New show for ‘UK’s greatest living artist’

Plunging in: A Bigger Splash, 1967. In total Hockney spent eight years painting swimming pools.

Today a new David Hockney exhibition opens at Tate Britain — and it is the fastest-selling show in the museum’s history. But does ‘Britain’s greatest living artist’ truly deserve his title?

When David Hockney first walked through the new retrospective of his career — which spans over half a century — he was unusually quiet. And then: ‘I’ve made some quite good paintings,’ he mused.

It is certainly true — and today the exhibition at the Tate Britain opens up to the public. It shows over 250 of his artworks, and has already sold over 20,000 tickets. There are his gay domestic scenes from the 1960s, brave statements from a time when his sexuality was illegal. There are the colourful California swimming pools that made him famous. There are portraits of his friends from the 1970s. There are landscapes of his home county of Yorkshire, painted outdoors in more recent years. And there are playful experiments with other mediums: videos and polaroids and iPad paintings.

Hockney will turn 80 in July, but he is working as hard as ever. And since the death of the portraitist Lucian Freud in 2011, he has often been referred to as ‘Britain’s greatest living artist’. This is not an official title. Instead it is one that ‘emerges slowly, over time,’ said the Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, last year.

And yet many critics dislike much of Hockney’s work — including Januszczak himself, who dismissed him as a contender by saying that he ‘sweats the small stuff’.

‘The general critical prognosis on Hockney tends to be: early, good; late, bad,’ explained The Telegraph’s Mark Hudson earlier this week.

Others are more scathing. The Guardian’s Adrian Searle called Hockney’s colourful landscapes ‘shrill and nasty’. In 2012 the late Brian Sewell — famous for his withering pen — called him ‘ultimately dull’.

‘Britain’s greatest living artist’ is a title once bestowed, in some form, on the romanticist J.M.W. Turner; the abstract sculptor Henry Moore; the grotesque and arresting Francis Bacon. All were challenging, revolutionary, and are remembered as masters of their craft. Does Hockney really fit that category?

Hackneyed Hockney?

Sadly not, say the critics. Of course there are flashes of brilliance. And most of his work is pleasing to look at, with bold colours and serene moods — they are warm, compassionate snapshots of his life. But this easy style works against him; he does not demand anything from his viewers. His art is too simple, too shallow. Someone less popular but more interesting deserves the title instead.

Snobby nonsense! respond Hockney’s many fans. His art is all about finding the joy in everyday life. ‘There’s a lot of pleasure to be had from looking at what is around you,’ said the exhibition’s co-curator. That is exactly what Hockney has always tried to show people. It may not be painful — but why should that mean it is not meaningful?

You Decide

  1. Do you like David Hockney’s work — the most famous of which is featured at the top of this article?
  2. What is the difference between a good artist and a great artist?


  1. Write a short job advertisement for ‘Britain’s greatest living artist’. What qualities should their work have? Does Hockney fit the bill?
  2. Choose another of the artists mentioned in this article (listed with brief biographies under Word Watch). Choose one of their works and compare it to one of Hockney’s in a short essay.

Some People Say...

“If art is easy, it is not really art.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why does it matter who is the greatest living artist?
In a way, it doesn’t; what matters is the art which you enjoy the most. But asking the question is still interesting, as it forces you to compare the styles of other living artists, and think more deeply about them. Hockney is a long way, for example, from Damien Hirst’s dissected cows, or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.
I don’t really understand modern art. How do I know what I like?
David Hockney is a great way into the contemporary art world. His work uses clean lines and bold colours to show fairly ordinary scenes. In other words, he is accessible to everyone. As for how to appreciate modern art — try not to think about it too much. Instead, stand back and take in the piece as a whole, and consider how it makes it you feel.

Word Watch

Same-sex activity was decriminalised in Britain in 1967. By this time Hockney had moved to California, where it was not legalised until 1976. It was eventually legalised across the whole of the USA in 2003.
Lucian Freud
Grandson of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and an extraordinary portrait artist for more than 60 years. His subject was ‘humanity itself’ says critic Jonathan Jones. He died in 2011 aged 88.
J.M.W. Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) painted landscapes. Although his work was occasionally controversial in his time, it was also revered. He is now considered one of Britain’s greatest ever painters.
Henry Moore
Moore’s bronze abstract sculptures of human bodies can be found as public works of art all around the world. He was internationally famous by the 1940s, and died in 1986.
Francis Bacon
1909–1992. Bacon’s career overlaps the most famous and influential exponents of modern art, Picasso, Dali and Matisse (who died in 1973, 1989 and 1954 respectively). His work was figurative (based on real people or objects) but often distorted and unsettling.

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