Having returned from a changing trip to America, in the year in which he met Andy Warhol, David Hockney presented Renaissance Head, an imaginative subversion of renaissance iconography depicting a profile under an arch and a background landscape punctuated by Tuscan cypresses. The work is an artificial and somewhat sardonic evocation of the portraits created four centuries earlier by Piero della Francesca, a key theoretician of linear perspective whose highly rigorous and detailed paintings obeyed complex mathematical and geometrical structures. Hockney recuperated this silhouette, whilst reacting against the context that gave rise to it, which he justified as follows: «I was well able to draw figures in an academic style, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do in painting, so I had to return to something (…) an opposite style, a crude style, because I liked the similarity with children’s art, which, in turn, resembles Egyptian art, where everything is equal».* If this discourse recalls that of Henri Matisse, forty years earlier, this parenthood is confirmed by the unfinished and negligent appearance of the work’s execution, the sharing of the same chromatic exuberance and the aversion to superfluous information, and the replacement of perspective with a one-dimensional plane on which everything co-exists on an equal level.
The painting genre which della Francesca came to symbolise, as a scientific exercise based on drawing, was in every respect the opposite of what the English artist was attempting. For this reason, he adopted the reverse path, by renouncing drawing and heightening colour, exchanging a system of elevated intellectual conventions for a naïve and childlike representation that was more suited to strike the modern, standardised public of the metropolis. While others used bundles of tobacco and tinned preserves to create their art, Hockney preferred to tackle one of the most sophisticated painters in the Western tradition, and one of its most conventional formats, the portrait. An audacious rereading of the renaissance head, which gave birth to a new iconoclastic icon for the Swinging London.
* In Metamorphosis: British Art of the Sixties: Works from the Collections of the British Council and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Torino, Umberto Allemandi & Co., 2005, p. 65.
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