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1993 A Blaze of Hockney Paintings

The 1993 Summer Exhibition was the last of Roger de Grey’s presidency, and it was distinguished by a major contribution by David Hockney, then as now one of the best-known British artists. Hockney first exhibited in the Summer Exhibition in 1976 (at the behest of Peter Blake) but his relationship with the Royal Academy was strengthened when he was elected ARA in 1985, shortly after de Grey became President. There was some ambivalence about his involvement, however. In 1986, Hockney exhibited three prints, each priced at over £10,000, and was upset by the response of the media, who found them overpriced.1 Hockney exhibited again in the following year, but on this occasion his decision to exhibit a web offset litho (a technique used to print papers) titled A Bounce for Bradford in an edition of 110,000 (price: 18p) was supposedly considered by some Academicians as a riposte to that criticism.2

Explore the 1993 catalogue

The series of portraits and the printed screen that Hockney submitted in 1989 were more a sign of reconciliation. De Grey, who regularly solicited contributions from the artist, was delighted, writing: “You are wonderful—I never thought you would give us SIX!.”3 Thereafter, however, Hockney didn’t exhibit at the Academy for another three years, suggesting that participation in the Summer Exhibition was not a priority for the US-based artist.

More specifically, however, it could be that Hockney was attracted to exhibiting in the Academy but resistant to the process by which the Hanging Committee determines the selection and hang of the Exhibition. At this time, Hockney was deeply involved in two different forms of site-specific work—the stage designs that he produced for a number of operas, and the “fax exhibitions” he mounted, consisting of drawings he sent by fax to galleries around the world. In the same way, Hockney was attracted by the idea of producing work specifically for the Academy, as demonstrated in a 1988 fax to de Grey announcing that: “I feel a lot more relaxed now back by the sea, and keep thinking of your large rooms and making some pictures specially to be seen in them … I’m thinking about it anyway for next summer.”4 There is no indication that the portraits he exhibited in 1989 were made in this way but Hockney was clearly interested in working with Academy in a more tailored way.

This aim was eventually realized in 1993 when Hockney submitted, in the words of that year’s Royal Academy Illustrated editor, Tom Phillips, a “blaze of new paintings” only one of which (The Twelfth V.N. Painting) had been exhibited before (Fig. 1).5 The opportunity to exhibit five new works was an undeniable coup for the Academy, although de Grey seemed to acknowledge that, in order to secure them, it was necessary to confirm they would be hung in accordance with the artist’s wishes:

they [the paintings] are hot from the studio, so it is rather an event … he [Hockney] asked if we could manage to hang five paintings and if we did, could we hang them in a particular order and could they all be together.6

The arrangement comprised two large canvases (Esplanade and The Other Side) with three smaller ones hung vertically in between them to create a symmetrical hang.

Of these paintings (some of Hockney’s first abstract paintings since he was a student), only one had previously been exhibited.7 This was The Twelfth V.N. Painting, one of a series of twenty-six paintings first shown in the exhibition Some Very New Paintings at the Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York (7 January–13 February 1993). The “VN Paintings” were painted immediately after Hockney had completed his stage designs for a production of Richard Strauss’ opera Die Frau ohne Schatten, and continue the exploration of space evident in his theatrical designs, as Marco Livingstone has shown:

Their stylized, enveloping spaces are very close in form and spirit, for example, to those of his opera designs since the 1987 production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; the exaggerated intensity of their colours, too, and the complexity of their combinations within a single scene, recall the precision of his stage lighting since that time as an inducement to heightened emotional response.8

This atmosphere, combining abstraction and figuration in exuberant dreamlike environments, suffused all of the paintings that Hockney showed in the 1993 Summer Exhibition. Another, The Golden River, is closely related to one of Hockney’s sets for Die Frau ohne Schatten, and was even reproduced on the poster for the 1993 production of the opera at the Los Angeles Music Center (Fig. 2).

The production of the opera featuring Hockney’s designs was first staged at the Royal Opera House in London, in November 1992. The staging of the opera in London provided one new connection with England, but more importantly, some of the VN Paintings (numbers 12–14, including the painting shown at the Academy) were painted in Bridlington, Yorkshire while Hockney was visiting his mother and sister in June 1992. The VN Paintings are usually considered in relation to Hockney’s Malibu studio, where he painted the majority of the pictures, but their English dimension is intriguing in relation to his return to the Summer Exhibition.9

Hockney’s contributions to the 1993 Exhibition added lustre to the end of de Grey’s presidency, throughout which the question of a submission from the artist was an annual issue. Even so, it didn’t mean that Hockney was entirely reconciled with the Academy, as shown by this passage in his 1993 book, The Way I See It, expressing doubt about its continuing relevance:

They made me a member of the Royal Academy but I have never shown there except when I was included in some of their exhibitions. I know they want to make it livelier and I can accept that. They have suffered a great deal because of their past presidents, and their attitude to early modernism was foolish. I can see that it has changed now but I’m not sure how much it can change.10

Hockney has exhibited often at the Academy in recent years; apart from solo exhibitions, he has made major contributions to several Summer Exhibitions: in 1999, his Grand Canyon paintings formed “a one-person show within the Summer Exhibition”;11 he was (with Allen Jones) Exhibition Coordinator for the 2004 Summer Exhibition; and his enormous Bigger Trees near Warter filled an entire wall of Gallery III in the 2007 Summer Exhibition. Even so, one still wonders whether the artist who sold copies of A Bounce for Bradford for 18p in the Academy shop could ever be entirely reconciled with the Academy.

  1. Edward Lucie-Smith described the “colossal asking prices, of the prints in ‘Hockney’s Summer Madness’”, The Illustrated London News, 26 July 1986, 65. In a 1988 letter to Hockney, de Grey noted: “I know you were upset about the reception of the press to the price of your prints the first time you sent work [1986].” Letter from de Grey to Hockney, 9 February 1988, RAA/PRA/10/14.↩︎

  2. Michael Davie, “Painting by Large Numbers”, The Observer, 31 May 1987, 16. In fact, 100,000 copies of the print were included in copies of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus, with further copies sold separately.↩︎

  3. Letter from de Grey to Hockney, 21 April 1989, Hockney Members’ File.↩︎

  4. Fax from Hockney to de Grey, 4 November 1988, Hockney Members’ File.↩︎

  5. Tom Phillips, “Foreword”, in Royal Academy Illustrated 1993, 5.↩︎

  6. Unsigned article, The Daily Telegraph, 26 May 1993.↩︎

  7. Hockney himself drew a comparison between the VN Paintings and the series of four Demonstrations of Versatility, which he exhibited in 1962. David Hockney, The Way I See It (London: Thames & Hudson, 1993), 233.↩︎

  8. Marco Livingstone, “Making a New Space”, in Hockney in California, exhibition catalogue, (Tokyo: Takashimaya Art Gallery and touring, 1994), 130–301. See also Hockney’s sets for productions of Tristan und Isolde in 1987 and Turandot in 1992.↩︎

  9. Hockney, The Way I See It, 233.↩︎

  10. Hockney, The Way I See It, 148.↩︎

  11. Michael Kenny in RA Illustrated 1999, 15.↩︎

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Explore the 1993 catalogue