A new David Hockney exhibition shows the artist as a young lad blinking in the bright lights of the Big Apple
In 1735, when William Hogarth produced A Rake’s Progress, his epic series of drawings documenting the reckless and corrupt life of rich merchant’s son, Tom Rakewell, he couldn’t have known that some 200 years later they would inspire another artist – and act as the starting point for another, more biographical tale of innocence corrupted. But they did, as a new David Hockney exhibition at the Whitworth reveals.
Hockney to Hogarth: A Rake’s Progress – it’s such an arresting title, one which must have, understandably, proved irresistible to the curators of this exhibition. Not only does it do what it says on the tin, but complicit in the title is the other irresistible factor: the viewer’s need to compare and contrast, not the only the original works by William Hogarth and David Hockney’s response to them, but the social and cultural mores of the two very different eras in which they were produced.
Hogarth’s original series must have been fascinating source material for David Hockney during his first visit to New York in the early 1960s – then a young artist at the start of his career, a provincial lad blinking in the Big Apple’s bright lights. But rather than simply act as a chronological study of two sets of works on the same theme, this exhibition highlights just how different they are. Drawing on themes of American and British cultural exchange, and the slowly shifting attitudes to homosexuality during the 1960s, Hockney was moved to come up with a riposte to Hogarth’s moralistic tale.
Here was Hockney at the start of his career, a provincial lad blinking in the Big Apple’s bright lights
If you’re coming at this exhibition cold or unfamiliar with Hockney’s oeuvre, it’s probably useful to point out that in no way has the Bradfordian artist simply responded by rote to the originals: David Hockney’s take on A Rake’s Progress retains a very definite sense that it is a comment on his particular life and times in that moment as a young, gay artist. Certainly, if the different versions of ‘the Rake’ could convene in the gallery cafeteria, there would be no mistaking them as doppelgangers. Instead, they may argue over just who it is most befits the title, and come to an uneasy compromise, perhaps agreeing to disagree but never mistaking the other for a reflection.
Augmenting A Rake’s Progress, the exhibition includes a number of works produced during the same period, when Hockney had become besotted with a design student named Peter Crutch. Unable to express his feelings, Hockney took to making his desires manifest in the only way he knew how, producing a series of paintings, two of which – Portrait of Peter C and We Two Boys Together Clinging – are included here.
Hockney has since acknowledged the aims of some of his earlier work: “What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something that hadn’t been propagandised, especially among students, as a subject: homosexuality … Nobody else would use it as a subject because it was a part of me. It was a subject I could treat humorously. I loved the line, ‘we two boys together clinging’; it’s a marvellous, beautiful, poetic line.” The juxtaposition of Hockney and Hogarth’s complete A Rake’s Progress series of engravings (which Hogarth classified as a ‘Moral Modern Subject’) is a fascinating one that, much like Hockney’s urge to respond to his forebear’s righteous indignation, could well prove irresistible.