When looking at a Hockney painting, you can't help but feel a kind of youthful exuberance—his surprising compositions, delightful color palettes, sharp attitude, and remarkable pop sensibilities feel completely untouched and uncompromised by time. Given that, it's almost hard to believe that David Hockney turned 80 this year! To celebrate over 60 years of artistic production, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be revealing a major retrospective of Hockney's work, presenting a grand overview of the artist's achievements across all media, including painting, drawing, printmaking, photography, and video since 1960, opening on November 27th. Widely regarded as one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century, Hockney has made huge contributions to the world of painting with his open and unabashed depictions of gay love. From as early as 1961, Hockney's work wholeheartedly embraced the artist's own sexuality as an essential form of expression—incredibly bold, considering homosexuality was considered criminal in England until 1967.
In the following excerpt from Phaidon's "Art & Queer Culture," art historian Richard Meyer discusses the role American male physique magazines had on gay artists like David Hockney, recounting a particular work from very early on in the artist's career. Disagreeing with the Royal College of London's academic, unemotional approach to the human figure, Hockney insisted on the impossibility of separating an artist's desires with any nude portraiture—"Any great painter has always painted nudes that he liked." As a means of thumbing his nose at the academy (while simultaneously meeting the academic requirements necessary for his diploma), Hockney painted his 1962 piece, Life Painting for a Diploma, whose model comes straight from the artist's copy of the magazine, "Physique Pictorial," as opposed to the "lousy models" the Academy provided.
Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool (1966). Image via Liverpool Museums.
In a memorable cover of "Tomorrow's Man" from 1954, a hunk in zebra-patterned bathing trunks poses against a matching backdrop superimposed with an off-angle sign announcing "Those Kinsey Reports: Page 18." The cover of "Tomorrow's Man" bespeaks the dialogue between homoerotic spectacle and American sexology at mid-century. By factoring in the traffic in images mentioned above, we can extend this link beyond the national borders of the United States. The example of David Hockney provides an excellent case in point. In the late 1950s Hockney enrolled as a painting student at the Royal College of Art in London. While an undergraduate, he subscribed to "Physique Pictorial" magazine, each issue of which would arrive from Los Angeles wrapped in plain paper. At roughly the same moment, Bob Mizer, the publisher and chief photographer of "Physique Pictorial," initiated a correspondence with Kinsey and contributed multiple issue of the physique magazine to the Institute's archives in Indiana. During his last semester at the Royal College, Hockney's practice of painting and his interest in physique photographs intersected. Here is the artist, circa 1976, recalling the circumstances that led to his 1962 work, Life Painting for a Diploma:
"At the Royal College of Art in those days, there was a stipulation that [...] in your diploma show you had to have at least three paintings done from life. I had a few quarrels with them over it because I said the models weren't attractive enough; and they said it shouldn't make any difference i.e. it's only a sphere, a cylinder, and a cone. And I said, well, I think it does make a difference, you can't get away from it. [...] Any great painter of the nude has always painted nudes that he liked; Renoir paints rather pretty plumpy girls, because he obviously thought they were really wonderful. He was sexually attracted to them and thought they were beautiful, so he painted them; and if some thin little girl came along he'd probably have thought, 'lousy model.' Quite right. Michelangelo paints muscular marvelous young men; he thinks they're wonderful. In short, you get inspired. So I got a copy of one of those American physique magazines and copied the cover; and just to show them that even if the painting isn't anatomically correct I could do an anatomically correct thing, I stuck on one of my early drawings of the skeleton and I called it in a cheeky moment, 'Life Painting for a Diploma.' It's mocking their idea of being objective about a nude in front of you when really your feelings must be affected. I thought they were ignoring feeling, and they shouldn't. It was a way of telling them something."
Life Painting for a Diploma (1962). Image via Phaidon.
In responding to the academic requirement for life painting, Hockney insists on the importance of the artist's desire for the naked body he depicts. Far from the dispassionate study of the human figure as an ensemble of volumetric forms ("it's only a sphere, a cylinder, and a cone"), Hockney proposes a necessary link between artistic achievement and sexual attraction. Although Hockney does not describe Renoir as heterosexual or Michelangelo as homosexual, his examples nevertheless imply that an artist's sexual interests color his attention to and appreciation of the model who poses for him.
In the next part of this extended recollection, Hockney goes on to complain, rather phobically, about the "old fat women" that the Royal College was allegedly in the habit of hiring as life models at the time and the need for what he calls "some better models." "Better" turns out to mean young, male, and muscular. According to the artist, he successfully lobbied the Royal College to hire one such model, a man named Mo McDermott, for its life classes, only to discover that "nobody else at the college wanted to paint him; they didn't like painting male models, so I had him to myself."
While Hockney may have had McDermott to himself, he showcased not McDermott's body in Life Painting for a Diploma, but that of an American physique model. Hockney's inclusion of the word "physique" in his work, or rather of the bottom two thirds of it, locates the male body as one that has already been photographed in a commercial magazine prior to its painted transcription by the artist, a body seen through photography and printed matter rather than through a direct study from life. It is also notable that the painting offers not the male due but the male "almost nude," the muscular body garbed in a posing strap. As though to draw out the links between painting, same-sex desire, and medical science, Hockney juxtaposes the physique model with an anatomical drawing of a skeleton in profile.