The British artist gives his classic treatment to one of the greatest scientific minds of this century.
I wrote a while ago about Jake and Dinos Chapman‘s horrendous and crass portrayal of the physicist Stephen Hawking in their sculpture Ubermensch. I vaguely wondered at the time what a David Hockney portrait of the same great man of our time might look like … but had no idea he’d actually created one. Visiting London’s Science Museum recently I was transfixed by a sensitive, affectionate and acute drawing of Hawking in its 70th birthday display about his life and work.
The portrait was done in the linear style of Picasso‘s 1920s drawings and that meant it must be by … yes, Hockney. In 1978 the artist portrayed Hawking, several years before his book A Brief History of Time made this cutting-edge theorist a global celebrity.
It is yet another troubling standoff, this year, between the gods of Young British Art who became famous in the 1990s and older, more traditionally skilled British painters. Not only did David Hockney dwarf Gary Hume when their exhibitions opened close to one another at the RA and White Cube, but here he is, demonstrating how humanist and insightful his honest art of hand, eye and brain can look beside a daft, ugly bit of baroque imposture like the Chapmans’ sculpture.
Now Hockney has returned to a portrait subject he first essayed when both of them were a lot younger, making a new iPad portrait of Hawking. This too can be seen at the Science Museum.
Sometimes art is at its most intelligent when it is most simple. The skill and attention it takes to record a person’s face may seem to some a yawnsome enterprise in comparison to a big bombastic statue of a man in a wheelchair on a precipice, but who would seriously say the Chapmans saw Hawking in a cleverer way than Hockney? It is not just emotional but artistic intelligence their work lacks. Hockney has both, and is incomparably the better artist.
His portraits of Hawking are important documents of what really mattered in the culture of our time. Like Epstein’s Einstein, they will still be looked at when much art that makes headlines is utterly forgotten. Art tries hard to catch up with science – and Hockney does it effortlessly by using his iPad to make an unpretentious portrait of an intellectual hero. Hockney’s Hawking is a tribute to two people who keep changing the game.