David Hockney ‘Drawing from Life’ Exhibition Review


Emily Stevens (she/her) reviews the returning exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

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Image by Emily Stevens

By Emily Stevens

As the winter break drew to a close, my family and I decided to head into London for the day to visit the David Hockney ‘Drawing from Life’ exhibition, before I returned to university. The exhibition was first opened in 2020 but was cut short after only a few weeks due to the pandemic. In 2023, it reopened at the National Portrait Gallery featuring new portraits, composed by Hockney in 2021 and 2022. I visited in January 2024, in the exhibition’s final weeks.
Having arrived in London slightly early, we decided to look around the nearby National Gallery. This has to be one of my favourite art galleries in London; the variety of paintings and artists is completely staggering. Amongst the world-famous works we saw were Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Rousseau’s Surprised!, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. However, my personal favourite was The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche, which I have always found incredibly moving. After spending a while wandering amongst centuries-old masterpieces, we were eager to see some more recent art. We had a quick look in the gift shop before heading just down the road to the National Portrait Gallery for the Hockney exhibition.
The exhibition featured portraits from the past 60 years of people significant in Hockney’s life, such as his mother, Laura Hockney, his long time companion JP and even himself. One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was the room dedicated to portraits of Celia Birtwell, fashion and textile designer and close friend of Hockney. His portraits perfectly capture her romantic, feminine style and their intimate friendship was clear to see through the artwork.
New to the exhibition in 2023 were recent portraits of significant people in Hockney’s life, composed in 2021 and 2022. I must admit, this was one of the main reasons I was so excited to see this exhibition, as amongst the thirty new portraits was one of Harry Styles, one of my favourite musicians. Seeing the renowned portrait of Styles in person was amazing; Hockney’s vibrant, messy style perfectly complements the joyful pop music and iconic, colourful wardrobe of Styles. As a fan of both artists, seeing them collaborate on the portrait was easily my favourite part of the exhibition (although I am obviously a little biased!).
I also loved the self-portrait included in this new section of ‘Drawing from Life’. There were many other pieces depicting Hockney throughout the exhibition, and it was fascinating to see both Hockney’s artistic style and his image evolve through the canvases.
This was not my first time experiencing Hockney’s work first hand. In 2021, I was lucky enough to attend a summer exhibition, ‘David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020’ at the Royal Academy of Arts. During the worldwide lockdown in 2020, Hockney retired to his home in Normandy, France and spent his time turning the picturesque views of Normandy in bloom into digital art. Hockney used an iPad to create the stunning landscapes in the exhibition, exploring a new medium at a time when everything was different and uncertain.
By contrast, the new pieces added into the ‘Drawing from Life’ exhibition were a return to portraiture and the classic medium of acrylic on canvas. Visiting both Hockney exhibitions caused me to reflect on how significantly the world has changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Hockney’s 2020 digital depictions of nature were so clearly created during a time when the natural world was free to blossom whilst people were staying inside and relying on technology. Visiting that exhibition in 2021, I do not remember noticing the lack of people represented in Hockney’s digital art but looking back now, it is clear how significant that was.
The return to portraiture in ‘Drawing from Life’ was strangely comforting; it was a reminder of how far the world has come since the pandemic. Some digital art was still staged, but this time the subjects were all people rather than nature. Although ‘The Arrival of Spring’ was an excellent exhibition, it was a joy to see so many recent paintings of significant people in Hockney’s life. The digital art depicting intimate portraits of Hockney’s loved ones is a reminder of the isolation and reliance on technology during the pandemic, but also that the world has recovered since that time. The exhibition felt like a time capsule; it was a uniquely personal look into an artist’s life as well as a beautiful display of artwork.
Writer's Note: 'David Hockney: Drawing from Life’ was open at the National Portrait Gallery between 2 November 2023 and 21 January 2024.