David Hockney, “Hockney Paints The Stage”

The visitor here was greeted both in the entrance hall and at the start of the exhibition by Punchinello, the historic animator of the stage. David Hockney’s giant figures, attired in emerald green from high hat to pointed toe, ushered the viewer into Martin Friedman’s carefully organized display of Hockney’s stage designs. The 270 items on show were an unusually lively mixture of works and ideas for works, including drawings, paintings, scale models, and entrancing objects like the childrens’ bricks from which Hockney conceived the props for the triple bill of Erik Satie’s Parade, Francis Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Many show the hallmarks of energy and the artist’s graffiti in full creative swing; some pieces Hockney considered too ephemeral for exhibition until Friedman persuaded him otherwise. In addition to this group of work Friedman devised a coda, a mini-retrospective of approximately 25 paintings from 1960–82. At first encounter it was not clear why they were there, but, from reading Friedman’s catalogue essay Painting into Theater, it becomes clear that he wanted to support his discussions of Hockney’s relationship with the stage with the small number of paintings that he uses as examples. Friedman’s scenario is that Hockney’s work, and Hockney himself, have continuously inhabited “the stage,” and that many of Hockney’s paintings represent “characters in enigmatic little dramas.” He adds that Hockney’s “private” life, as seen through film, photographs, and the press, is in itself a “stage production.” Friedman believes that it was a natural if not inevitable progression for Hockney to move from the canvas to the theater itself.

While many of Friedman’s observations are interesting and informative, the constraints his analysis imposes are magnified by the formula adopted for the exhibition’s display. The isolation of the coda of paintings from the main show lessens the impact and meaning of his thesis, rendering it impossible to make the visual comparisons he sets out in his essay. This is not inappropriate, since the objectives of the stage work and those of the formal paintings are so radically different that they do not readily lend themselves to side-by-side visual analysis. The theater designs are responses to the creativity of a team and the considerations of a large audience, whereas the paintings are Hockney’s undivided response to his subjects.

However, the display as originally planned here produced unforeseen results and a special reaction from Hockney. Like Punchinello, Hockney is an animator of life and spirited communication, and for this exhibition he intervened with seven new works created and executed during the month before the opening. It is evident from the exhibition that Hockney has a special understanding of theatrical and musical dialogue and of the particular relationship opera and ballet have with their audiences. He is a delighted collaborator in this world of part spectacle, part interpretation, part fantasy, and part reality. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that it was Hockney who eliminated the “dead wood” of costumed dummies and props proposed in the original plan.

The new works are three-dimensional. They are either painted interpretations of certain scenes (the one chosen from Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Le Sacre du Printemps, or the two from his opera The Rake’s Progress), or complex imaginative syntheses of whole works—those for Poulenc’s one-act opera Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, and Stravinsky’s opera-ballet Le Rossignol. These visually provoking parallels of the musical works maintain the original style of each production while incorporating inventive ways of dealing with figures. This has led Hockney to an interesting sequence of new developments through painting to sculpture.

For Les Mamelles, Hockney uses his own brand of flamboyantly colored cubism with 43 different canvases. The hypothetical port of Zanzibar is now populated by seven figures, each made up of several canvases, the formality of the picture planes binding together the naive stare of disembodied faces and selected but differently oriented body parts. In Le Rossignol, the idea is compounded and about one hundred and fifty canvases are used to evoke the imperial court of Peking and its hundreds of courtiers. The porcelain palace is invitingly constructed in three dimensions; the harmonious rhythms of whites and blues are jarred only by the painted and carved sculptural metamorphosis of the clockwork nightingale, with its strident golds and reds and dislocation of style. The “people” in Sellem’s auction scene in The Rake’s Progress are created with Gatorfoam cutouts; each piece sprouts additional limbs placed so that several different postures can be understood for the figure, which seems to become animated as the viewer passes by. In this rather futuristic manner Hockney conveys the agitated, bustling, competitive atmosphere of the original production. The carved and painted Gatorfoam sphinx and dragon for The Magic Flute are prepared like incomplete Lego sets for the spectator’s own do-it-yourself kit; the centipedal quality of the parts allows for a variety of fantasies full of movement. And for the child’s garden scene from L’Enfant, the viewer is enveloped by an enormous blue, green, and red tree in a garden inhabited by collaged black velvet bats, shadowy green frogs, and brilliant pink dragonflies. Ravel’s haunting fantasy is complemented by Hockney’s vibrantly colored cocoon, where splashes of paint tell the tale of the work in progress.

The execution of the new works gave Hockney an opportunity to demonstrate his versatility and his understanding of the medium of theater. In each of them he creates a synthesis that not only underlines his understanding of the art of the theater as ephemeral, but also his wish to perpetuate what is essentially the mastery of the continuous action. While using some of the new works as modes of transition for his art forms, he will almost certainly continue to plunder them for ideas. He can now explore with a new physical and mental liberty the three dimensional space and the conceptual syntheses of these pieces.

It is not clear how well the exhibition succeeds in the visual execution of Friedman’s theories, but notwithstanding the charges of imbalance, uncertainty, and academic overkill, this intricate show was put together with great skill and one emerged refreshed and buoyed by its joie de vivre. It demonstrated Hockney’s fertile imagination, which has had to work under terrific pressures at times, and his considerable skill in dealing with the complexities of opera and ballet. The overwhelming impression was one of optimism and enjoyment, reinforced by the knowledge that the art of this great colorist and subtle interpreter reaches an audience far beyond the confines of art exhibitions. It is fair to say that no single artist has made such an impact on the world of the stage since the productions of Sergei Diaghilev and Les Ballets Russes.

Sarah Fox Pitt