David Hockney a supreme draughtsman?

May 10th, 2019

I was surprised to read that Nicholas Cullinan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, says David Hockney is a supreme draughtsman. Then I saw that he said it along with an announcement about a new exhibition next year devoted to Hockney’s drawings, which will, according to the gallery, position Hockney as one of the master draughtsmen of our times. So Cullinan is just doing his job, promoting the exhibition.

It reminded me about an exhibition of Hockney drawings I saw in 2015 at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark where there was a sign on the wall telling visitors that he can actually draw and that “Hockney (born 1937) is a master draughtsman of a lineage with the best in art history”. The more you say it, the more people believe it. The Louisiana’s blurb goes on to say “Hockney masters the classic drawing as few others have … he is akin to the best in the history of art.” All you have to do is keep on saying it.

A master draughtsman of our times is one thing (if the standard is generally low), a master draughtsman akin to the best in the history of art is another altogether. It’s easy enough to compare his drawings with those of, for example, Leonardo da Vinci or Rembrandt or Dürer or Holbein – and if you do, you will see how ludicrous this is. But you only need to look at Hockey’s. There is no need to compare them alongside anything to be unmoved by the lifeless scribbling, how there is no line quality, how things are badly shaped, how the shading is crude and unrevealing, how he is barely recognisable even in portraits of himself.

This mediocre draughtsmanship flows into his mediocre paintings. Skill in drawing is fundamental, as El Greco shows in two of the best painted eyes in the history of art. One of the best painted faces actually:

El Greco – Saint James the Less, 1609 (detail)

The left eye is worth looking at by itself:

El Greco has accomplished this magic in a few skims of paint, deft, hardly thinking. It comes naturally and without labour, just the instinct of a real master draughtsman, sublime painting and drawing at one and the same time – they are inseparable. Over four long centuries later, David Hockney (who Nicholas Cullinan alleges is one of the most internationally respected and renowned artists alive today, which may even be true in a literal sense) painted this:

David Hockney – Barry Humphries, 2015 (detail)

It says as much about the state of modern painting as David Hockney, but even so, no master draughtsman would paint so badly. You’d be bound see at least something of this ‘master draughtsmanship’ express itself in paint – no artist could help it – but there’s nothing there at all. The eyes, the mouth, the nose, the ears, the whole face just nothing. This repulsive dead picture hardly even looks like Barry Humphries.

To be fair, this is not amongst David’s best efforts (although he has produced many like it). Like Paul McCartney, he’s done better. I accept that paintings like Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) from 1972 are culturally significant and not without beauty, and that was his time – the 1970s – as McCartney’s was the 1960s. Now they should disappear. They won’t as long as there’s still more money and fame to be had, and in Dave’s case, as long as people in senior positions keep saying things like “one of the most brilliant draftsmen of all time” (in this example Dr Chris Stephens, former head of displays at the Tate, who surely knows better).

I think it’s draughtsman by the way, not draftsman – draughtswoman will do as well.

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