David Hockney first experimented with printmaking as an art student studying at the Royal College of Art in London. At one point, having run out of funds, he was unable to purchase any further art materials until he discovered that in the printing room, materials were free. In this period, Julian Trevelyan was in post as Professor of Printmaking at the College, inducting students into the process and its extensive potential for creative expression. With a painter’s perspective, Hockney brought a spontaneity to the technical process of etching and his abilities were quickly recognised when he won the prestigious Guinness Award for Etching while still a student.
Kaisarion and all his Beauty dates from 1961, the year prior to Hockney’s graduation from the RCA. Hockney had recently discovered the work of contemporary Greek poet Cavafy and was captivated. Cavafy did not shy away from his gay identity and his work has been described as holding ‘the historical and the erotic in a single embrace.’ In this etching, Hockney takes inspiration from the poem which describes, in sumptuous detail, the imagined figure and dress of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra’s son, Kaisarion (Caesarion).
The composition is deceptively simple at first glance, with hand-written text overlaying the image like graffiti and the figures conveyed in a sketchy and naïve style. Yet the imagery is complex; this Kaisarion stands atop a cloaked figure, possibly the artist, and his classical, regal profile is at odds with his round, patterned body and spindly limbs. To the right appears the artist’s mother, depicted as Cleopatra, with the Royal College of Art insignia a floating crown above her head. A miniature army spreads along the bottom and up the left-hand edge. The work is compelling, an entanglement of the ancient and modern as the artist interweaves his own response and experience into the imagery of the poem.
NICK CURNOW | HEAD OF FINE ART
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