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An artist with the easy, breathless virtuosity of David Hockney occurs only a few times in each generation. His art is immensely pleasurable. The facility of line and stroke, the effortless anchoring of figures in pictorial space, lead the eye into a bright, condensed, stylised but wholly recognisable world.

It never fails to delight, and at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of half a century of his portraits we read the contours of his faces and places with eager familiarity. Here is his lover Gregory Evans, whose limpid auburn beauty in “Gregory Leaning Nude” recalls a Florentine nobleman from Botticelli transported to the 20th century. The fashion designer Celia Birtwell is willowy and glamorous in pink negligée or black slip, or taut embodiment of 1970s chic in “Mr and Mrs Ossie Clark and Percy”. Magnificently swelling to fill armchair, sofa, canvas, in “Henry, Seventh Avenue”, “Henry” and the chilly conversation piece “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott”, the Metropolitan Museum curator, patron and flamboyant dresser surveys us quizzically, his broad domed forehead rhyming with his portly stomach.

Hockney makes friends and lovers iconic, fixed in the popular consciousness yet affectingly changing over the years. “Gregory Evans” in 2005 is a middle-aged man in a dark suit mourning his father, his shadow crumpling on the ground. “Isabella”, a shining portrait of a child – rare in Hockney – perched Velázquez-like on a yellow throne of a chair, is Celia’s granddaughter. Hockney’s mother, the still, devoted, psychologically heavyweight presence in the masterpiece of filial ambivalence and memory, “My Parents” (1977), becomes the small, frail woman cobbled together from snapshots in a graveyard in the photo-collage “My Mother, Bolton Abbey” (1988), then an almost mystical emblem of old age, wide eyes unflinching, skin ravaged, in the raw, high-pitched colour of “Laura Hockney” (1996).

This show confirms Hockney as being among the greatest postwar masters of the human figure. Is there a price for such virtuosity? The clue is there at the start, with four startlingly assured self-portraits – oil painting, collage on newsprint, coloured lithograph and pencil drawing – where the 17-year-old Bradford wunderkind stares out with owly eyes, missing nothing. He is already in control of each medium, and he hasn’t even left Yorkshire.

A few years later, at the Royal College of Art, the painter Ron Kitaj “spotted this boy with short black hair and huge glasses, making the most beautiful drawing I’d ever seen in an art school. It was of a skeleton. I told him I’d give him five quid for it . . . I kept buying drawings from him. I’ve even got a very rare Hockney abstraction from his two-week abstract period.”

Like any significant artist, Hockney is interested in a medium or style only if it offers resistance. None does for long: thus the promiscuity of approaches and media throughout his oeuvre that exhilarate – this is a life-enhancing exhibition – but also limit, in terms of depths and maturation.

With the enthusiasm of child or convert, Hockney, according to the trajectory here, is propelled by a series of volte-faces. The large acrylic paintings of the 1960s and 1970s are abandoned for experimentation with camera and collage in the 1980s; then photography is rejected for an exploration of watercolour on a recklessly ambitious scale; now Hockney is back to oils. It is a fascinating, uneven journey, driven by a ceaseless quest into the process of looking, as well as issues of sex and class.

The consistency of Hockney’s world view, on the other hand, is never in doubt. It was forged in the early 1960s by his love affair with Los Angeles, a romance of swimming pools, boys, sun, space – a milieu gloriously far from the moral and physical claustrophobia of postwar England. His place in art history was won early by those dreamy, crystalline Californias of the mind, with water rippling over tanned bodies, such as “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” (1966) here, and by the portraits of the period, which shared their characteristic flat-screened horizontal look, the clarity of light and shadow, a pared-down depiction of the human body, nearly empty rooms, a 1960s tension between abstraction and representation.

How well the great conversation pieces hold up. Exceptionally united here, the trio “American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)”, “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott”, and “Mr and Mrs Ossie Clark and Percy” speak a wonderfully concise language of wealth, power, sexual distance.

In each, one partner looks as if he has just arrived or is desperate to escape: suited Fred Weisman stands to nervous attention in his sculpture garden, Scott is edgy in his raincoat, seated Ossie is diminished, furtive. The other partner has by contrast a monumental central presence. Heavy, pink-robed Marcia, rooted to the ground, scowls like the native Indian totem pole behind her. Charismatic Geldzahler is illuminated by sun streaming in. Pregnant, absorbed Celia beside a vase of lilies – symbol of fertility – towers over feckless Ossie as light slices the half-shuttered room to divide them. Each work is a secular Annunciation, drenched in light, art-history – Van Eyck, Gainsborough, Matisse – as well as the confusion of the new 1960s emotional landscape.

There is much to enjoy in the rest of the show: honesty, inventiveness, anecdote, witty quotation, above all of Picasso and cubism in the photo-collages and multi-
perspective paintings such as “David, Celia, Stephen and Ian” inspired by the camera. But much is also game-playing, and Hockney never achieves the transcendence of those fraught, highly finished conversation pieces.

Just once, I thought I caught it again – in the cornflower blue and shimmering gold “The Photographer and his Daughter” (2005), which stands out among more slackly painted, speedy late portraits. It is a masterly depiction of another space between people: a resigned father, photographer Jim McHugh, watches his confident young daughter Chloe, whose blazing hair and golden paintbrushes, arranged like flowers in a vase, dominate the composition. Chloe is a contemporary teenager, although her stroppy pose and nonchalant loveliness recall the 1960s portraits.

Is the painting so good because Hockney is a quintessential painter of youth, a subject mostly denied him as his circle has aged? Perhaps, but this piece is also a manifesto, a self-portrait of the painter rejuvenated. Modern painting is the daughter of photography, says Hockney: McHugh is slumped and weary, his old-fashioned camera discarded, his single photograph showing a ruin, the Bolton Abbey of Hockney’s collage “My Mother”. But Chloe, brushes at her side, is sexy, vibrant, invulnerable.

The coda to this show is to be found at the Annely Juda gallery, where new landscapes in luscious oils showcase the feverish painting Hockney has done since moving back to Yorkshire. They too form a manifesto of sorts, for they depict the far horizons, low skies, tumbling hills and tapering, unpeopled roads of an unchanging English landscape in ways that deliberately emphasise paint’s power to capture, as photography cannot, both the long view and iridescent close-ups of leaves, branches, a sunlit path. Colours are again fauvish – purple, pink, turquoise; mark-making is frenzied; the results are yet more convincing as a late style than the watercolour landscapes shown last year.

They attest to Hockney’s enduring concern, since 1960s California, with open landscape and lived experience, but here “Hockney is painting his boyhood,” says Gregory Evans. These landscapes also shed light on the way that memory and Englishness have shaped everything Hockney has done.

‘David Hockney Portraits’, National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, to January 21, tel 20 7312 2483. ‘David Hockney: A Year in Yorkshire’, Annely Juda, London W1, to October 28, tel 20 7629 7578

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