Created in 1996, at the brink of the artist’s sixtieth year, 30 Sunflowers is a singularly extraordinary masterpiece of crucial significance within Hockney’s inimitable oeuvre, revealing peerless formal execution and profound emotive depth. Marking Hockney’s return to painting after a decade primarily immersed in photography, the magnificent, exhilaratingly radiant painting represents the artist’s momentous undertaking of traditional subject matter – the venerated genre of the still life – at the height of his artistic powers, when he must have finally deemed himself ready and worthy to encounter his heroes and predecessors, including Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet and Johannes Vermeer. Prior to painting 30 Sunflowers, Hockney had attended two exhibitions that proved to be tectonic: Claude Monet, 1840-1926 at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Johannes Vermeer retrospective at the Mauritshuis in the Hague. Emerging thrilled and revitalized, he picked up his brush again with renewed vigor and urgency, applying unprecedented attention to painterly texture and modulated tonalities. 30 Sunflowers is one of the two largest paintings of Hockney’s pivotal Flower series from 1996, and without doubt the most superlatively exceptional in terms of its richly resplendent color palette, complex, charged compositional structure, and intimately significant subject matter that characterize the artist’s most iconic masterpieces. A definitive picture situated at a remarkably cogent juncture within Hockney’s legendary painterly journey, 30 Sunflowers was featured on the cover of the catalogue for Hockney’s “Flowers, Faces and Spaces” exhibition in 1997, which was his largest exhibition in London since his 1988 Tate retrospective.
Widely renowned as Britain’s greatest and most influential living painter, Hockney rose to fame in the late 1960s with works that combined elements of Pop, Minimalism, and Abstract Expressionism. After the celebrated sun-drenched swimming pools and beguiling interior portraits from the 1960s and 1970s, which articulated an explosively unique style characterized by idealized and synthetic use of color and line, Hockney was predominantly preoccupied with photography, theater design, printmaking and painting with software in the 1980s and early 1990s. In 1995, Hockney engaged in experiments with light and investigating the nature of seeing; he took photographs of works in progress of his own artwork under various lights, printed the images and further manipulated them through more painting and photography. In late 1995, Hockney was deeply affected by the Art Institute of Chicago’s retrospective of Monet, whose works sublimely captured the delicate atmospheric presence of light. Hockney recalls: “When I came out [of the Monet exhibition] I started looking at the bushes on Michigan Avenue with a little more care. He made you see more. Van Gogh does that for you too. He makes you see the world around just a little more intensely” (the artist cited in Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, 2011, p. 85). Shortly afterwards in early 1996, Hockney makes a trip to the Hague, where he was intensely struck and revitalized upon encountering the paintings of Vermeer in person: “What so impressed me about Vermeer was the condition and the vibrancy of the color. How can these paintings glow like this! He put the paint on so carefully, in transparent layers so you see those vibrant blues. Stunning… I’ve learned a lot about transparent glaze in oil painting over the years; I’ve made it my business to. Seeing how Vermeer handled the paint, and beyond that how he controlled the light on to his subjects, sent me back to the studio with tremendous energy” (the artist cited in his website, davidhockneyfoundation.org).
Returning to California, Hockney readjusted the location of his easel in his studio to allow the north light to most aptly illuminate his still life studies. The stunning, spectacularly evocative flower paintings from 1996 stand out from the rest of Hockney’s oeuvre: they commence an astonishing dialogue with Monet, Van Gogh, Gaugin as well as earlier painters like Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age masters, while articulating an unabashedly radical approach. With a heightened naturalism coupled with saturated, emotive colors, Hockney devoted his energies anew into scrupulously meticulous application of color and rendering of light. In particular, he closely studied Vermeer’s method of layering yellow and blue beneath outer layers of color to achieve mesmerizing radiance and scintillating vibrancy in his sunflowers and vases – here rendered to consummate effect in 30 Sunflowers. What is achieved is not just iridescence but absorbing clarity and authenticity: not necessarily a mimetic type of authenticity, but rather the kind championed by the Impressionist painters, where the light and color of any given moment can differ drastically from the next; where a mercurial object constantly shifts and changes right in front of us.
Amongst the twenty-five still life paintings, 30 Sunflowers stands out as the most impressive and accomplished masterpiece of imposing scale, arresting yet elegant composition, and sheer exuberance of color and texture – a definitive painting ranking among the very best of Hockney’s mature work. Orchestrating a thrilling event of evolving sensual delight, the majestic chorale of sunflowers rises regally, their Tuscan yellow and golden ochre heads surging resplendent and insurgent from stems of vivid green. The classic still life format, revolutionized by the choreography of five strategically placed vases, is fashioned against a rich electric turquoise backdrop woven from staccato pointillist strokes. The plush tablecloth of deep crimson, evoking stage curtains, evokes Hockney’s enduring preoccupation with theatre; the scene thus set, the eye is compelled to rove the canvas in a clockwise course, from the rigid taut stalks on the upper left to the dipping, searching blooms on the right, and finally to the single fallen stem lying prostrate on the lower left. Drawing absorbing parallels to the human condition, the painting led artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye to comment: “David Hockney’s 30 Sunflowers (1996) depicts flowers at various stages of life, drawing parallels with the human life cycle, and was one of the first works I was drawn to. The colors, the composition – there’s something so satisfying, as a painter, to look at it. It comes back to this idea of the senses and the sensual. There’s something about the handling of color, about the richness, in this work that is so appealing to me” (Lynette Yiadom-Boakye on curating Works from the V-A-C Collection: Natures, Natural and Unnatural, at the White Chapel Gallery in London, 2015).
Deeply charged with both ebullience and grace, 30 Sunflowers dazzles with the sublime bravura that only comes with artistic maturity, as well as with the quiet yet palpable elation of a master once again intoxicated by the very craft of painting. As Hockney once said: “It is a marvelous thing to dip a brush into paint and make marks on anything. Even now, I could spend the whole day painting a door just one flat color”. Evincing the timeless vision of the archetypal still life, 30 Sunflowers urges a new, heightened mode of seeing via the vehicle of an age-old genre. In the artist’s words: “Painting still lifes can be as exciting as anything can be in painting. I remember once saying to Francis Bacon in Paris, that I knew a painting in California of tulips in a vase that was as profound as any painting he’d made. I think at first he almost thought I was referring to my own, but I was referring to the Cézanne in the Norton Simon Museum. It’s the most beautiful painting, and it is as profound as anything he did. Just some tulips in a vase. The profundity is not in the subject, it is the way it’s dealt with” (the artist cited in David Hockney: Paintings and Photographs of Paintings, 1996, p. 44).
In keeping with the tradition of the greatest still lifes in history, 30 Sunflowers prompts contemplations on mortality and transience. The painting’s tender poignancy is accented by symbolic cues: the fallen sunflower, the grand drapery and the enigmatic canvas stretchers. At the time 30 Sunflowers was created, Hockney was emerging from a period of prolonged mourning over several significant losses, including the passing of his closest confidant and champion, the critic and curator Henry Geldzahler, as well as that of painter Sandra Fisher, close friend and wife of R.B. Kitaj. Hockney had previously taken to painting intimate flower still lifes for his friends as get-well cards; here in 30 Sunflowers, such fervent blessings are ablaze in solemn tribute. Elegiac in tone yet imbued with hope, optimism, and the pure and simple exuberance of life, 30 Sunflowers encapsulates a cherished worldview that is weathered yet untainted by sorrow and loss; in Hockney’s words: “The world is colorful. It is beautiful, I think. Nature is great. Van Gogh worshipped nature. He might have been miserable, but that doesn’t show in his work. There are always things that will try to pull you down. But we should be joyful in looking at the world” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat. Hockney – Van Gogh. The Joy of Nature, 2019). Encapsulating both splendor and brutality, celebrating ravishing beauty as well as delicate ephemerality, 30 Sunflowers is a glowing exaltation of light, space, and color refracted through the lens of art history while suffused with personal meaning and transformation – manifesting the supreme quintessence of Hockney’s artistic output that powerfully establishes him as one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.
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