Sport and art, Culture in Melbourne

Vel Hannah

Part 1. Art

Sports writer, author and Age columnist Martin Flanagan generally comments on sports, particularly the AFL, and like me, is a long-time supporter of the Bulldogs from before the days they were called the Western Bulldogs, when they were just Footscray. So, to my surprise and delight, he went a little off-track to write about the David Hockney exhibition at the NGV. Not only that, he declared it to be “the best thing I’ve seen since the Grand Final.” Now that’s a big call. Given that the Grand Final was such a wonderful and unexpected win that had the entire nation cheering for the Bulldogs, it’s a big call indeed. Now I am moved to write about the exhibition myself.

David Hockney came to my notice while I was a student at art school. At the time, I went to see an exhibition at the Heidi Park and Art Gallery specifically to see what Hockney was doing. Just like him, I had bought the tiny Asahi Pentax 110 miniature camera that had interchangeable lenses and was no bigger than a pack of cigarettes. Hockney was experimenting with multiple viewpoints, aided by the different lenses, intent on playing with and expanding the ideas begun by the Cubists in the early 20th Century. And he’s still working and experimenting with these ideas.

I like David Hockney. He really gets excited by art and ideas and recently has been happily experimenting with drawing and painting on iPhones and iPads, among other stuff. And that would have been the first thing that Martin Flanagan would have encountered as he walked into the gallery space. The big wow factor. A thousand iPhone and iPad drawings and paintings printed in full digital colour to about A2 size (A2 = A4 x 4). The impact of the sheer number of artworks together with the magnitude of the colour hit would have made an instant and powerful impression. That it would have taken Hockney all of 2-3 minutes to create each work, only shows how skilled he is. You immediately pick up on the enjoyment of the other visitors. Nearby, a schoolboy is enthusiastically taking a photograph of an iPhone drawing with his iPhone. Next to it is the iPhone mounted on the wall, with the tiny drawing displayed on it. There are delighted smiles on everyone’s faces. It’s a good place to be.

The best way to approach the exhibition is to see it as an experience. Rather like a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, otherwise known as MONA. Although the point of being at MONA is quite different and you must prepared to be confronted by exposure to the unexpected, the controversial as well as the wonderful.

The David Hockney exhibition is non-controversially wonderful. The scale and scope of it envelops and engages you. It’s mostly all about his quest for exploring the legacy of Picasso and the Cubists with their revolutionary idea of multiple viewpoints. I say “revolutionary” because in the early 20th Century the Cubists began to question 500 years of seeing from a fixed viewpoint (think of the frozen moment when you take a photograph as an example of a fixed viewpoint). I won’t bore you with too much art historical or technical stuff, but the results of Hockney’s research work are there for us to see.

At the centre of the show, is a large room with a very high ceiling. As you walk in, you feel as if you are in the Yorkshire woods. David Hockney painted 50 large canvases, joining them together to make the “largest” painting in the world.

On the other three  walls, are digitally reproduced and printed copies of the painting. You are surrounded and enveloped by the scene and you feel as though you are part of the picture. You wander into another space, where an image of David Hockney’s vast Los Angeles studio surrounds you, and you begin to wonder where the art ends and you begin. And then there is the portrait gallery, with over eighty portraits and one still life (painted when one of the subjects didn’t turn up for their appointment), which were painted over a three-year period, each one taking three days of intensive observation on the part of Hockney. The portraits are of the people in his life, including friends and family, dealers and collectors, and philanthropists from the art-world he inhabits.

The visual impact of the total number of masterfully colour-coordinated paintings massed together is really something. As you enter the last room, you notice it is dark. There is a large leather bench seat in the centre, with two young people lying perfectly still on it and absorbing in awed silence, the images on the walls of a Yorkshire woodland showing the same scene over the four seasons, summer, autumn, winter and spring. They each take up a whole wall, digital images taken by nine cameras, presented on 55-inch high-definition screens, each with a different viewpoint.

They are breathtakingly beautiful and l can see why Martin Flanagan was impressed. He did note that not all critics were so impressed, that Hockney has been derided for “being easy on the vulgar eye” and comments that “l guess that makes me vulgar, but vulgar means ‘of the people’ and what sports-writer is not of the people?”

l’m assuming that by “vulgar” the critics mean “common” as in popular, uneducated and without taste, in which case l accuse them of being elitist! Or maybe they just don’t get it. He finishes off by saying “Globally, these are worrying times. Do yourself a favour. Go and see the Hockney exhibition before it ends on March 13. Brighten up your day.” I get it that the Grand Final and the David Hockney exhibition are both important events and as such part of the cultural life of Melbourne. How lucky are we to live here!

vel hannah April, 2017