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David Hockney: Drawing from Life review – stripping subjects down to their gym socks

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Screenshot_2020-03-05 David Hockney Drawing from Life review – stripping subjects down to their gym socks
Still curious … David Hockney at his exhibition Drawing from Life at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: David Parry/National Portrait Gallery/PA

When it comes to wielding a pencil, an etching needle or just a felt pen, David Hockney has no rivals. Lucian Freud’s etchings bore me senseless, Francis Bacon barely doodled, but Hockney is a graphic master. His retrospective of a life of portrait drawing is the most dazzling display of his art I have ever seen.

Forget the rants about smoking, or the personality that has always made him so lovable. Hockney here is not a star but a stare. In self-portraits drawn with a steady black line, he eyeballs himself in the mirror, mercilessly seeing lank hair and a skinny body. He draws his own eyes through the unforgiving lenses of his spectacles. It’s uncomfortable to stand close to those eyes – the sense of Hockney sizing you up is almost oppressive. This series was made in 1983, when he was still blond, but he can see himself getting older. What does the future hold? The intensity of Hockney’s self-inspection, fag in mouth, bears comparison with Rembrandt. When an artist looks so hard into the mirror, we share what they see – we are invited into the undisguised truth.

Hockney has been looking into the mirror since he was a teenager. In drawings and a lithograph from the 1950s he scrutinises a serious, sensitive youth in a brown pullover, with brown hair. (He’s already got stylish glasses, though.) These self-portraits done between the ages of 17 and 19 prove Hockney had immense ability before he went to the Royal College of Art. But what makes this exhibition so staggering is the picture it builds of a man who has never stopped learning. The reason drawing suits Hockney is that it lets him test himself. His lack of complacency is what makes him so beguiling.

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Self-portrait, 1954, collage on newsprint. Photograph: Richard Schmidt/David Hockney

Picasso is his restless teacher. In 1973-4 Hockney portrayed them together in a fantasy scene that emulates Picasso’s Vollard Suite. Pablo sits on one side of a table in a stripy top, while Hockney faces him, nude, to be sketched. His pubic hair fluffs up between his legs. It’s a wonderful dream – to be Picasso’s nude – but Artist and Model could just as well have been called Master and Pupil. Folded curtains and a view of a French street are defined in thin, strong black ink lines in the style of Picasso’s portrait of Igor Stravinsky. It’s very hard to draw as simply as that. Picasso got the manner from Raphael. Hockney has the same confidence. And like Picasso, he plays games. This is the lesson of the master: you need to change style constantly in the search for an elusive truth.

Since the 1960s, Hockney has done just that in portraits of three of his closest friends: Celia Birtwell, Gregory Evans and Maurice Payne. Each gets their own generous space. Birtwell’s beauty is recorded with seemingly endless stylistic fun. Sketches from the 1970s depict the textile and fashion designer, who was married to Ossie Clark, looking like a glam dream in swanky dresses and romantic hair, drawn in soft colours. She poses with a cigarette, or lies back in Paris in a slip, her face a mask. Maybe it’s her enigmatic aura that made him draw her so often. Yet she doesn’t hold anything back – Celia, Nude, which dates from 1975, has her look away while she lets Hockney draw her breasts orange and blue.

Gregory, too, let Hockney draw him naked in 1975. In Gregory Leaning Nude, he looks like a Florentine youth painted by Botticelli. He rests his slim body against the wall, looking into space from under long tawny locks while Hockney records his pink penis. The following year, he closes his eyes for a lithograph in which he’s wearing just gym socks. But while Hockney can make Evans beautiful, he has also drawn him in states of scary vulnerability. In two studies from 1988 he seems damaged. In a 1999 portrait his hair is mangled and sweaty, his face desperately emaciated. Evans is Hockney’s everyman, undergoing life’s changes, who, in these works of art, experiences extreme highs and lows. A loving study of him asleep adds to the novel of his life.

With Payne, the theme is time. In 1967, Hockney drew this handsome man as a dandy. By 1984, he was ageing and meditative. And through the 1990s, Hockney recorded each mark of time, in frank studies of a beautiful man getting on in years.

As have they all. In 2019, Hockney brought their portraits up to date for this show. Their latest ink portraits are shown together to intensely haunting effect. It’s like the end of a film where you see the characters as they are now, long after their youthful adventures. Evans is in a tracksuit. Birtwell still has joy in her eyes.

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Celia Birtwell, 29 and 30 Aug 2019, by David Hockney. Photograph: David Hockney/PA

Ah, and young David. What has become of him? A video shows his wrinkled hand leafing through an album of sketches from last year in Normandy. Their freshness and variety is staggering as he leaps easily from the most direct observation of wood-framed houses to abstract jeux d’esprit.

Wherever he is, you see, Hockney’s true home is his sketchbook. Drawing lets him hold what he loves. A room is given to his acute drawings of his mother, again resembling Rembrandt as he contemplates her in old age. Another set of images show himself to himself on his iPad – smoking and staring, screwing up his face in a caricature of rage.

This exhibition reveals, with total freshness, an artist full of curiosity about himself and other people. Hockney rejoices in invention but never loses sight of his simple subject: being alive.