A new retrospective reveals Hockney's 60-year obsession with literature – especially poetry. From Walt Whitman to William Blake, here are the writers that mean most to him
"He still does not really believe that an artist needs occasionally to use words," wrote David Hockney's exasperated English teacher at Bradford grammar school about his 13-year-old student. Previously a star pupil, Hockney was in an unco-operative mood at the time, having failed to get a transfer to Bradford School of Art. But his English teacher needn't have worried. Once in art school, Hockney was never lost for words. He could talk for hours on almost any subject, one friend reported. And the early paintings – those that come nearest to pop art – are awash with writing: brand names, advertising slogans, quotations from poems and names of friends, as well as titles spelled out in large capitals across the middle of the canvas or curving more discreetly round the edge ("Dollboy", "Heaven", "Queen", "Life Painting for a Diplomat" etc). Only when Hockney became more unashamedly figurative did his logorrhoea disappear.
Do artists need words? In a famous anti-conceptualist polemic of four decades ago, The Painted Word, Tom Wolfe argued that late-20th century art had become so dominated by art theory that it was now less a visual medium than a literary one: "The paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text," he claimed. But painters have always been inspired by words – whether classical myths, biblical narratives, or phrases encountered in novels or poems. Hockney is no exception. Indeed, one of the main lessons of his forthcoming show at Dulwich Picture Gallery, in south London, is how literary an artist he is.
The show is a retrospective of 60 years of his printwork, stretching from lithographs he did of his parents when he was a teenager, of himself and the local fish and chip shop, through etchings of friends and lovers (Celia Birtwell, Henry Geldzahler, Peter Langan, Gregory Evans, John Kasmin) to the Xeroxes and inkjet-printed computer drawings of recent years.
His relationship with print began almost by accident, because he was poor. For a student of limited means, especially one who worked so prolifically, oil paints and canvases became expensive. As a teenager in Bradford, he had raised money through dares ("Give me sixpence and I'll jump in the canal"). At the Royal College of Art, he took the safer option of working in the printmaking department, which handed out materials for free. Once he left art school, with his reputation more or less made, money was not such a problem. But he has continued experimenting with different kinds of printmaking throughout his career.
One of the few other constants has been the influence of literature. Though his Bradford working-class upbringing was modest, the house was never short of books, most of them borrowed from the local library. And according to his biographer, Christopher Simon Sykes, Hockney was an avid reader – "everything from Biggles to the Brontës, the local classics to Dickens". Grimms fairytales were part of his childhood too, and he later illustrated them in a series of etchings, the darkness of the subject matter brought out by the use of cross-hatching. Blake, Proust, Flaubert and Lawrence Durrell are other authors to whom he has alluded over the years.
But the first writer to appear in his art was Walt Whitman. He read him in the summer of 1960, between terms at the Royal College of Art. And in the 1961 etching Myself and My Heroes, Whitman appears as one of the two haloed figures standing beside the young Hockney (the other is Gandhi), along with the words "For the dear love of comrades" from Whitman's poem "I Hear It Was Charged Against Me". Another Whitman line is daubed across his oil painting We Two Boys Together Clinging, with the next line of the poem "One the other never leaving" reduced to the word "never" – a wry admission from Hockney that the crush he had on a fellow student, Peter Crutch, who was straight, could never come to anything. Most of Whitman's crushes weren't reciprocated either, and Hockney clearly identified with him, to the extent of adopting the code Whitman had used in a journal to disguise his love for the confederate soldier Peter Doyle, where 1 = A, 2 = B and so on. The figure 3.18 shown in Hockney's painting Doll Boy translates as CR (Cliff Richard), while the two men penetrating each other in his picture Adhesiveness have the numbers 4.8 and 23.23 – David Hockney and Walt Whitman.
Whitman helped Hockney to acknowledge his homosexuality, but only in a teasing, hermetic manner. It took another poet, CP Cavafy, to make it explicit. Hockney was no less obsessed with his work than he had been with Whitman's, and before embarking on his etchings to 14 of Cavafy's poems he met his ageing English translator, visited both Cavafy's native Alexandria and (a better model for the atmosphere he wished to evoke) Beirut, and commissioned new translations from Stephen Spender and Nikos Stangos. It is fascinating to compare Hockney's images of naked men in bed together with the poems that inspired them. The prints don't so much illustrate the poems (an impossible task in any case) as convey the eroticism underlying them; they make plain what Cavafy was forced to disguise. For instance, in his poem "In an Old Book" Cavafy describes finding an old unsigned watercolour and how:
The young man depicted there
Was not destined for those
Who love in ways that are more or
Inside the bounds of what is clearly
With his deep chestnut eyes,
The rare beauty of his face,
The beauty of anomalous charm,
With those ideal lips that bring
Sensual delight to the body loved,
Those ideal limbs shaped for beds
That common morality calls
Despite his admiration for Cavafy, Hockney found his poems "slightly old-fashioned. They never describe sex." In his etching to the poem above, he removes the shame and depicts the young man lying back contentedly, arms folded behind his head, with his penis (the key body part unmentioned in the poem) frankly exposed. Attitudes had changed in the 40 years since the poem was first published. Even so, had Hockney's etching appeared any earlier, he would have been liable to prosecution: it was only in 1967 that homosexuality in Britain was finally decriminalised.
Hockney's celebration of gay sex was propagandist as well as personal, helping change the climate of opinion. He became the artist Cavafy had imagined in a poem that describes two male lovers parting furtively after an illicit encounter:
… what profit for the life of the
Tomorrow, the day after, or years
later, he'll give voice
To the strong lines that had their
Hockney's departure to California was part of the same process of liberation, and here again he took his bearings from literature – not from Thom Gunn, who made the same journey but whose poems weren't candid about documenting his sexuality for another two decades, but from John Rechy, whose novel City of Night was published in 1963, the year Hockney first visited LA. Excited by Rechy's descriptions of downtown hustling, Hockney set off on a bicycle to find the action, not realising – till he reached Pershing Square 17 miles later – what a vast sprawl the city was. Sprawling or not, LA captivated him, in part because of its newness, and, deciding that no one had yet found a way to depict it, Hockney appointed himself its Piranesi.
The first lithographs are too busy poking fun at the Hollywood art scene to achieve very much: Picture of Melrose Avenue in an Ornate Gold Frame, Picture of a Pointless Abstraction Framed Under Glass etc. But once he began to portray Californian swimming pools, Hockney came into his own. Behind their joyful hedonism, they are an attempt to solve an almost insuperable formal problem: as he put it, water "can be any colour, it's movable, it has no set visual description", so how do you paint it? It is the acrylics from this period that people know best, but the Dulwich show contains some equally colourful lithographs from the "Afternoon Swimming" series. Portraits of Californian friends are here too, including Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy at opposite ends of a sofa.
Another portrait, or double portrait, in the Dulwich show is of his dealer, John Kasmin, who on a visit to his studio one day asked to be shown how etchings are made. "Sit still and I'll do one now," Hockney told him, and scratched away on a copper plate until he had a likeness. Since the other half of the plate was empty and it seemed a pity not to use it, Hockney persuaded Kasmin to strip down to his vest and made a second etching. The result, Kasmin Twice, gives us two seemingly different men – a behatted, bespectacled middle-aged professional, and a butch, young, hairy-chested stud, united only in being portrayed from the waist up.
It is fascinating to see how Hockney fluctuated between etching and lithography at different points of his career. It wasn't just personal whim but depended on his contact with different master printers and their workshops. In California, for his lithographs, it was Ken Tyler. In Paris, where Hockney lived for a time in the 1970s, it was Aldo Crommelynck, who had worked with Matisse, Braque, Miró and – most important from Hockney's point of view – Picasso. The new technique for colour etching devised by Crommelynck (a technique described in detail in the catalogue for the show by the curator Richard Lloyd) allowed for more spontaneity than had previously been possible. Picasso died before the technique was perfected, but Hockney took to it at once, and paid homage with two etchings of himself as Picasso's student and model.
Further homage came in his series "The Blue Guitar", inspired by Wallace Stevens's long poem "The Man with the Blue Guitar", itself inspired by Picasso's The Old Guitarist. In the poem, Stevens meditates on the relationship between art and reality:
They said 'You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.'
The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'
It is obvious why this attracted Hockney. That reality is transformed by the medium in which it is represented is a cornerstone of his aesthetic, and it is why he has worked in so many media – to keep finding new ways to reveal "things as they are". However realist Hockney's art, we are never allowed to forget that we are looking at an image, not the thing itself, and that the content is partly determined by the form. "Poetry is the subject of the poem," Stevens writes, a line that Hockney steals and reworks as Etching is the Subject, for the title of one of his Blue Guitar etchings.
The art Hockney produced on a Xerox machine, back in the 1980s, proceeds from a similar premise, that even a photocopy is never just a copy – "Everything is a translation of something else, no matter how it's done." Working with a photocopier also appealed to him because it cut out the need for the master printer in his atelier: the artist doesn't have to negotiate or compromise but has total control.
More recently, Hockney has been working on an iPad, where the autonomy is even greater, and where the distinction between an original and a reproduction is eroded – a drawing made in a printing machine is both. The Dulwich show is iPad-free, more's the pity, but it does include some fine examples of Hockney's inkjet-printed computer drawings, including one of rain on a studio window – a humble Velux above a white radiator, with the shadow of a neighbouring house visible through the streaked grey pane.
Hockney's art is often seen as a conversation with artists of the past, whether Picasso, Van Gogh, Hogarth, Caravaggio, Monet or Claude Lorrain. Even when painting the Yorkshire Wolds, say, he can't help alluding to landscapes painted by artists before him. The Dulwich show is all about copying – about imitating painters, quoting from writers, representing the world he sees and making duplicates of a single art work. But as Hockney likes to say: "There's no such thing as a copy, really." Whatever the starting point or the medium, the originality of his vision shines through.