David Hockney, as he would readily admit, is not a man crippled by back- breaking modesty. “I know I’m right,” say the T-shirts worn, with a smile, by his friends.
From boyhood to his 70s, he’s gone his own way, refusing received wisdom, thinking it through from first principles. His restless ambition has made him one of the world’s most recognisable image-makers and he tests himself against the greatest artists.
His table-talk brims with references to Van Gogh, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Rembrandt and Titian as well as a host of lesser-known artists. He does not, and would not, explicitly “rate” himself, but he is mainly interested in the top- drawer, in genius.
Royal Academy show
Now, in his Royal Academy show of landscape paintings and films previewed on this week’s Countryfile – not a retrospective, he points out – he’s consciously throwing down a paint-bespattered gauntlet. These dozen huge, high rooms, superbly lit and set in the heart of London’s West End, are haunted by Turner, Constable and the best British painters of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Hold up here, room after room, and you’ve made an important point. He knows it: “They were never offered all the rooms,” he says. “Yes, I’ll take them on.”
He wants the big spaces on offer: “You get long, long views; my pictures still work from a long way away… or you can see them close. You can see the marks.”
It matters to him that these are mostly new works. He’s been working for this show for more than three years. “It took me three days to say, ‘Yes, OK…’ There was quite a lot of work, but I’m an opportunist.” Later he adds, quietly: “We rose to the occasion.”
This is not just a matter of Hockney’s stature as a painter. He’s taking on the received opinion that landscape art is effectively over. Everything that can be said, has been said: serious artists should leave it to Sunday painters and commercial wall-pleasers. Oh yes? As Hockney says, we live inside nature and are part of nature. How can our visual excitement about it be “over”?
East Yorkshire landscapes
As this huge exhibition sucks in more and more people, many may well make a pilgrimage to the gently rolling, out-of-the-way chalky wolds of East Yorkshire where these pictures were mostly made.
The road from York to Bridlington, where Hockney has been living and working for the past seven years, is a journey past the Nordic names familiar from his new pictures – Wetwang, Bugthorpe, Garrowby, Thwing, Woldgate. One measure of its relative isolation is that there are still elms growing by the roadside at Bridlington.
Yet I think many of these pilgrims will be disappointed. The fields and woods are lovely enough, the roads quiet and there’s a satisfying lack of the clutter of signs and markings you find in much of the rest of the English countryside. But it doesn’t strike you immediately as an extraordinary landscape. Where are the violent purples, the glittering golds and reds shaking in the trees? Where’s the awesome, sweeping scale?
And this, of course, is precisely the point. David Hockney has led me to the very points in woods, by roads or up farm tracks where some of the most famous Yorkshire landscapes have been made – paintings now in galleries from Australia to Germany. And you have to look.
Year after year, he’s been learning. He’s critical of artists who have no craft, who delegate the making. A poster for the show reads, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” A dig at Damien Hirst? He nods. “It’s a little insulting to craftsmen, skilful craftsmen… I used to point out at art school, you can teach the craft, it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.”
He quotes the Chinese saying that to paint “you need the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won’t do.” He adds, “The other great thing they said – I told this to Lucian Freud – is, painting is an old man’s art. I like that!”
Intensity of looking
This project began in 2007 and has been one of learning – exactly where the light falls; when certain leaves begin to open out; the short gap when blackthorn or hawthorn blossom comes – knowledge once completely common, but in urban Britain, no longer.
It’s the intensity of looking, and confident familiarity, that gives him the edge. He’s known these roads and fields since he was a teenager, cycling around for summer jobs on farms. He left first for London then LA, but he returned and now lives in his mother’s old house. It’s only since coming back from California, first to help his friend Jonathan Silver who was dying of cancer, that he’s immersed himself in this landscape.
So primed with a Californian instinct for colour, he digs deep for the vivid reds, golds, ice-greens and pinks that will hang in long rows at the RA. He finds his beauty today not in swimming pools, palm trees or Hollywood drives, but in mousy, decayed tree-stumps, small pieces of redundant brickwork, and roadside pull-ins, where people dump old fridges.
By staring harder, he’s turned nondescript side roads into edited epics. This is not a place of gushing admirers, but of curt Yorkshire nods. The locals seem to understand: the council was recently digging up a favourite B-road to put in a pipeline and after seeing Hockney’s pictures and films, and hearing him explain, agreed to avoid the tree-stumps and scenes, and replace the grass verges neatly when the diggers had gone. They’ve done a good job and he was delighted.
Go out with Hockney and you start to see what he sees. When it rains, tree trunks go almost black, but he shoots out to watch the effect when sunlight then hits them afterwards and an almost eye-scorching green erupts from the moss. Each tree is individual, he points out; and he celebrates particularly beautiful, elderly examples.
In summer they’re about mass, but in winter reveal more of their special shapes, turning into spirals. Their capillary structure, like arteries or lungs, reaches for the light and makes them about as good an image of the life force as any artist will find.
Similarly, the ordinary vegetation at the roadside, with nettles, Queen Anne’s lace, dock leaves and wild flowers, looked at closely, provides a riot of shape and contrast. Filmed slowly under the right light, they’re as lovely as a Dürer etching.
The truth is, of course, you don’t have to go to East Yorkshire. You just have to look harder – wherever you are. Without Hockney, most of us would drive along the Bridlington roads and barely glance at these becoming-famous views. Driving east from York to “get” Hockney is like searching for haystacks in France so you can “understand” Monet, or believing that if you drink enough espresso in the Café de Flore, you’ll start thinking like Sartre – completely pointless.
Life in East Yorkshire
Yet East Yorkshire has been anything but pointless for the man himself. The road to Bridlington goes nowhere else. It’s a haven. Here, he isn’t bothered until he decides he wants to meet people. Here, he can rent a shed-factory for his studio, much bigger than anything he’d find in London, and get to it in a few minutes.
Here, his small team of shrewd and devoted helpers can pack his canvases into the back of a van, modelled on a bread-van, and help him set up with his paints and brushes fast, to catch the light and battle gusts of east-coast wind.
Here, above all, he has a complete little community, which helps him work at his prodigious rate. His house, small from the outside, big inside, has a warm, richly decorated and snug feeling. Delicious smells waft from the kitchen where his partner John Fitz-Herbert, quietly hospitable, may be at work.
Logs crackle on an open fire. Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his long-term assistant, has an awesome array of computers and printers nearby. Hockney being a prodigious and determined smoker, the scent of good Turkish tobacco hangs in every room.
Team Hockney isn’t as cut off as this might suggest. They up and off to take the waters at the old resort of Baden-Baden in Germany, or to view some pictures in Paris. He had just been back to California when I met him and was soon off to London to begin the hanging of the new show.
A fairly constant stream of friends arrives when he’s not in the middle of working; and he’s a passionate conversationalist, both in person and by email or text. At least two books of his talks have been published already.
Camerawork and films
Though he is, first and foremost, a painter and draughtsman, Hockney has also pursued a lifelong interest in camerawork. The final room in the show, planned by Hockney using a large cardboard model of the Royal Academy, features pictures of Yosemite, the natural wilderness in California.
It’s an interesting choice – for Yosemite, thanks to photographer Ansel Adams, is one of the few landscapes that’s known to us better from photographs than painting. A new challenge – deliberate, I’m sure.
Among the other pieces in the new show are edited extracts of films Hockney has been making of the Yorkshire landscape, and of groups of friends, talking and dancing. The crucial thing about these is that they’re filmed with at least nine small film cameras working together, and in some cases 18. This produces a strange effect.
Instead of a single viewpoint, like a finger, telling you where to look, there are multiple vanishing-points. They are linked up to make a single image but you’re always unsure where to look; or you have the freedom to look in different directions.
Leaves (or feet, or whatever) suddenly loom up, very close and distinct, and then swirl away again. The viewer’s eye darts around, never still.
Hockney argues that this is simply more interesting than recent Hollywood experiments in 3D. It’s also more democratic. It gives the viewer more choice. In one of the films, in which the dancer Wayne Sleep has choreographed a sequence of tap-dancing and balletic moves on a bright yellow-painted floor, Hockneyvision pays tribute to the vivacity of early Hollywood. He’s very excited by its possibilities.
Theme of the show
None of the experiments, however, is simply for its own sake. The new films are closely related to the very large scale of his new paintings. Both make the viewer crane his neck, walk about, glance all over the place. They both envelop the viewer, as if the landscape isn’t simply out there, like a flat surface or a window, but all around, creeping around your body.
And the speed of the iPad drawings has allowed Hockney to chart winter and the arrival of spring with a completeness he might not have achieved simply in oil paint. I take the real theme of his show to be time’s passing – paintings not as a representation of a moment, but as the representation of time itself, moving through sun-shadows, moving through the day, moving through the year.
Monet’s great water lily paintings are, similarly, pictures of time as much as of space; and he was also an older man when he did them (and also, Hockney would be quick to observe, a chain-smoker).
Nobody who has loved Hockney’s art would expect this to be a melancholy theme, and it isn’t. His hunger for the next thing balances his ire about the nanny-state and a land of regulations. Sitting in his car, I suddenly saw him in the driver’s rear-view mirror: he may have a 70-something’s face, but his eyes and glance are those of a cheeky, up-for-it 20-something.
A landscape show? In the Royal Academy? You’d expect to pay for your ticket, have a bit of a wallow, and come out feeling a little older, reassured and calm. If this works, you’ll come out feeling younger, and looking around you at a brighter, fresher world.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 3 January 2012.
Countryfile previews David Hockney’s Royal Academy show tonight at 7:00pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD. Andrew Marr’s film about the artist for The Culture Show is coming soon to BBC2.