David Hockney: A Life Spent Looking

The reason David Hockney became a painter, and the reason he is still, at 74, going at it hard, is because it offers the possibility of nailing things down. “We are not sure what the world looks like,” he says. “An awful lot of people think we do, but I don’t.” Discovering the world’s true appearance has been the quest that underlies almost everything he has produced for the past 50 years.

Next month offers a new opportunity to assess how he’s getting on. The Royal Academy is staging a major retrospective of his landscape work, with examples from the 1960s to the present. The geographical span of David Hockney: A Bigger Picture reaches from the Grand Canyon to the Yorkshire Wolds, and the techniques used range from paint and Polaroids to film and iPads. 

Hockney had his first retrospective in 1971, only ten years into his career, and numerous others have followed. What they have charted, as the new show does too, is not just his changing art but his changing reputation. Hockney has always been a famous painter. He came to prominence in 1961 in the renowned Young Contemporaries exhibition while still a student at the Royal College of Art and that celebrity has rarely faltered. What has been more difficult to gauge is where he stands in the grander scheme of things.

He is, for all his popularity, a figure who divides opinion. He is widely admired as one of the finest draughtsmen of his generation and for his remarkable sense of colour. His fascination with technology meanwhile has been seen as both innovative and as a distraction from his real metier. The content of his pictures is lauded for its evocation of place — a California swimming pool or a cool 1970s interior — and criticised for a lack of depth. He has been dismissed as merely a lightweight if joyous flâneur like Raoul Dufy and hailed as encapsulating the spirit of the age. 

This critical uncertainty is not something that unduly worries Hockney himself. Although he is exceptionally well-versed in traditional art history, and in Secret Knowledge wrote perceptively and provocatively on the techniques of Caravaggio and Vermeer, his own concern is not with posterity but with the ongoing project of looking. “You have to decide to look,” he says. “Looking is a positive act.”

Hockney decided to look early in life. By the age of 11 he had already decided to become an artist — even if he was unsure about exactly what one did — and he set about it with cussedness. He was a top-set boy at Bradford Grammar School until it dawned on him that it was the bottom-form pupils who were given more art lessons in lieu of subjects of greater academic rigour. So he simply stopped working until he had been demoted and could focus on art instead. 

From that point on he followed his path determinedly, tracing a peripatetic route that took him from Bradford to London, Paris, Los Angeles and now, for the past seven years, Bridlington on the unprepossessing Yorkshire coast between Scarborough and Hull. This full circle back to the place where Hockney used to come as a boy to stack corn sheaves as a holiday job and to the house where his mother later lived is fitting. The “looking” he engages in there seems to be more serious than many of his previous enthusiasms because his aim is more than just producing pictures. He is intent instead on revitalising the landscape tradition.

The countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds is unspectacular and subtle. It is also unspoilt, Hockney’s corner of it being on the road to nowhere: it is a place where he can bring his preoccupations together. Although Hockney came to prominence with the Pop Art movement he never belonged to it — he has never been co-opted to any movement or group. Nor has abstraction ever enticed him. As the art critic Martin Gayford relates in his revealing new book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (Thames & Hudson, £18.95), abstraction, thinks Hockney, “can’t go anywhere. Even [Jackson] Pollock’s painting is a dead end.” The alternative he has chosen is heightened naturalism. 

Bridlington offers landscape that is in the real sense grounded — no breathtaking vistas such as his Grand Canyon pictures of the late 1990s, nothing to prod the imaginary such as his opera backdrops. It is instead a place where he can paint “for 24 hours a day. Nothing else occupies your mind, other than at your choice.” It has inspired an extraordinary burst of creativity.

In the early 1980s Hockney made composite pictures — “joiners” as he called them — out of numerous Polaroid snaps of a subject rearranged as a mosaic to form a new whole; he has adapted the technique for his new work. He takes a motif — a stand of trees, a lane between fields, a pile of cut timber — and examines it not through one canvas but by painting it across multiple canvases, creating pictures of huge size that almost become landscapes themselves. It is a technical solution to the problem of seeing landscape painting afresh and of getting the capaciousness he wants as an “agoraphiliac” into a medium that is traditionally small scale. 

The most striking example is Bigger Trees Near Warter, painted in 2007 for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. It is a Brobdingnagian picture 40 ft wide and 15 ft high and composed of 50 canvases. He painted it outside over the course of six weeks, working by the side of the road and using digital technology to keep the whole enterprise in perspective as he worked on each individual rectangle. It is the biggest en plein air picture ever painted and he needed a specially-adapted car with racks to hold the numerous canvases. He would rise at dawn each day to make the most of the still limited spring daylight. The effect of the picture is unnerving; it can been viewed as a single entity or broken down into its parts, each of its 50 pieces being a single pixel or television screen or jigsaw piece. He has subsequently donated the picture to the Tate, no mean act of philanthropy since an earlier large landscape, A Bigger Grand Canyon, sold for $4.6 million.

Hockney’s experiments with these painted “joiners” continue. Where Bigger Trees uses a fairly conventional palette some of his more recent works have a less naturalistic colour scheme with Matisse-like swathes of purple and turquoise dominant. And he has not been able to shake off his longstanding fascination with the camera. Photography, he told Gayford, has “made us all see in a rather similar boring way” and although he uses the camera as a tool “that little bit by which it misses makes it miss by a mile. That’s what I grope at.” In order to capture the bit of reality that has slipped through the gaps he is now experimenting with a bank of nine or more car-mounted high-definition cameras that simultaneously film the landscape as he drives slowly through and which are then played back on a bank of screens. It is as if Hockney has decided to be a fly’s eye and project the different images received through each optical facet.

When it comes to art, though, Hockney has always been a fully-fledged technophile. He has made pictures with fax machines and photocopiers and was an early adopter of the iPhone, though not for talking on but as an electronic sketchpad. The same is true with the iPad; friends will often wake up to find a drawing (or several) he has done on it, of flowers or the table in front of his window, waiting in their inbox. 

This need to be always drawing is something he has in common with his idol Picasso. But while he sends out most of his iPad images as gifts he has also produced numerous more elaborate computer-enhanced pictures for exhibition and for sale. I suspect they will never be more than curiosities in his career. Those of the Wolds often look as if Maxfield Parrish had been holidaying in Yorkshire, with hyperreal trees contrasting with primitively rendered swathes of grass or road. “Anyone who likes drawing and mark-making would like to explore new media,” Hockney says. This may be true but free-drawing on a computer is still a developing technology and while Hockney may believe that “limitations are really good for you” the evidence doesn’t always support him. For all the tactility of swiping fingers or stylus on a screen the results have the off-putting tang of artificiality. 

This though is exactly the point where critics and Hockney diverge, although both are right. It is the role of critics to identify his strengths and weaknesses as an artist and it is his job to follow where his nose takes him. His is essentially an art of externals and this is not necessarily a pejorative judgment. With his Bridlington paintings he returns to certain sites and paints them over and over again — the same trees (“the largest manifestation of the life force we see”) with or without leaves, in summer and winter, in bright sunlight and under slab-grey skies. Monet did the same with his pictures of Rouen Cathedral and of haystacks. Hockney doesn’t attach a message to the pictures or claim that they are anything other than a visual record of seasonal change. If the pictures have an emotional charge then that is supplementary.

What upset people when he suggested that Vermeer, for example, relied heavily for his pictures on the images projected by a camera obscura was that he seemed to be suggesting that mechanics were more important than creativity in making art. His point, however, was that profound expression needs technique and artists should use whatever means necessary to hone the way they see. His own restless experimentation with technology may simply be an admission that he hasn’t yet found the perfect medium for himself. 

“You only notice things if you stay in one place for a time,” Hockney notes. While he is busy noticing everything he can in East Yorkshire he is also proving that even such a traditional genre as landscape painting is ripe for innovation and bold scale. Just as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy use the fabric of nature — mud, stones, water — to reconfigure the natural world, he is doing the same with paint. His strand of the landscape tradition is not that of Claude or Richard Wilson, who classicised what they saw, but a blown-up version of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, who worked with the homely and found their subjects in nondescript corners of farmyards and hillsides. 

Of course the great looker in landscape painting was Constable, and Hockney is in the process of turning his own unregarded part of England into “Hockney country” as surely as Constable did with the Stour valley.

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