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Perspectives

Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Art in Focus: ‘Kaisarion in All His Beauty’ by David Hockney

Simon Martin

[ Artwork in Focus )

Our director Simon Martin explores David Hockney’s Kaisarion in All His Beauty (1961) one of the most intriguing prints in our new exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking, looking at the artist’s background and inspiration for the print.

Although perhaps best known for his portraits and iconic images of sun-drenched Californian swimming pools, David Hockney (b.1937) is also one of the most accomplished printmakers of post-war Britain.

While still a student at the Royal College of Art (1959-61) he received the prestigious Guinness Award for Etching. It was not only the innovation of his prints that made him stand out, but also the bold emotional honesty with which he drew on his personal life to inform his work.

Hockney even etched his own Diploma at the end of his studies, having been threatened with not getting a real one, for failing to comply with the requirements of the General Studies Department. With his Yorkshire accent, bleached blond hair, Geek-chic glasses and frank homosexuality (even before it was legalised in Britain in 1967), he was a remarkable figure in the burgeoning Sixties Pop Art scene.

David Hockney sitting at a table in front of a fireplace

David Hockney in Normandy, 2021
© David Hockney
Photo credit: Jean-Pierrre Gonçalves de Lima

Hockney initially turned to graphic work as a student in 1961 because he could not afford painting materials. However, it coincided with an important moment for printmaking at the Royal College, when the artist Julian Trevelyan as Professor of Printmaking was encouraging his students to push the boundaries of the etching process.

 

Kaisarion with All His Beauty

Kaisarion with All His Beauty relates to Hockney’s use of handwritten, graffiti-like text in his paintings of the 1960s, and a seemingly naïve, sketchy figurative drawing style.

David Hockney print with figure standing on the shoulders of a cloaked figure

Whilst still living with his parents in Bradford, Hockney had discovered a volume of poetry by the Modern Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) in the local library. Like Walt Whitman, Cavafy was a literary hero for Hockney because of the homoerotic nature of his writings.

This print is inspired by Cavafy’s poems ‘Kaisarion’ and ‘Alexandrian Kings’ which describes the son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra being presented to the crowds at a military parade:

Kaisarion was standing a little forward

Dressed in pink tinted silk

On his dress a garland of hyacinths

His belt a double row of sapphires and amethysts

His shoes were tied with white ribbons

Embroidered with rose coloured pearls

Kaisarion all grace and beauty.

The print depicts Kaisarion standing on a cloaked figure, possibly the artist, and to one side a stylised Egyptian portrait of Hockney’s mother as Cleopatra, with the Royal College insignia as a crown.

The poetry of Cavafy offered Hockney much inspiration and he later made a series of memorable etchings entitled ‘Fourteen Illustrations for Poems from CP Cavafy’ (1966).

 

If you want to see David Hockney prints up close, Kaisarion in All His Beauty and Peter can be seen in our exhibition Hockney to Himid: 60 Years of British Printmaking until April 2022.

 

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