David Hockney - Artist Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

David Hockney - Artist

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David Hockney was born in Bradford, England on 9 July, 1937, the fourth of five children. From comparatively humble beginnings, he has gone on to become one of the most popular artists of his generation, and is the subject of acclaim from both popular and academic quarters.

Early Education

In 1948, at the age of 11, Hockney was awarded a scholarship to Bradford Grammar School; it was at this age that he claims to have first decided that he wanted to be an artist. His creative flair was recognised at Bradford Grammar, and his cartoons were a regular feature of the school's magazine at the time. However, beyond his first year at the school, formal art lessons were sacrificed in favour of subjects deemed to be more academic. As a result of this, at the age of 14, Hockney requested that he might leave the school in order to attend the junior art school affiliated with the Bradford School of Art, but his request was refused by the local education office. Hockney remained at Bradford Grammar until the age of 16, when after some conflict over the issue with his parents, he was ultimately successful in his ambition to attend the Bradford School of Art.

For two years Hockney studied for his National Diploma in Design, specialising in painting and lithography. The technical prowess that is so much in evidence in his later work has its roots in this period. Indeed, in 1954, at the age of 15, Hockney made his first sale; exhibited at the biennial Yorkshire Artists Exhibition, the artist's painting Portrait of my Father caught the eye of a man who, much impressed on hearing of Hockney's extreme youth, bought the picture for the then-princely sum of ten pounds.

After a two-year stint as a hospital worker in lieu of active National Service1, Hockney began his postgraduate studies at the Royal College of Art, London in 1959. Newly-exposed to such artistic movements as the abstract expressionist school epitomised by the work of such figures as Jackson Pollock and Sandra Blow (who was in fact a tutor at the college at this time), Hockney's work took a radical change in direction. In contrast with the minutely-observed, naturalistic studies produced in Bradford, he now began to work on loose, expressive images, peppered with modernist references; these were to establish his reputation on the London art scene.

Coming Out

Hockney is one of modern art's most famous gay figures, and has never had any qualms about the discussion of his sexuality; indeed, much of the artist's work from the early 1960s concerns the depiction of young men as erotic objects of homosexual desire, as witnessed in such images as Man Taking Shower in Beverly Hills (1964). However, this openness is all the more remarkable when one considers that homosexuality was only decriminalised in Britain in 1967.

It was perhaps in part the more relaxed attitude towards homosexuality in California that drew Hockney to that state in 1964. Much of his work from this period considers the excesses and decadence of the Californian lifestyle, most famously embodied in his painting A Bigger Splash (1967). In addition to producing his own work, Hockney also taught intermittently in the following years and it was through this that he met his first great love, fellow artist Peter Schlesinger, in 1966. The relationship was to prove a major inspiration to the artist, with Hockney depicting his lover in countless images. Arguably the most well-known of these is Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971); this painting demonstrates well the increasingly naturalistic style of Hockney's work in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as his preoccupation with the human figure. This painting was in fact completed after the breakdown of the relationship, an event that left Hockney depressed and devastated.

Away with the Literal

From the mid 1970s through the 1980s, Hockney's concerns shifted to consideration of the traditional values of time and space. His work moved away once again from the controlled observation of his figurative pieces, and began to bear evidence of inspiration from Picasso and Van Gogh, such as in his painting The Chair (1985). Contrary to first appearances, the bizarre, impossible construction of this chair, with its reversed sight lines, does in fact represent a questioning of the academic laws of perspective. This too was to be the inspiration for his series of 'joiners', or photo-collages, an example of which is his substantial photographic piece Pearblossom Highway, 11-18th April 1986 #2 (1986). Hockney has been quoted as saying...

Photography is alright, if you don't mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops - for a split second.

Here he is criticising the camera's inability to consider anything other than a single moment in space and time. Through his manipulation of the medium, however, Hockney has succeeded in creating images that can map movement and thus refute this statement.

However, Hockney does not confine himself solely to the fine arts. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he worked quite extensively in the field of stage design, producing innovative sets for a number of operas, a tradition for which he holds great affection. Unfortunately, Hockney suffers from an inherited condition that has left him with severely impaired hearing, and this has since prevented him from working in this area.

New Thinking on Old Masters

Never a stranger to controversy, David Hockney has aroused passions once again in recent years with his suggestion that the 'Old Masters' of the art world used optical instruments in the creation of their work. In his treatise Secret Knowledge (2001), Hockney presents a convincing argument for his case. He put his theories to the test in his contribution to the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Gallery, London in 2000; rather wittily entitled Twelve Portraits after Ingres in a Uniform Style, the work consists of a number of drawings of uniformed gallery staff drawn with the assistance of a camera lucida, a simple optical drawing aid which he believes the 19th Century artist Ingres to have used himself.

While still visiting Europe frequently, David Hockney lives in California with his dachshunds.

Museums and Galleries

Hockney's work is featured in countless museums and galleries around the world - many of which you can get into for free. However, here is a list of just a few:

  • The 1853 Gallery - this converted woollen mill, close to Hockney's birthplace, contains three expansive floors devoted solely to the exhibition of work by David Hockney. The artist is closely involved with the gallery, and in the guise of a 'local artist' creates work especially for the space. The gallery is home to the largest collection of works by the artist open to the public.

  • Tate Britain - This London gallery houses some of Hockney's most celebrated works, including the frequently reproduced A Bigger Splash.

  • National Gallery of Australia - located in the country's capital, Canberra.

  • Museum of Modern Art, New York

  • Centre Georges Pompidou - one of the main repositories of modern art in France, the Pompidou Centre is situated in Paris. The website contains information in both French and English.

1Angered by British actions in Cyprus at the time, Hockney registered as a Conscientious Objector.

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