With a David Hockney retrospective having recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we’re turning back this week to the September 1966 issue of ARTnews, in which John Russell, in a column about the London art world, addressed the British artist’s work for a production of Ubu Roi and a publication of Constantine Cavafy’s poetry. (Ubu Roi, it should be noted, has a history with artists; Rainer Ganahl recently became the latest to make work related to the famed Alfred Jarry play.) Russell’s thoughts on Hockney’s then-new work follow below. —Alex Greenberger
“Art News from London”
By John Russell
In a sense, the most rewarding one-man show of the late summer in London was not in an art gallery at all but on the stage of the Royal Court Theater, where David Hockney had designed the sets and costumes for Ubu Roi. As a production, this was no masterpiece: the play had been re-written, rather than translated or adapted, and very little remained of its demonic energy, radical social criticism and weird flights of linguistic parody. Hockney at least had enough respect for Jarry to keep his costumes within the gamut indicated by the author and his decors within the limits laid down in Jarry’s first-night speech on December 10, 1896. Nothing is easier, in fact, for Hockney to suggest a world in which “palm-trees flower at the foot of the bed, for baby elephants to munch the leaves as they bend down from the étragères.” Hockney is, also, a gifted observer of vestimentary indiscretions and has bagged some top-class examples in the course of travels that have taken him from East Berlin to Los Angeles by way of Cairo and Alexandria.
Hockney on Ubu and Cavafy
So he was one jump ahead even of Jarry’s nimble imagination as the burlesqued historical drama swayed to and from Poland (“that is to say, Nowhere”) to the Ukraine and back to the Baltic. Hockney’s gift is for characterization within an absolute minimum of physical means, and this was ideally suited to the mockery-within-mockery which is the basis of the picaresque parts of Ubu. Where he did not succeed (and, in terms of this production, would never have been allowed to) was in conveying the violence and overriding the ill-nature of Ubu. The pear-shaped toy-figure prescribed by the producer and ratified by the principal actor, could never have inspired terror: for this reason the spectacle remained thin.
Hockney in life is a gifted comedian, and much of his work is very funny indeed in an unemphatic way. But the funniness often masks a genuine poetic sensibility, and Hockney has a rare gift for reading and re-reading some text that has caught his fancy until the author in question becomes, almost, his second self. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy is a case in point: one of Hockney’s finest etchings, Kaisarion in All His Beauty, was based on a poem by Cavafy. The London firm of Editions Alecto commissioned him to make a series of etchings after Cavafy to accompany a new translation on which Stephen Spender has been working, and these etchings, combined with the preliminary sketches for Ubu, were recently shown at Kasmin.
Nearly all the poems had to do with homosexual life in Alexandria, and Hockney turned out to have rivaled Cavafy in the mingling of delicacy and out-spokenness which characterized the etchings. The bedroom-scenes were today’s counterpart of a famous plate in Bonnard’s edition of Parallèlement, and the episodes in the street and shop had the consummate wryness of Cavafy’s own evocations. Ever since E. M. Forster brought him to our attention, Cavafy has been a favorite with English readers, irrespective of their sexual persuasion: the combination of Hockney’s etchings with a particularly convinced and eloquent translation provided a genuine imaginative experience.