SAN FRANCISCO — There are certain advantages to living at the end of the line. In the case of "Hockney Paints the Stage," one of them is having the benefit of the artist's hindsight.
The exhibition of seven theatrical environments and more than 200 related paintings, drawings, prints and models by British painter David Hockney recently checked into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art--after sojourns in Minneapolis, Mexico City, Toronto, Chicago and Fort Worth. The presentation (through May 26) gives Californians a belated opportunity to catch up with the theatrical phase of Hockney's career--and an up-to-date consideration of how this work has directed his subsequent art.
The news isn't all startlingly fresh because Hockney--an immensely popular artist who has become one of Los Angeles' favorite adopted sons--is very closely watched. But this lively exhibition provides a perfect stage for hearing about his latest thoughts on the theater and its impact on his work.
The exhibition catalogue and the show itself make much of connections between Hockney's early painting and his recent designs for the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, near London, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Without denying these, Hockney says that now he has moved into a different sphere and that it's the theater that propelled him there.
What began quite innocently as a visual extension of his lifelong love of music sent him on an odyssey into pictorial space. Through the gentle means of photography and painting, he has now launched an all-out attack on scientific perspective--a way of seeing that has dominated Western art since the Renaissance. This infinitely approachable artist, who is probably as well known for his bleached blond hair, mismatched socks and Bradford accent as for his gracefully amiable art, says he is "gripped" by the possibility of turning perspective inside out.
"I think (my experience with) the theater did a lot that I didn't at first realize. I've looked back at a lot of things and realized where it's taken me. It's very strange," Hockney said in a interview at his studio high in the Hollywood Hills, where the exhibition versions of the stage sets were made.
"My paintings done just before my theater work were about perspective. The first thing I did when I finished 'The Rake's Progress' (a 1975 production at Glyndebourne, which is particularly well represented in the show) was to make a painting with reverse perspective called 'Kerby.' It's done from a Hogarth engraving that amused me because all the perspective is reversed. Hogarth is telling you it's wrong, but I knew it worked pictorially.
"I painted the picture and then didn't follow it up. Then I went back (to Glyndebourne) and did 'The Magic Flute,' which is deeply about all kinds of perspective chopping up the space. Perspective is always the subject in the theater. The Italian theater is deeply about perspective--the proscenium--the Shakespearean theater is the reverse. The stage comes out at you.
"I'd always thought there was something wrong with perspective, but it's built into the photograph," he said. What's wrong with that pervasive way of seeing, according to Hockney, is that it keeps the viewer at bay. He's for a more "intimate," less static kind of art that allows the audience to participate in constructing an image from multiple parts. He believes this approach is more compatible with our experience of the world than are images that present a set point of view and keep us "stood outside."
Hockney has already tackled his self-prescribed task in widely exhibited photographic collages that present multiple views of the same subject simultaneously. In newer paintings, he takes his audience on a tour of friends' houses, leading them through rooms and letting them look out windows to absorb the entire feel of a place.
Leaning close and lowering his voice as if to divulge a secret, he suddenly said: "I devised a very strange theory, actually. See if you can follow this. It's a weird idea, but it's about why one-point perspective occurred. It's triumphed now, hasn't it? The photograph, the television picture, the movie are deeply perspective pictures. And those are not neutral images. There's a history to why the world is seen that way.
"In 'Art and Illusion,' Gombrich asked why it took until 15th-Century Italy for perspective to be discovered since it is such a natural way of seeing, but it isn't natural. It's an abstraction--putting space onto a flat surface."
Hockney has deduced that this unnatural way of seeing developed through artists who painted the Crucifixion in one-point perspective to instill a static image with weight and volume, thus intensifying the feeling of suffering they wanted to convey. "Once you've got one vanishing point, you have one moment in time. Time is fixed, and space is solid. That would be an expressive gain for artists, but the moment they would discover that, they would start looking at the world through a hole.