Interview with Helen Little, independent curator of Alan Davie & David Hockney: Early Works

Posted on 15/04/2020

Alan Davie and David HockneyHelen Little, independent curator of Alan Davie & David Hockney: Early Works speaks to us about the exhibition. While we are temporarily closed, read her insights below.

Can you tell us about the exhibition in a nutshell and the curatorial ideas behind it?

Davie’s wild abstract canvases and Hockney’s figurative paintings might not seem to have much in common, but our ambition for Early Works was to shed light on a dialogue beyond the fact that the two artists worked at the same time.

It’s pretty well established that an exhibition of Davie’s work in Wakefield in 1958 was an important experience for Hockney, who at the time was completing his national service before enrolling at the Royal College of Art. Taking this encounter as a starting point, the show reveals how both artists drew from recurring themes, subjects and interests to create new visual languages at a pivotal moment in British art.

We sadly can’t see the exhibition in real life right now. If you were to pick three works to highlight on a real life tour, what would they be and how do they tell the story of Early Works?

I would start with one of Davie’s large paintings from the 1950s that Hockney would have seen at Wakefield Art Gallery in 1958. We managed to bring together a group of works from Davie’s 1958 show, and the phenomenal triptych Marriage Feast or Creation of Man (1957) dominates the first room with its cacophony of swirling shapes and symbols.

It’s really exciting to imagine what it would have been like for audiences to see this work at the height of austerity and when exhibitions of traditional practices were the norm. Davie was working in Leeds as a Gregory Fellow at the time and was making a name for himself as a bright star of British painting and for his highly distinctive teaching style that encouraged students to shed inhibitions and make filthy imagery and words. Davie summed up his spontaneous approach to making images in his lectures and statements of the period where he reached the conclusion that is was futile to try to grasp reality, and that art just happens ‘like falling in love’. 

For me, Seascape Erotic (1955) captures the sexual energy that characterises much of Davie’s early work. The centre of this painting features two touching shapes fizzing with attraction surrounded by splatters of paint that amplifies the passion of their connection. Having started out as a jazz musician and poet before becoming a painter, Davie drew heavily from literature, particularly the work of the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. 

In this instance, Davie references Whitman’s belief in the erotic power of the ocean in his poem ‘Song of Myself’ which you can read on the wall next to the painting:

You Sea! I resign myself to you also – I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.

Hockney was introduced to Whitman’s poetry during his first year at the Royal College of Art by his friend Adrian Berg. Whitman’s depictions of homosexuality inspired several paintings in the exhibition that explore the portrayal of love between men.

Erection, 1960 tells us something about the influence of Davie’s abstractly erotic image making and is one of Hockney’s earliest attempts at the coded, sexual paintings he was to become recognised for. It was initially purchased for the Arts Council Collection having been exhibited in the London Group exhibition under the less provocative title ‘November’ while Hockney was still a student.

Hockney later arranged to swap it for a more mature work also based on Whitman’s poetry, We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961) on display in the same room. In his biography, Hockney would later write that the source of all art and creativity is love. ‘If anybody thinks there is something more important,’ he asked, ‘I would like to know what it is.

Could you explain a little more about the key themes of Early Works and how both artists draw upon these through their work?

As well as the ways these two artists loved painting and painted love, another key theme explored in Early Works is the way both artists incorporated words and symbols and increasingly graffiti-like text into the layers of their paintings.

One of Hockney’s biographers claims Hockney took the idea to incorporate text into his pictures from cubism, where words are often used as clues to the subject matter, but it is interesting to see how Hockney and Davie were developing highly evocative titles as well as graffiti like text in their pictures in quite a different way. From the incredible juxtaposition of Davie’s Glory (1957) and Hockney’s First Love Painting (1961), we also see this develop in their paintings from the 1960s, most notably in Davie’s Mango Time and Hockney’s Flight Into Italy.

The show also moves beyond these points of convergence to capture the way both artists developed their work in different directions during the 1960s. This is an interesting moment as Davie and Hockney’s paintings become increasingly colourful and graphic, echoed in the new advertising culture and freedom of the swinging sixties. One of the key distinctions in their work from this period are the artist’s varying approaches to questioning perception and truth and representing reality. For Davie, this meant exploring the potential for abstracted symbols to reveal universally accessible meaning yet having experimented through Davie with abstraction, Hockney would ultimately declare that lived experience and observation, rather than imagination, would become the principal basis for his painting.

What is the importance of bringing works by Davie and Hockney together in through this particular curatorial framework?

It’s interesting that despite being presented as key figures of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ scene on equal footing, Davie died in 2014 relatively unknown outside the art world, while 2018 saw Hockney attain the world record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Davie was a pretty elusive character who has occupied a marginalised position outside the canon of art history which is something this show tries to readdress in terms of giving his work a greater historical context.

On the other hand, and as one of the world’s most popular and celebrated artists, it is only more recently that there has been growing interest in Hockney’s earliest, experimental beginnings. For me, this period tells us a lot about Hockney’s approaches to making images and his lifelong fascination with the conventions of picture making.

By bringing these artists in dialogue with each other we are able to explore wider shifts in British art of the 1950s and 1960s as generational, cultural and international exchanges enliven and disrupt the story of this time that we are beginning to understand is more paradoxical and fragmentary than art history tells us.

What was the relationship between the two artists, can you tell us a little more about this in detail?

Several sources suggest Hockney met Davie in Wakefield. This was likely to have been during one of the numerous talks Davie gave to students as a Gregory Fellow or occasions when he made himself available to answer questions from the public in the galleries. Having had a rare opportunity to see the work of a living artist in the flesh rather than in reproduction as was usually the case for art students, Hockney quickly became seduced by Davie, who represented a radical alternative to the grey parochialism of much British art of the 1950s. I particularly enjoyed reading one review of the exhibition suggesting Davie was the man who taught Hockney to let his hair down! 

There is some interesting ephemera included in the exhibition – can you tell us about this?

There is a brilliant handwritten letter on display from Hockney to the Director of Wakefield Art Gallery, Helen Kapp, in 1960 inviting her to come and see an exhibition of his student work at Skipton Castle. The letter accompanies a catalogue of the exhibition and is written on official Skipton Castle headed paper which we think was borrowed by the artist.

Kapp’s reply incorrectly addressed to ‘David Hackney Esq.’ laments the fact that Skipton is a long way from Wakefield, especially as Kapp has no car. The exhibition is now believed to have been Hockney’s first ever public solo exhibition and we later discovered that Hockney left several, now lost paintings behind.

As we were researching the show, we also came to realise that Davie and Hockney were two figures who became rather exceptional in terms of promoting themselves and their work. A selection of photographs and articles from the period including the newly launched Sunday supplements say something about how both artists emerged at a time when contemporary art was gaining ground in popular culture and how they cultivated and presented their own version of the ‘artist’ persona, complete with distinctive looks exploring different notions of masculinity and identity. While photographs of Davie perched upon his glider or posing by his sleek Jaguar E-type presented the artist as a daring and transgressive modern, Hockney also maintained a self-consciously different appearance from his peers, presenting himself as a pop star-like figure in glossy fashion magazines.

What do you hope audiences take away from this exhibition?

As well as enjoying some of these artist’s most iconic works, I hope visitors will come away having discovered something new, an appreciation for the subtleties and power of artistic influence and the importance of thinking about cross fertilisation.