Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Representation

As you walk down Trumpington Street towards the Fitzwilliam Museum, banners from Hockney’s 2021 self-portrait line each side of the road, staring at you in all its liveliness. These culminate in two huge banners on the facade of the museum, becoming new pillars. Hockney is really ‘tak[ing] over Cambridge” (pamphlet), transforming both the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Heong Gallery into its own vivid green, multimedia and iconoclastic journey.

This same self-portrait encapsulates much of what the exhibition aims to do; a presentation of Hockney’s work, yes, but also an examination of the art itself, of its rules, through Hockney’s “eye”. Hockney’s brush extends beyond the boundaries of painting – taking itself as a starting point, but drawing our attention to the path of art to come, beyond the illuminated green arch. What remains of the usual display at the Fitzwilliam is largely absorbed by the background, the old masters of the Fitz are notorious for being relegated to examples by which Hockney can argue his theories or place his own designs upon. They are set in (often literal) opposition to Hockney’s own pieces, as with the basic oil paintings of vases of flowers that now revolve around a display featuring a collection of Hockney’s flower designs made on his iPad. Hockney is front and center, catching our attention.

Hockney’s model of Poussin’s “Extreme Unction” (1638-42), seen through a peepholeAnna Piper Thompson

Throughout, the viewer is invited to engage with the art; a peephole containing miniature models positioned directly in front of the painting (“Extreme Unction” by Poussin) which it depicts, or “The Perspective Window” where guests lined up to practice the theory of linear perspective on the very room we were in, or the large camera obscura outside where children happily extend the camera into a dizzying view of the busy street and watch the images blur as they lift the plates up to the ceiling. The exhibition is not content with spectators – it not only asks for your commitment, it demands it.

“The Perspective Window”Anna Piper Thompson

It creates a lively atmosphere, and on several occasions other guests have engaged me in their discussion, and it is through this discussion that we have been able to turn the artistic processes on ourselves, and arrive at our understanding through them. This circumvents the problem of the alienation of visitors who lack a prior understanding of the artistic notions that Hockney is undermining or aiming to redefine, a problem faced by the “Perspective, Orthodox and Reverse” room, where the central cabinets containing perspective instructional guides remained hidden under the fabric, as most visitors either refrained from discovering them, or peeked and fled.

The documentary film screened in the Heong Gallery, with a view of Downing College through the window Anna Piper Thompson

This element of physical interaction, however, does not spill over into the Heong Gallery; the vibrant green of the Fitzwilliam becomes strip lines on the floor of this gallery, implementing a distance between the viewer and the art – a more typical gallery experience, perhaps due to its limited size. Unlike the sheer, sprawling vastness of the Fitzwilliam, the Heong Gallery is an intimate space. This does not mean that there is no creation of a coherent whole within this gallery either; Hockney’s voice echoes throughout the space from the featured 45-minute documentary, mingling with the visitors’ own conversations, to create a liveliness and energy in the space that reflects the extraordinary liveliness of his piece “Grand Canyon I”. There are two current routes through the works. The first, a focus on Hockney’s career through time, begins with “Study Skeleton II” from his time at the Royal College of Art, and ends with another screen that features a carousel of his recent iPad drawings. The other path is through the Hockney quotes that accompany each piece, highlighting his own creative process ideologies.

‘Grand Canyon I, 2017’, ‘Rubber ring floating in a swimming pool, 1971’ and ‘Watchers looking at a ready-made with skull and mirrors, 2018’Anna Piper Thompson

The description for “Grand Canyon Arizona with My Shadow, Oct. 1982” points out that “space is a constant preoccupation of Hockney”. Although this refers to an interest in the representation of space in his art, it also extends off the canvas to influence the creation of these exhibitions. It really is like being in the world of Hockney. The Fitzwilliam explodes with an intensely bright green that is usually only found represented electronically; as the subtitle of the exhibition suggests, “Hockney goes beyond what can be done with pigments. Its amazing array of greens is made directly from light, emitted and not reflected. While I understand the purpose behind the color choice and the desire to push the space into the digital world of Hockney’s later works, it was overwhelming to be so dominated by that, and it also acted to detract from the vibrancy works themselves. This extended connection has also removed much of the individuality of the pieces, denying them the boundaries of their own canvases, denying us the ability to fully engage with them as individual works of art in their own right. Speaking to several staff members about the choice of color, it seems like it’s a color that needs to “grow on people”.

The “Hockney’s Eye” exhibit truly allows you to step into the Hockney way of seeing, while showcasing its immense multimedia range and the creative possibilities that can be explored in modern fashions, putting reflections on the process of artistic creation at the forefront of our minds. This is an exhibition tailored to Hockney’s sprawling experimental career, bringing together his lifelong obsession with the “art and technology” of representation into a cohesive whole.

Christopher S. Washington