david hockney on coming out…
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The Phallic Imperative in David Hockney’s Coming Out Pictures
In Britain, where gay men have been traditionally stereotyped and caricatured for popular entertainment
(vide Larry Grayson, Dick Emery, Benny Hill, the Two Ronnies, John Inman et al),
two television moments stand out for the gay male viewer.
The first came in 1974, with the airing of Thames Television’s The Naked Civil Servant, based on Quentin Crisp’s autobiography.
At the end of the programme, which was a plea for understanding and acceptance, John Hurt, as the remarkable Crisp,
responds to some young boys – would-be blackmailers – who have confronted him on his own doorstep:
See that copper over there? If you don’t give us a quid each, right? I’m gonna tell him you been fiddlin’ with these two.
I defy you to do your worst. It can hardly be my worst. Mine has already and often happened to me.
You cannot touch me now.
I am one of the stately homos of England.
As he strode off down the street with his head held aloft, the message was plain:
here is an unrepentant queer, battered by experience but alive and proud and refusing to be bullied or silenced.
The second event occurred in 1999 and is more echt:
I’m queer, I’m gay, I’m homosexual, I’m a poof, I’m a poofter, I’m a ponce. I’m a bum boy, batty boy, backside artist, bugger,
I’m bent. I am that arse bandit, I lift those shirts. I’m a faggot-assed, fudge-packing, shit-stabbing, uphill gardener.
I dine at the downstairs restaurant; I dance at the other end of the ballroom.
I’m Moses and the parting of the red cheeks.
I fuck and I’m fucked. I suck and I’m sucked. I rim them and wank them and every single man’s had the fucking time of his life.¹
This cri du coeur is from Stuart Jones, one of the out gay characters in the seminal British television series Queer as Folk.
In this stream of consciousness ‘confession’ to another of the gay characters,
he gives voice to the pent up frustration and anger that he, as a gay man, harbours at society.
It is both defiant and world-weary, containing a mini catalogue of the shaming abuse that every gay man endures.
By ‘naming’ himself and publicly identifying with the epithets, Jones renders them powerless.
It’s like a second ‘outing’ – the first to himself, the second to the rest of the hostile world.
The program aired on Channel 4 in 1999 when the audience of predominantly gay British men could be expected to share in the sentiments,
whether they were out or not.
The very notion of an entire series about gay men for a gay audience would have been unthinkable even ten years before,
let alone one in which gay characters were taken seriously or presented as normal human beings and not effeminate caricatures.
The frankness of Stuart Jones’ speech announced the second arrival of the unrepentant queer in British living rooms.
He had reclaimed his right to be so by appropriating the language of hate levelled against all gay men,
in the same way that Afro Americans have defiantly claimed the pejorative ‘nigger’, and with similar nullifying effect.
I began with the above examples in order to very briefly contrast the general attitudes of those two decades with the 1960’s,
a period which much grimmer for gay men in Britain.
This was a dangerous time for gay men to declare their sexuality.
It should be remembered that in England it was not until 1967 that the Sexual Offences Act was passed.
This landmark act of parliament decriminalised certain homosexual activities between men in private.
‘In private’ was strictly interpreted by the courts as meaning in a private house if only the two men were present.
If a third person was in the house – even in a separate room – charges could still be laid.
And the sex had to take place behind a locked door in case a third party inadvertently walked in on the proceedings.
Sex on another premises – in a hotel, for instance – was outlawed.
The act also set the age of consent for homosexuals at twenty-one, five years older than for heterosexuals. Before 1967, men could be,
and were sent to prison for having consensual sex.
There have been a number of social advances for gay men since then, but the central dilemma still remains, then as now:
‘to whom can I reveal myself? Is it safe?
It is not surprising, therefore, that a gay artist working in the 1960’s should be circumspect about revealing his same-sex attraction, or that he should wish to protect others.
It is all the more surprising, therefore, to find an artist at the very beginning of that decade flaunting these laws in such a public manner.
Going to be a Queen for Tonight:² the coming out pictures of David Hockney – 1960-1963
In 1960, David Hockney came out. He was twenty-three.
‘One day I met a boy in a cinema and I’d gone to another pub with him just for a drink, and he was kind of groping me.
And there was another student from the College watching us. I didn’t know.
Next day this guy said to me, rather pompously, I saw you in that pub with that boy and what you were doing.
At first I was a bit embarrassed and then my reaction was: Of course I was, what about it?’ ³
We are told that:
In the space of a few months he changed from a quiet introspection to a flamboyant gregariousness, and the hermetic,
sombre nature of his earlier work gave way to an almost hectic exuberance.⁴
A year later he had morphed into a very different creature from the shy northern boy from the provinces.
He had reinvented himself with a bleached yellow crew cut and gold lamé jacket,
swapping his National Health spectacles for his trademark, owlish round frames.
Many people will be familiar with Hockney’s California paintings and the images he made of his lover Peter Schlesinger
and the rich and beautiful people of the ‘70’s during his later forays into realism.
But I mainly want to focus here on the often-overlooked work of four formative years; 1960 and ‘61 -
when he was still a student at the Royal College of Art5 – and 1962 and ‘63,
when he began to emerge as one of the brightest stars on the London art scene.
As a student at the Royal College of Art, between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-four,
Hockney produced dozens of paintings that dealt, obliquely at first, with his homosexuality.
Initially, these paintings were predominantly abstract and as such were the perfect vehicles for dealing with private sexual matters.
But, as he became braver and more open, the works began to include very personal information and disguised sexual imagery.
The prevailing trend in British art schools in the early 1960’s was resolutely heterosexual, even heterosexist.
Jann Haworth⁶ was a student at the Slade at the time.
She was told by one of her tutors that the staff didn’t need to see the work of the female applicants as it was irrelevant,
as they were only there to keep the boys happy.⁷
Another female student, Pauline Boty (1938 – 1966), who studied at the RCA during Hockney’s time there (although in the stained glass department),
competed with the male students on their terms by painting pictures based on the very same nude photographs of pin-up girls they used.⁸
Boty is sometimes proclaimed Britain’s only female Pop artist, and her pictures are now often viewed as proto-feminist
- this is from David Mellor, who writes in The Sixties Art Scene in London:
As a remarkable body of work by a woman painter between 1961 and 1965 they look forward – in a feminist manner
– to the issues that concerned women’s art in the following two decades.⁹
But, while Boty’s female nudes are perhaps more poignant than those of her male counterparts,
it seems likely that she was merely painting what was expected of the (male) art students of this period.
That she had a planned feminist agenda is debatable.
If the female students at the RCA and other art schools were either dismissed or tolerated as decorative distractions,
things were not much different for the young gay Hockney.
The first of the paintings I will refer to as his coming out works, were regarded as junk by the staff. ¹⁰
The lecturers seemed to be upset that Hockney had scrawled words across the surfaces of what were otherwise abstract paintings.
It is significant that some of these words refer to his sexuality and his boyfriends and crushes.
But perhaps what was deemed more unacceptable about these pictures was that much of the texts were direct transcriptions of sexual graffiti that Hockney had lifted from the walls of public toilets.
It is a credit to his determination, or perhaps his Yorkshire stubbornness, that he continued to make these works against the opprobrium.
But it also has to be said that, by all accounts, Hockney’s intake year was particularly troublesome to the authorities, and there seems to have been a mutual distrust on both sides – a generation gap of the old guard against the young moderns;
Allen Jones was thrown out after only one year, and Hockney himself was in danger of not receiving his diploma.¹¹
‘The staff said that the students in that year were the worst they’d had for many, many years. They didn’t like us; they thought we were a little bolshy, or something.’¹²
The catalogue notes to the 1965 exhibition ‘London: The New Scene’, held at the Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis,
say that Hockney’s difficulties were because of his ‘amiable eccentricities [my italics] and failure to observe the most minimal of the school’s regulations.’¹³
It is hard to imagine just what ‘amiable eccentricities’ would jeopardise Hockney’s diploma when, surely, failure to observe the regulations would have been enough.
In all likelihood, this is a muffled reference to his sexuality aimed at a readership of gallery visitors who might be expected to read between the lines;
this being 1965, it was the love that still dared not speak its name.
In 1960, against this hetero-centric and homophobic backdrop, Hockney embarked upon a series of works that would enable him to come to terms with his sexuality in front of his first audience.
‘People had started to come into the College then to look around. [...] Every day there’d be someone coming in, and I knew this, so, in a way, I was painting for an audience all the time. The pictures were seen as I was painting them. They were meant to be seen. [...] I was being cheeky and bold, and that’s what one should be, I thought, be slightly cheeky, although I’m a bit shy.’¹⁴
The use of the word ‘bold’ in this context is apposite.
This word had a special connotation for gay men through the 1950’s and into the 1960’s.
It could be used as an indication that a gay man was daringly flaunting his sexuality in public,
or that he was referring to (homo) sexual matters in conversation.
It was used in a mock-outraged tone as in, “Oh! Isn’t he bold!”¹⁵
All out gay men have experienced the exciting moment of self-determination and self-discovery that comes from the first public acknowledgement of their sexuality.
Few of them would take such a brave and dramatically public route to this self-acceptance as the young Hockney.
It was with just such boldness that the then very shy Hockney began to perform to the constant audience of visitors to the RCA,
in pictures that daringly broached the subject of his homosexuality:
‘The openness was through the paintings, it wasn’t through anything else. In those days I didn’t talk very much. I was aware that I was homosexual long before that, it’s just that I hadn’t done anything about it. [...] Then the moment you decide you have to face what you’re like, you get so excited, it’s something off your back.’ ¹⁶
Looking back on this period, he went on to say that,
‘When people “come out” it’s quite an exciting moment.
It means they become aware of their desires and deal with them in a reasonably honest way.’⁷
The first of the paintings that I will call his ‘coming out’ work is from 1960.
This tiny painting measures just 25 X 18 cm., but if the artist wished to test the waters of social acceptance with a modestly-sized piece,
at some point during its making, or shortly thereafter, he decided to stake his territory with less deference to the prevailing ‘norms’.
By defiantly titling the work ‘Queer’, Hockney both mimics the taunters’ chant and reclaims the word as a positive point of identification and reference.
If evidence were needed of the power of the word ‘queer’ to offend or cause consternation,
it came, five years after the painting was completed, when it was exhibited in a London gallery.
It had been nervously retitled with the anodyne ‘Yellow Abstract’ without the artist’s knowledge or permission.¹⁸
In the same year as Queer, Hockney painted Shame (fig.5).
It is a larger and technically more ambitious work, which stylistically owes much to the Scottish painter Alan Davie, then very much in vogue.
It emulates the older artist’s energetic, jazz-inspired layers, painterly splashes and his simple, outlined shapes.
At first glance it is not such a memorable painting, perhaps indicating a young artist feeling his way with unfamiliar abstraction.
But its title, Shame, gives us the first clue that it should be viewed with the rest of Hockney’s self- referential, queer-themed student work
and when we analyse the contents of the painting, it eventually becomes clear that it contains coded references to his outlawed sexuality.
The first confirmation of this is the long grey, phallic shape rising up from the bottom left corner.
Emanating from its tip, and almost illegible, is the word ‘shame’, which is written in white across the almost white background.
This indicates that the shame depicted is sexual.
There also appear to be other words that have been scribbled out, so that secret information has been embedded, as it were, into the fabric of the picture.
Given that Hockney began to place coded references to actual people in his work at this time, the words may be the names of various boyfriends or crushes.
If we now look at the centre right of the painting, we find the element that locates this sexual ‘shame’ squarely in the autobiographical,
for here, Hockney presents us with what is surely a self-portrait, though much stylised, painted over and abstracted and clearly showing the influence of
This head, painted in Hockney’s faux-naif style of the period, looks very similar to the self-portrait he did in the etching Myself and My Heroes’ (fig 5).
It has the same rather bulbous shape, a similar triangular nose and is seen in the same three-quarter profile.
It is perched on top of a stylised heart shape – which also serves as the shoulders of the rudimentary bust.
Under the sharp nose is a blue line that serves as a grim little mouth. White over-painting has obscured one eye – the one on our right.
The other eye, under its white-line eyebrow – or it could be the top edge of the rim of a pair of spectacles,
now painted out – stares sullenly at the grey phallus.
The white paint of the background sweeps round the heart/shoulders and a blue line, suggestive of the left arm, continues the trajectory and reaches towards the phallus,
the object and cause of such ‘shame’.
Hockney acknowledges in this painting that his sexuality was ‘shameful’, but whether the titling of this work, and of Queer, was an ironic celebration or a guilty admission, is impossible to tell.
Whatever the answer, it would not take him long to come to grips with his sexuality, and to do so in quite a militant fashion.
Waited for the No. 19 bus in Sloane Square. Got off at Piccadilly. Went to the Holloway Road. Went to the Gent’s lavatory. Nothing much in there. A man of about thirty. Then another man cam in, in his twenties.
- Joe Orton20
Still an RCA student in 1961, Hockney embarked on a small series of drawings and paintings he called the ‘Fuck Series’.
This would appear to be the calculated action of someone seeing how far he could push the boundaries of what was acceptable.
It is perhaps useful here to remember that the word fuck was not the ubiquitous word it has become.
The first use of the word on British television came not until four years after the Hockney pictures, on November 13, 1965 on the satirical show BBC-3.21
There would be some later veiled references to the word ‘fuck’ in the work of his fellow students at the RCA – most notably in Pauline Boty’s painting, 5-4-3-2-1 (1963), which has a laughing self portrait and the truncated phrase ‘oh for a fu(…)’ painted in a box in the middle right.
But Boty erred on the side of caution and forbore to write the complete word. And, in any event, it is highly likely that Boty would have already seen that very same abbreviated phrase in Hockney’s painting from two years earlier, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World (1961), where it can clearly be discerned amongst other scraps of graffiti-based text and other ruder stuff. Hockney’s usage of the actual, uncensored word, at the very beginning of the 1960’s, therefore, has to be seen as provocative, even foolhardy – the action of a young man defiantly standing up to be counted.
In Fuck (Cunt) (fig 6) we see another self portrait.
Shunted to the right of the page, which adds to the secretive nature of the work, the figure of the young artist stands in what is undoubtedly a toilet cubicle, surrounded by graffiti. It could well be Earl’s Court tube station – it is on public record that Hockney used this particular toilet as a source of graffiti for other paintings and he was living in Earl’s Court during the early 1960’s.
The circular shape in the background, in front of the figure, is reminiscent of the London Underground signage. Superimposed over the figure is what may be a doorway, perhaps of the cubicle itself.
Behind and in front of the figure’s head floats the broken phrase: ‘A Happy [...] to All Our Readers’, which was a once common graffiti joke referring to newspaper editors’ Christmas or New Year wishes to the public.
Above his head is a phrase that begins, ‘my brother is [obscured by a blob of ink] 17’. And above that is the hastily scrawled legend ‘fuck you[?] cunt’, which gives the work its title.
To take this direct, obscene graffiti and transcribe it into an artwork was a brazen act in itself, but the truly bold element of the work is disguised and only emerges after longer scrutiny, once we have followed the form of the figure to the bottom of the paper.
Below the dark shirt or jacket that the figure wears, two spindly limbs trail down.
These could be arms, but as they are disproportionately long, they more resemble legs. If read as such, they give the drawing a frank sexual frisson.
Given Hockney’s skill as a draughtsman, even at this early point in his career, it seems inconceivable that he was not aware of the ambiguity of anatomy.
The left ‘leg’ is slightly raised, so we can see that it ends in rudimentary toes, indicating that the figure is naked from the waist down.
In between the legs we can now see the figure’s unmistakable testicles and erect penis, drawn with the same brevity as the graffiti.
And just in front of this, Hockney has drawn a lower case ‘w’, which also reiterates the shape of the testicles.
Just to the rear of this, is more text which is difficult to decipher.
Dotted over the entire image are blobs and splashes of fallen ink and a cluster of the artist’s fingerprints break the lower left corner, bringing a personalised bodily sense to the enterprise, in keeping with the implied ejaculatory experience.
There is also, of course, a visual suggestion of the less-than-pristine walls of the cubicle itself.
The toilet graffiti theme is taken into another drawing, ‘Fuck (My Brother)’ (fig7) from the same year, 1961.
Hockney seems to have been taken with a particular phrase, gleaned from the walls of Earls Court tube station toilet: ‘my brother is only 17’.22 This teasing, opening non sequiteur, with its incestuous intimation, appears in at least three works from 1961 – The Third Love Painting, where it appears in its entirety in the middle right edge, Fuck (My Brother) and Fuck (Cunt), where it appears in the slightly truncated form mentioned above.
This drawing is one of the most purely expressionistic of the works of this period.
It is a crayon drawing which has been ‘drawn’ back into by an energetically applied eraser. The resulting effect is a kind of pleasing brutality and consequently the work appears to be the angriest of all the pieces under discussion.
The word ‘fuck’ has been swiped back from the surface by an eraser, thus appearing in ghostly negative against the coloured ground. The phrase, which completes the work’s title, is almost indecipherable in the exact centre of the drawing.
It has been scrawled rapidly and without care – in the manner of much actual graffiti. Beneath this, along the bottom of the work, more eraser swipes have been made, giving the space an odd, gauzy, Baconesque feel.
Such is Hockney’s disregard for the niceties of presentation in this work that he allows the granules of rubbed off crayon to remain adhered to the surface of the paper.
As in the previous drawing, there is an ejaculatory painterliness, achieved here by the application of a moistened hand or rag smeared across the centre.
Entering in from the bottom mid-left edge and almost invisible amongst the stripes of erased crayon, is Hockney’s trademark of this period – a blunt-ended phallus. I
n the following section I will discuss the phallic imperative in Hockney’s coming out pictures.
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¹ Spoken by the character Stuart Jones (played by Aiden Gillen), Queer as Folk 2, (British version) Channel 4, 1999.
The British series was dropped after the second season. The Canadian company ShowCase then adapted it, extending it for five seasons.
² Title of David Hockney painting (1960), oil on board, 124.5 X 94 cm.
³ Hockney, quoted in David Hockney by David Hockney, Nikos Stangos (ed). Thames & Hudson, London, 1977 p68.
⁴ David Hockney, Marco Livingston, Thames & Hudson, London, 1981 p20.
⁵ Hockney studied at the Royal College of Art, London between 1959 –1962.
⁶ She later married Pop artist Peter Blake and contributed to the design of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ album cover, in 1967.
⁷ Geraldine Bedell, The (London) Observer Sunday June 6, 2004.
⁸ Specifically, her paintings, It’s a Man’s World ll and The Only Blonde in the World, which features Marilyn Monroe against a green colour-field ground.
⁹ The Sixties Art Scene in London, David Mellor, Phaidon, London 1993 p.136.
¹⁰ Hockney, in Stangos p43
¹¹ The following year, however, Hockney would be awarded the RCA’s Gold Medal, but this turnaround on the part of the lecturers was probably because of the outside interest and support he was receiving at the time from such established art luminaries as Richard Hamilton.
¹² Hockney, in Stangos, p42
¹³ London: the New Scene, catalogue. Martin Friedman. Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis p17.
¹⁴ Hockney, in Stangos, p62
¹⁵ Probably the most famous utterers of the word in this context were the radio characters Julian and Sandy (played by Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick); two outrageously camp young men who were presented in a number of professions on the subversive and groundbreaking radio program ‘Round the Horne’, which aired on BBC Radio between 1965 and 1969. They spoke predominantly in Polari, a sort of cant slang used by the gay subculture of Britain, in order to speak freely amongst their own. More than a few words of Polari have entered into common usage: bevvy = drink, camp = effeminate, naff = awful or dull, zhoosh = styling of (particularly) the hair.
¹⁶ Hockney, in Livingstone, p20.
¹⁷ Hockney, in Livingstone, p21
¹⁸ Livingstone, p21
¹⁹ In Britain, public toilets used as gay beats are known as cottages
²⁰ The Orton Diaries, ed. John Lahr, p 203
²¹ In Hollywood, one of the first films to use the word ‘fuck’ was 20th Century Fox’s M.A.S.H,
directed by the late Robert Altman in 1970.
²² Tate Gallery Website