thinking about archaeology

The 7 Ages of Hockney

IMG_4551.jpgImmediate thoughts on seeing Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition.

Oh my. It’s uplifting and beautiful. My memories of his work when we were younger – he’d paint, I’d see them in colour supplement features – made me think this show might have a bit of a gay narrative (We Two Boys Together Clinging, A Bigger Splash, men in showers and so on). But it’s larger than that. His earliest drawings, done when he was a teenager, have such perception and promise (like Lucian Freud’s very early work). At the Royal College of Art in the early 60s his work is raw, experimental, struggling with art and with life (here is the only sexually graphic stuff we see, and even then it’s coded). He matures, finds his feet and the joy of relationships. He discovers light, nature and seasons, beauty in people and landscapes. He becomes calm and wise in older age. This is not about being gay, it’s about life, a life – our life, if we had his drive and talent, the eyes to see, the confidence to be our self, and to just enjoy things, to not fuss about the past.

That Hockney’s work is representational is deceptive: it can help to look for the abstract in the scenery, it can be a mistake to assume everything is as easy as it sometimes looks. His frequent style changes and discoveries of new media are inspiring, he never loses his youthful enthusiasm. It doesn’t always lead to his best work (whenever he rails against other art or art forms, as he does with conventional photography, you are warned).  But what an achievement, a tour with force.

Hockney Bacon.jpgAnd humour. This Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (centre, 1961) made me think of Francis Bacon’s existential boxes, life trapped on a stage with its entrance and exit (on left is Bacon’s Seated Figure, 1961, and on right, a panel from Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962). Hockney’s box does offer a sense of hopeless entrapment, but you can’t help also thinking of tea leaves and a nice pot of tea (and you can’t imagine Bacon making jokes about how he misspelt TAE). Yet somehow the angst survives.

This is supposed to be a blog about archaeology, so here are some pictures…

IMG_4560.jpgDetail from Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians (1965)

IMG_4552.jpgDetail from  American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968

IMG_4554.jpgThere’s a roomful of lovely East Riding landscapes. There’s some great archaeology up there, and some archaeologists looking at these will feel on familiar ground. There’s a bowlful of blossom in Kilham and blossom bursting from a hedgerow near Rudston. Above is The Road to Thwing, July 2006 (2006). Below is May Blossom on the Roman Road (2009). (These are bigger than they might look here.) It’s some time since I’ve felt such sheer joy in an exhibition.
IMG_4557.jpg

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4 responses

  1. Elizabeth Twohig

    Looking forward to this. I found his portraits collection at the RA quite compelling, but have not seen much of his work otherwise. On your advice I saw Paul Nash at TB, and just noted your review of Calder, which I also thought superb. Living in Ireland I have to forward plan a lot to maximise on visits to London so its very useful to have your advice

    February 7, 2017 at 11:52 am

    • mikepitts

      Thanks Elizabeth, I’m pleased you enjoyed these exhibitions. For me, Calder was particularly special. I don’t like to think I’m advising, so much as sharing my enthusiasms, but if they match anyone else’s then that’s good! I’m not as distant from London as you are, but not being there I still miss quite a few things that I know I would love, so silence from me on a show may mean no more than that I never got to see it.

      February 9, 2017 at 4:43 pm

  2. I’ve been meaning to write Mr. Pitts a letter praising the links he has been making between archaeology and art. I’m increasingly of the opinion that archaeology is an art, not a science, despite the use of scientific tools and strategies. While one can do archaeology in a vacuum, (i.e.: accumulating esoteric knowledge for the world of academia), the success of such sites as the flawed, but nonetheless effective, Must Farm web site with its effective links to social media, shows that a key step in doing archaeology is turning abstract facts into story, and using powerful visual images to convey ideas about those stories. My working definition of art is that it is the process of telling a story using whatever media comes to hand. I’m pretty sure that the best archaeologists are artists. I know they are story tellers. It might even be possible to say that the best artists are archaeologists. I would enjoy an exploration of that idea at some point in the future.

    From my perspective, the dialogue between art and archaeology is pertinent and important. The usual pattern is to see art as a tool used to convey ideas about archaeological discoveries. It is fascinating to look at archaeology as a tool used to create good art. Keep exploring this relationship, please.

    February 7, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    • mikepitts

      Thanks Megan, it’s good to hear I’m not alone with this! I think archaeology can be both art and science (and more, it’s grand theatre), there’s no contradiction. When I “do archaeology” (excavating, or, mostly, archive research and writing) I’m very careful with data, it’s akin to investigative journalism – take nothing for granted, trust no one. I started to wonder about the apparent conflict between that and my emotive interest in art when I was a student, but just stopped worrying about it.

      February 9, 2017 at 4:49 pm

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