David Hockney Talking About Looking, Through Eyes And iPad
By Stephen CrittendenSeptember 18, 2012
I look therefore iPhone. For British artist David Hockney the view, whether vignette or sweeping, is constantly evolving. As the iPhone 5 nears release, we look at the man who has used the technology as a canvas — and a book that captures the intensity of his vision.
A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney is a beautifully produced and very accessible book which gives a unique insight into the mind of one of the world's best-known and best-loved living artists. David Hockney, at 75, remains a powerhouse of productivity, still experimenting, as he has done throughout his career, with the possibilities offered by new technology.
In recent years, Hockney has simultaneously been striking out in two opposite directions — as a miniaturist joyfully tossing off works on his iPhone and iPad, and as a landscape painter of the countryside around his home in East Yorkshire, often creating work on a truly epic scale. A Bigger Message is based on his conversations with art critic Martin Gayford, who says the words he has recorded were accumulated "over months and years, exchanged by a variety of media old and new: telephone, email, text, sitting face to face talking in studios, drawing rooms, kitchens and cars".
For a man who says he likes silence and solitude, Hockney is evidently very gregarious, and likes nothing better than a good long yarn. Certainly that is how I remember him. I met and interviewed Hockney during the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts in 1996, when he accompanied to Australia the glorious sets he had designed for a production of Richard Strauss's opera Die Frau ohne Schatten. On that occasion he appeared in the foyer of the Victorian Arts Centre wearing his trademark cap, grey suit and braces, warned me that he wouldn't be easy to interview because he'd gone very deaf, and then settled back in the sun and smoked and chatted away like some old friend.
That spirit comes through on every page of Gayford's book, and although one senses an inclination to keep returning to some themes in his conversation, he speaks with the distilled wisdom of a lifetime of silent observation and thought. Anyone who is interested in photography, or making art, or looking at art, or even just looking at the natural world, will find a lot to stimulate them here.
If there's a single theme that unifies the book, it is Hockney's thinking about the act of looking. In his company, one is aware of his immense visual concentration as he drinks in the landscape, cigarette in hand. He seems to be constantly alert, constantly looking and thinking about what he sees, wondering aloud at one point whether his loss of hearing has made him see more clearly: "I suppose as a deaf person I could be compensating for my loss of sense of space through sound." In fact it occurred to me more than once that Hockney's whole purpose in agreeing to do the book may border on the pedagogical: he doesn't just want to show us what he sees (his pictures do that), but to remind us how to really look. "I've come to think that most people just scan the ground in front of them. As long as that's clear and they can move forward, they don't bother about anything more.
"Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately."
Photography is another of Hockney's constant themes. But his obvious ongoing fascination with photographic images is, at least in part, the ethical interest of someone who cares very deeply about truth and is disturbed by fakery and superficiality. As an artist who is constantly questing for what he calls "a bigger and more intense picture", he distrusts the camera for giving such a partial, flattened, momentary glimpse of a world that he experiences as slowly unfolding all around him. "We live in an age when vast numbers of images are made that do not claim to be art," he says. "They claim something much more dubious. They claim to be reality."
He sees photography as a mere "blip" in the long history of human image making, and as an art form that is now in crisis — "crumbling" is the word he uses to describe the way film has been superseded by digital photography. Ironically, he says, the digital alteration of images through processes like Photoshop is actually moving photography back in the direction of drawing and painting. "Nowadays, I don't think you need to believe any kind of photograph from any source. There is a certain language to photography — but you can fake it all with computers. Most so-called digital art is hand-denying, and not all that interesting anyway."
He is also critical of all those "dreary magazines" in which everybody looks the same:
"Have you ever seen Hello or OK? This is what's happened to photography. Everything now is evened out, polished. What's mad about them is that if there are six pictures of six people, they've all got the same expression. If somebody looks at it in 20 years' time, will they know who all these people are? I don't know even now. It will tell you something about our shallow age."
Needless to say, such reservations about photographic images are hardly typical of pop artists. But Gayford quotes Hockney's longtime dealer John Kasmin, who says Hockney was only ever a pop artist "for about five minutes, if at all".
Art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon has written somewhat over-harshly about Hockney's years in Los Angeles, that he "soon subsided into a painter [sic] of lotus-eating blandness." Hockney's best-known painting from that period, A Bigger Splash (1967), he describes as "an incarnation of vapid, sunstruck melancholy" painted by an artist who "no longer seems fully present in his work". Hockney's most important legacy to British art, Graham-Dixon concludes, will be "the memory of what he once was and what he once stood for: an artist who painted what moved him, as few artists have done in Britain in the second half of the 20th century, with passion and attack and a shameless, total involvement in his subject matter."
Those words were written back in 1996, in the book that accompanied Graham-Dixon's television series for the BBC, A History of British Art. Coincidentally, the following year was the first time that Hockney returned for an extended stay in the English countryside in more than 20 years, which eventually led to him resettling in the small, out-of-the-way East Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington. There, he became again what Graham-Dixon said he once had been: an artist who painted what moved him.
Not that Hockney shows the slightest hint of regret about his years spent in California.
On the contrary, he speaks about that time with affection. It's just that the English countryside is where he now feels he needs to be. In recent years he has declined an invitation from Buckingham Palace to make a portrait of the Queen, giving the excuse that he was "too busy painting her country". This somewhat enigmatic transition into a flowering old age as an English landscape painter is surely unprecedented in the history of British art, or modern art in general for that matter.
It isn't just that Hockney has returned to his Yorkshire roots, but that he has returned to the very fundamentals of his craft — to painting, to drawing especially, to thinking intently about the primitive human need to make marks. And that he has been responding to the most basic and timeless themes: space and time, the infinite variety of nature, the changing patterns of light and the seasons, and how they affect "a row of trees that I love".
In this book we see someone who is acutely conscious of the changing light: "That's why I always wear hats, to minimise dazzle and glare. Here the light might change every two minutes. You have to figure out how to deal with that. In fact, we came to the conclusion that every day was totally different in this part of East Yorkshire. There is absolutely constant change." After the glittering blue swimming pools of Los Angeles, these English canvases capture a milky, subtle light: "The first 20 years of my life were spent in Bradford, even further north than Van Gogh's youth in the Netherlands," Hockney says, "and of course that colours the way you look at things. Bradford never had shadows, because it never had bright sun."
Hockney has always been interested in any new technology associated with image making. In the past, he's made art using Polaroids, photocopiers and fax machines. Since 2009, he has been in the thrall of, first the iPhone, on which he uses an app called "Brushes", to paint digital images with his fingers; and later the iPad, on which he works with a stylus. "Picasso would have gone mad with this," he says. "I don't know an artist who wouldn't, actually."
The iPad and iPhone images have become a kind of diary of his everyday life — bunches of flowers, or his first impressions when he opens his eyes each morning. They have a wonderful sense of spontaneity that the larger landscape paintings sometimes lack.
Photo of artwork by Richard Schmidt
In fact what is most interesting about his use of the iPhone and iPad is the way they seem to have refocussed his thoughts about drawing, another constant theme in his conversations with Gayford. A critic of the way many art schools have downgraded the importance of learning to draw, Hockney says it was immediately apparent to him that the new i-technologies would challenge him to make the minimum number of marks necessary: "Limitations are really good for you. They are a stimulus. If you were told to make a drawing of a tulip using five lines, or one using a hundred, you'd have to be more inventive with the five."
Economy, along with speed of execution, are qualities he associates pre-eminently with Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh: "Anyone who's ever drawn very quickly sees how wonderful Rembrandt's drawings are; the economy of means takes your breath away." Hockney describes Van Gogh as "one of the great, great draughtsmen", well aware that the sketches Van Gogh peppered his letters with are very like the iPhone and iPad pictures he sends each day to his own friends. "Technically they are as good as any drawing you'll ever see," he says of Van Gogh's sketches. "Rembrandt could do that too. You feel whether the clothes his figures are wearing are ragged or a refined cloth, even if he has just used six lines."
In fact it seems axiomatic for Hockney that he sees by drawing as much as by looking: "Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still," he says. "The image is passing through you in a physiological way, into your brain, into your memory — where it stays — it's transmitted by your hands."
Another subject that Hockney seems constantly to be meditating on is art history. Gayford comments shrewdly that the landscape tradition of Claude Lorrain and Constable and Turner is one to which Hockney has now "attached himself". (One might add that his intense concentration on the English countryside also places Hockney in a tradition that includes Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf of The Waves, Richard Adams of Watership Down fame, and composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.)
But reading this book, and looking back over the many pictures it samples, one can't help seeing that Hockney's true precursor is Pablo Picasso. It's there in the fine, almost neo-classically perfect lines of Artist and Model (1974), which shows Picasso sitting opposite a nude Hockney at a table, evoking the erotic intimacy of Picasso's collection of etchings, the Vollard Suite. It's also there in the cubist theatre sets, and the joyful curves of the big Californian road pictures, especially The Road to Malibu (1988). And it's there, above all, in the daily outpouring of iPad and iPhone images.
Some of the most engaging passages in the book are anecdotes about other artists, or about how Hockney has spent a lifetime intently looking at great pictures. He talks about Monet in his garden at Giverny, getting up early to catch the best of the light; or the quality of Tiepolo's draughtsmanship in the painting he created for the ceiling above the great staircase in the Archbishop's palace in Wurzburg; or about his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson's method of composing a photograph ("Composing a picture is very much about what happens at the edges"). He muses on Caravaggio's St John the Baptist:
"Have you noticed how wide St John the Baptist's waist is in the painting in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City? It's incredibly wide. That's the kind of thing Caravaggio's contemporaries would have criticised. That his drawing is a bit odd. I was in 'The Genius of Rome' exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2001, looking at that painting, and somebody came up behind me and said, 'C'est terrible!' I turned around and it was Cartier-Bresson."
A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney is published by Thames & Hudson.
Read more of Stephen Crittenden’s profiles of artists and authors: a requiem for the inimitable Robert Hughes, a beginners’ guide to Patrick White, and the remarkable story of Majok Tulba — a Sudanese refugee turned novelist.