Almost 40 years ago, David Hockney made a marvellous etching of himself and Pablo Picasso. The two of them are sitting at a table in front of a window, the aged Spanish artist dressed in a stripy sailor’s shirt and examining, perhaps working on, a sheet of paper in front of him. His young British admirer is seated opposite, wearing only a pair of spectacles.
It is a poignant image of a close artistic relationship that could not exist in reality. Picasso died in 1972. The little etching, dated 1973-4, was created in his memory. Later, Hockney confessed, “I would have loved to have met him, even once. It would have been something to remember, a great thrill.” He called the print Artist and Model, and depicted himself in the latter role, as naked sitter.
In a sense, however, over time the roles have been reversed. For Hockney, Picasso has come to be one of the greatest models of what an artist can be, what painting can achieve, and how an artistic career might be conducted in the modern world. Of course, Hockney is not alone in his reverence – as will be demonstrated by a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain, Picasso and Modern British Art.
The show will deal with the influence the modernist master had on numerous other painters and sculptors, including Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland. Indeed, you might say the 20th-century British artists who weren’t affected by Picasso were the exceptions. But Hockney’s meditations on this great predecessor have been unusually long and deep.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Picasso’s work is the way that it was documented. Every single painting was photographed, dated by the day it was done, and included in a catalogue raissonnée published by the Parisian writer and editor, Christian Zervos. Eventually there were 33 volumes. Hockney, who has described them as “a gigantic diary, the most extraordinary diary ever made”, has them all.
“If he did three things on one day,” he tells me, “they’re number one, two, three, so you know what he did in the morning and in the afternoon. It’s fantastic. I’ve sat down and looked through the whole thing from beginning to end three times. That takes some doing, but it’s a fantastic experience. It doesn’t bore you.”
This is one way in which Hockney has maintained a close, posthumous relationship with Picasso. Early on, the Spaniard’s abrupt changes of style had licensed Hockney to do the same. One of the aspects of both artists that confuses commentators is their stylistic shape-shifting. Lesser artists, Hockney wrote in 1976, can get trapped in a way of working. Picasso didn’t let that happen, he had the courage to say, “I’ll quit this!”
“When you stop doing something it doesn’t mean you are rejecting the previous work,” says Hockney. “That’s the mistake; it’s not rejecting it, it’s saying, ‘I have exploited it enough now and I wish to take a look at another corner.’” That was a lesson for Hockney in his thirties, and one he is still drawing on. The spectacular landscapes in his current Royal Academy exhibition are the latest of such changes of tack – and, I believe, a stunningly rich one.
“Picasso is still influencing me. Of course, I haven’t got that kind of energy, or skill,” Hockney told me in 2010 in the course of one of the discussions that went into my book, A Bigger Message, a compilation of conversations I had with the artist. Now 74, Hockney sees new lessons in the life and work of his hero.
“When Picasso was 70 he had another 23 years of painting and smoking ahead of him,” he says. “People used to say that his late work was repetitious and so on. But I don’t think that really good artists spend their old age repeating themselves.
“A lot of his late pictures are about being an old man. I remember a wonderful one in which his wife is holding up an old man, and his balls are on the floor. His legs are weak. It is a bit like the mother teaching the child to walk. Here it is now again in old age, somebody needing help.”
Four decades ago in the early Seventies, Picasso was already on Hockney’s mind. The Yorkshireman was living in Paris at the time, as he described in his book, That’s the Way I See it, escaping from the pressures of art stardom in London and trying to find a fresh way forward in his work. In Paris, he recalls, “there was constantly the thought of Picasso. Picasso, to me, was still a massive force and I did not know how to deal with it. Like other people at the time, I too believed that what he had done was so idiosyncratic nobody else could use it. I do not believe that now, but I did then.”
In 1973, shortly after Picasso’s death, Hockney went to the South of France to see an exhibition of the artist’s late work at the Palais des Papes in Avignon. These paintings of Picasso’s eighties and early nineties were then more or less universally regarded as showing a sad decline. This attitude was a good example of how the art world sometimes turns, like a shoal of fish, with perfect co-ordination in the wrong direction.
Hockney was staying with Douglas Cooper, an erstwhile friend of Picasso’s and owner of a magnificent collection of his earlier work. “When we got to Avignon Douglas was telling me how bad the pictures were all the time,” recalls Hockney. “Most people then thought they were just an old man’s dodderings. Eventually I said, ‘Do you mind if I just look at them quietly myself for a bit?’ Which I did, then I said to him, ‘I can see that there’s something here which you might not bother with – or understand.’”
It took the rest of the world almost a decade to appreciate what Hockney had spotted, with an artist’s eye. In 1981 some very late Picassos were included in a landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, A New Spirit in Painting, organised by a trio of rising stars among curators, Norman Rosenthal, Nicholas Serota and Christos Joachimides. And suddenly, Picasso appeared – almost 10 years after his death – as a dynamic contemporary, in company with living painters such as Gerhard Richter, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon and Hockney himself.
In 1988, the Tate staged an exhibition of late Picasso, and many people began to talk about this work as not an unfortunate decline but one of the artist’s greatest periods. Hockney looked at it long and hard.
“I sat in the exhibition a lot with [the late critic] David Sylvester. From the middle of the room you could see everything in the pictures, every brush-mark, in the last 10 years he never seemed to cover them up. Each mark was put in exactly the right place.
“It was a discovery of a kind of wonderful cubism of the brush. No other kind of painting gets near it for me. He needed all the previous painting to reach that point. By then he could draw in any way he wanted, so if he thought he was getting stuck he would just draw another way. If people didn’t look at it, what would Picasso care?”
The example of Picasso’s cubism fired a good deal of Hockney’s own work of the Eighties, a period during which he re-examined cubism in various ways, through paintings – such as his portrait of Christopher Isherwood, Christopher Without his Glasses on (1984), included in the Tate Britain show – and also the Polaroid and photo-collages he made at that time.
The point of these was to look at the world not from a single point of view, as renaissance perspective or a camera-lens does, but from multiple vantage points as, Hockney argues, a human being moving through a three-dimensional world actually does.
“I think cubism has not fully been developed,” Hockney says. “It is treated like a style, pigeonholed and that’s it. But in fact, Picasso used it throughout his life, didn’t he? Juan Gris said cubism wasn’t a style; it was a way of life.
“Cubism was an attack on the perspective that had been known and used for 500 years. It was the first big, big change. It confused people: they said, ‘Things don’t look like that!’ Actually cubism was concerned to claim: yes they do in a way.
“In Picasso’s pictures you can see the front and back of a person simultaneously. That means you’ve walked round them. It’s a sort of memory picture; we make pictures like that in our heads.”
Hockney continues to maintain Picasso in his own head as a mental reference point. He feels that he – and Van Gogh, another member of his personal pantheon – would have delighted in the possibilities of drawing on an iPad, as Hockney has himself. And musing on Picasso, perhaps, has led him to some of the transformations of scale he has wrought with his tablet-computer drawings.
“Do you know those marvellous Picasso pictures from the Twenties of women running on the beach?” Hockney asked me once. “In fact they are no bigger than an iPad, but if you saw them in reproduction they could be gigantic. The figures seem monumental.”
A year later he was printing out his own iPad drawings of the mountain landscape of Yosemite on an epic scale. And, as can be seen at The Royal Academy, they do indeed look monumental.
First published by The Daily Telegraph.