In 2012, while London prepared to hold the attention of the world by hosting the Olympics, three retrospectives paid tribute to Britain’s preeminent contemporary artists; Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, Lucien Freud at the National Portrait Gallery and David Hockney at the Royal Academy. We look at these three titans of the British art world and reflect on their exhibitions.
Damien Hirst first caught the public’s attention when he created and curated the Frieze Art Fair in 1988 while still at Goldsmiths College. Within twenty years, he became the enfant terrible of the contemporary art world, reaching his apogee in 2008 when he sold the platinum cast diamond-incrusted skull artwork, For the Love of God (2007), to a private consortium – including himself – for an alleged £50 million. In 2012, Damien Hirst’s first solo survey in Britain ran all the way through the Olympics – showcasing key works from each facet of his career. This exhibition at the Tate Modern displayed many of his significant works including The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), a dead shark suspended in formaldehyde, and In and Out of Love (1991), which was recreated from his first solo show. As Chris Townsend suggests in Art and Death, death is in fact one of Hirst’s recurring themes, constantly re-examined and renegotiated through shapes as diverse as dead animals and medicine cabinets.
Hirst’s art has been somewhat controversial in the British press, sometimes being described as macabre, repetitive and vulgar. Hirst’s decision to sell a plastic skull decorated in his spin paintings style for £36,800 raised yet more criticism and for some confirmed the artist’s status as a gimmick for nouveau riches collectors. True to his ‘nothing matters’ spirit, Hirst has plainly replied to his critics: ‘People don’t like contemporary art but all art starts out as contemporary’. Hirst still remains a British icon with a global reach, making him an obvious choice to represent British art in the lead up to the 2012 Olympics.
David Hockney has succeeded over the years in appropriating and revitalising the old tradition of landscape painting. From early on he developed his own singular colour code that has very little to do with reality, and yet is strangely recognisable as real. This is precisely what confers a joyful familiarity to his works, creating the effect that looking at blossoming blue hawthorns is suddenly perfectly natural. Pursuing a life-long fascination for pastoral painting, the artist is also taking up a genre cherished by generations of masters, Sunday painters, and in 2012 Royal Academy celebrated this through their exhibition David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture.
Abandoning the radiant hills of California, Hockney has now settled in his native East Yorkshire where he painted many landscapes between 2004 and 2011, which were on display at the Royal Academy’s exhibition. This show opened with a grandiose room where you could admire seasonal versions of Three Trees Near Thixendale (2007-8). The rest of the collection included more oil paintings, charcoal drawings, sketchbooks, digital video works and no less than 51 iPad drawings: the 74 year-old Hockney has been praised for embracing technology.
Hockney’s work is renowned for the large, bright and beautiful characteristics of the landscapes he paints, making him an unmistakably exquisite colourist and draughtsman. His fecundity and constant self-renewal as an artist have helped him revisit his boyhood countryside with mindfulness and exuberance.
Like many great artists, Lucian Freud’s work surged in popularity after his death 2011. In February 2012, Christie’s auctioned off several Freud etchings, Blain/Southern inaugurated their LUCIAN FREUD | DRAWINGS exhibition and Jane McAdam Freud showed a large sculpture of her father at the eponymous museum. Also in 2012, the National Portrait Gallery put on the first major exhibition that concentrated on his portraits and figure paintings. The show featured more than 100 works that span seven decades from the early 1940s to his death in July 2011.
Freud loved to work from life and once claimed that he could never put anything into a picture that wasn’t actually there in front of him. He was known to hold a predatory gaze over his subjects, intensely observing them for hours before laying them bare on the canvas. It is thus conceivable to approach Freud’s portraits as ‘natures mortes’: still human flesh, variegated, repellent, almost alienated from reality. Once he found his trademark hefty hog’s hair brushstroke in the 1950s, Freud seemed to have sublimely applied it to most of his sitters from rodents to the Queen and to other celebrity commissions. Freud’s recurring themes include sex and power, as shown in Girl With a White Dog (1950-1) or in the flexible and erotic posture of Leigh Bowery. His works sit ambiguously between realism and expressionism, and in the same way, they both enthral and horrify.
‘Astonish, disturb, seduce, convince’ was the artist’s credo when painting the various people in his life. Although his visually aggressive and awkward paintings rarely seduce, their strangeness deeply captivates and haunts us. They also express the psychological tensions – even the perversity – between artist and subject.
By Mélissa Leclézio