; it is filled with love for his home country and informed by his erudite investigations into painterly techniques of the past. He is at once the quintessential contemporary artist, who has perennially embraced technological progress, and the staunch traditionalist, resolutely reliant on the weight of art history to inform and improve his style. He is simultaneously a proud Englishman, whose Yorkshire roots have suffused countless masterpieces, and an adopted American who allowed Californian sunshine to flood his facture and blossom into sparkling colour. Hockney is perhaps the greatest living British artist, and currently showing a new body of work in a critically acclaimed show at the Royal Academy and the subject of much anticipation ahead of a mammoth Tate retrospective, scheduled for early 2017. The present work distills the essence of his oeuvre.

DAVID HOCKNEY, GUEST HOUSE WALL, 2000. ESTIMATE £1,800,000—2,500,000.

One might argue that Hockney’s preoccupation with historic drawing-aids, which were specifically designed to translate the three-dimensional world into a two-dimensional image, informed the overt sense of flatness in the present work; perspective and recession are conspicuously absent from its composition. However, this lack of depth was actually a technique that Hockney used to imbue his work with a greater degree of phenomenological truth. In flattening his representation, he assumed that the viewer was not located in front of the picture, but within it – that their point of view was not behind his own, but in front. Ever since his forays into photography in the 1980s, Hockney had maintained that stereoscopic human vision does not formulate a landscape image in the same way that a camera does. Hockney thus developed his idiosyncratic mode of perspectiveless depiction in order to imbue his works with a greater degree of sensorial veracity: “I realised that this sort of picture came closer to how we actually see, which is to say, not all-at-once but rather in discrete separate glimpses which we then build up into our continuous experience of the world”. Thus, in the creation of this work, we understand that Hockney was not interested in a momentary snapshot of a specific garden scene, but rather in conveying his own view of a garden wall that he knew extremely well. 

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - SEPTEMBER 26: Artist David Hockney is photographed for Out Magazine on September 26, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by M. Sharkey/Contour by Getty Images) M. Sharkey/Contour by Getty Images


This painting is significant for its role in charting the machinations of Hockney’s own painterly style. Executed at the dawn of a new millennium, it can be viewed as an early example of the artist’s fascination with the English landscape. Although it was completed in Hockney’s London garden, its bright tender depiction and warped saturated palette both seem to prefigure the glorious series of paintings of the East Yorkshire Wolds that the artist worked upon with unstinting devotion from 2005 until 2013. In its flatness and its architectural detail, and even in the predominance of its bright blue sky, it seems to look back to Hockney’s Californian past, and yet, particularly in details like the purple boughs of the trees, it looks forward to the celebrated series of Yorkshire paintings. The critic Marco Livingstone has summed up the significance of that group of works: “the paintings [Hockney] made of the Wolds are in purely technical terms – but also in their observational accuracy and evocation of space – the most commanding he has ever made”.

Guest House Wall is a transcendent work: compelling evidence for the manner in which Hockney called upon lessons learnt in photography and stage design in order to achieve his artistic goals, and absolute proof of the massive influence that art history has had upon his work. This work hovers between abstraction and figuration, exemplifying the manner in which Hockney playfully explores and intellectually scrutinises the formal issues of contemporary painting with unprecedented invention and confidence.


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