It’s a long time since I’ve seen exhibitions dedicated to single subjects: Kylie Minogue in 2007 and Wedding Dresses in 2015, both at the V&A. But with two headline shows now open at Tate Britain, it was time I got out of the Sunday review pages and experienced more art for myself. The David Hockney and Queer British Art exhibitions have both had publicity and plaudits that an art gallery rarely enjoys. I wanted to resist the reviews calling them ‘fascinating’, ‘incredible’ or other stock adjectives and feel what the art said for myself (you can tell I’ve soaked up the pompousness of reviews I read). Unfortunately I’m not sure either quite spoke the story of emotion I was hoping for.
The first thing that strikes you on a Saturday morning at the Hockney is how incredibly busy it is (a concern I’m sure the exhibition’s 5-star reviewers didn’t have). It’s a mix of struggling to appreciate the art ‘properly’ whilst also appreciating it more through eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. I went in knowing little more than Hockney’s name and his Yorkshire birth, but the opening room, Play Within a Play sets the scene of how his six-decade career has focused on playing with space and perspective.
Whether you get the audio guide or not (I didn’t, though my friend Lucy did) the retrospective tells the story of his career, from a young angry art student with provocative graffiti-style gay art like Two Boys Kissing through to his much-loved pastels and growing realism of Los Angeles, portraits and Polaroid collages before his return to abstractism in the 1980s. Hockney’s creativity and skill is to be appreciated throughout, right up to his latest immersive video wall and iPad installations. Yet only a few pieces made me feel anything. It wasn’t the famous LA pools and naked swimmers as calming as they were (also a favourite of my six year old nephew who saw the show). It’s the larger and later pieces such as Going Up Garrowby Hill that made me embrace their breathtaking explosion of colour and scale. The show’s pieces get bigger as you go along and Hockney becomes unquestionably successful (do not overlook that canvas and paint are expensive).
It is, to use one of those stock adjectives, remarkable to see the breadth of work by Hockney, now 80 in one place, however many other people and inappropriately young children you see it with. The story told his one of his career, his expression through different mediums and gives plenty of talking points if not emotion. More Hockney appears downstairs in Queer British Art, though this is a confused collection rather than a single story on display. The exhibition showcases queer art (by queer artists, or playing around with gender norms and sexuality) from 1861 when the death penalty for sodomy was abolished to fifty years ago, 1967, when gay sex was partially decriminalised in England and Wales.
There is impactful art on display: Oscar Wilde’s prison door next to a life size portrait by Robert Pennington. Bathing by Duncan Grant, showing off all parts of the male body swimming in The Serpentine. His private erotica sketches too show active embracing gay sex that he was ‘never ashamed of’. And there’s Hockney’s Life Painting for a Diploma that shows the worry and obsession over white gym bunnies is nothing new for gay men. A few statues and artefacts scatter the route but most of the art displayed is paintings that don’t quite tell the story of drag, or theatre performance that is hinted at. In the later rooms showing queer London in the 1950s and 60s, I was coldly left feeling further away from Soho than my unknowing Grandpa must have been at the time.
Queer British Art fails to give you the history lesson you might want, or the blockbuster paintings you might expect. They’re elsewhere, including of course upstairs in the Hockney. I’m a keyboard critic with no knowledge of how to curate an exhibition beyond realising not every piece you want will be available, but this is not the story I’d have told. Instead I’d have focused on the 1950s onwards to celebrate the cultural uncovering of queer identities across all art forms, probably at the Tate Modern instead of Tate Britain. It’s still worth seeing if you’re in the area, especially if you can combine it with the Hockney. Both exhibitions, whatever your interest in ‘art’ have individual, exceptional pieces to soak in and dissect.
— Matt Cain (@MattCainWriter) April 3, 2017
David Hockney is at the Tate Britain, Millbank until 29th May and Queer British Art until 1st October. Pre-booking for Hockney is essential to avoid waiting for hours. A combined ticket to both, available for most days is £29 including a free glass of wine or hot drink, which you’ll need to fight off exhibition fatigue. Their website was horrendous so I had to ring up to book my tickets instead.
Next on My Gay Agenda: a review of documentary Who’s Gonna Love Me Now and a visit to the National Theatre for Angels in America. Enter the ticket ballots or find a cinema screening on the website.
All pictures in this post come from the Tate website. Go see art in person, not on my blog.