Safety Curtain 2012/2013

David Hockney, Safety Curtain 2012/2013

David Hockney’s lifelong love affair with classical music, especially opera, began during his Yorkshire childhood in the 1950s and accelerated during the 1960s, when he sometimes drove friends across Europe to watch operas. A decade after working for the Royal Court Theatre in London on designs for Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in 1966, he began designing productions of operas for Glyndebourne (The Rake’s Progress, 1975, and The Magic Flute, 1978) and later in New York, London and elsewhere, including L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Tristan and Isolde, Turandot and Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Witty theatrical devices had featured in early paintings from 1961 onwards, particularly in a series of ‘curtain’ paintings initiated in 1963, such as Play within a Play, in which curtains, as the artist later explained, ‘are always about to hide something, or about to reveal something’; in Two Men in a Shower 1963, the erotically suggestive action is cleverly revealed through diaphanous shower curtains. Such motifs, to which the artist returned intermittently in paintings such as Invented Man Revealing Still Life 1975, predisposed him, when later working in the theatre, to embrace traditions of painted drops that playfully updated methods employed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Fascinated, too, by new technologies, from the mid-1980s he employed sophisticated lighting systems to bathe his designs in constantly changing, luxuriant colours that transformed the mood and atmosphere of each scene.

Working for the stage led Hockney to expand dramatically the dimensions of his canvases and to think more spatially and in terms of spectacle, for example in his huge, multi-panelled panoramic landscapes of the Grand Canyon of 1998. His fascination with the latest tools, meanwhile, opened new avenues of picture-making, especially through his use of the Brushes application from spring 2009 to make colourful, spontaneous, layered digital pictures on the iPhone and since 2010 on the iPad. For his 2012 record-breaking exhibition at the Royal Academy, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, he created a series of 51 iPad landscapes from life, using the small screen to create luminous vistas that he knew could be printed on a much larger scale.

All these investigations, from his youthful paintings of scenes revealed between pairs of curtains to his septuagenarian explorations of digital painting, lie behind the bold drop curtain that Hockney has designed for the Vienna State Opera. Drawn on an iPad but conceived to be printed on a plastic net on a grand scale of 176 m2 using an innovative process, the image celebrates the very place in which the audience views the picture, contributing to a mood of excited anticipation. Since the safety curtain is an officially preserved monument, the printed net is fixed onto the existing surface with magnets.

As in other Hockney designs since the late 1980s, words – here laid on a virtual podium depicted in reverse perspective – are treated as physical objects casting deep shadows into our space. The colours evoke landscape sensations – sky-blue, grass-green, earth-orange – and the illusion of recessive space envelops the audience into the drama about to unfold, evoking the sentiment of Charles Baudelaire’s poem ‘L’Invitation au voyage’, whose lines later inspired one of Matisse’s Fauve-period masterpieces: ‘Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,/Luxe, calme et volupté.’ The bright hues soaked into Hockney’s curtain invoke the delirium of music, uniting it to the joy of looking and immersing the viewer in pure sensation.