The Royal Academy Hockney Exhibition

Martin Gayford talks to David Hockney about his new exhibition at the Royal Academy

David Hockney, seen here with the author, is still frequently associated with Los Angeles, where he lived during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. However, he was born in Bradford in 1937 and studied first at the Bradford School of Art. His earliest public success was the sale of a portrait of his father at the 1957 Yorkshire Artists Exhibition at Leeds Art Gallery. A summer spent in the Yorkshire Wolds in 1997 led to his first paintings of the landscape-first oils and then, in 2004, watercolours, since when he has painted there continuously. He exhibited his Yorkshire paintings in Los Angeles in 2007, the year that his painting Bigger Trees Near Warter, occupying a whole wall, was the sensation of the Summer Exhibition at the RA.

Here’s a surprising confession from David Hockney: ‘I’m a bit of a slob, but when people used to say “My God, David you can be very, very untidy”, I would reply “That’s because I have a higher sense of order. I can see order where you see chaos; what looks slobby to you isn’t really to me”.’
When he made this confession, we were sitting in his huge, extremely uncluttered studio in Bridlington, a vast white, Minimalist space more like a film studio than an artist’s workshop.

It’s filled with the paintings he’s been doing of the Yorkshire countryside inland from the town and the printed iPad drawings of last spring, many of which will be on display at the Royal Academy (RA) in his forthcoming exhibition, ‘A Bigger Picture’. Mr Hockney’s claim that he is untidy might seem ironic, but like a lot of remarks he makes, it starts off casually, and then suddenly turns into a striking comment on the nature of art and perception.

‘Once, I demonstrated how that sense of order works. There was a table in front of me, with all sorts of things just pushed on it. I said “I could pick up a camera and take eight photographs of things on this table that would look very, very ordered”. And I did. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, the way you compose the pictures.’So there is one definition of how art functions. An artist finds order in the chaotic jumble of reality. That is certainly one of the tasks that Mr Hockney has been performing over the past seven years that he has spent working in East Yorkshire. On the walls of the studio hang enormous oil paintings of sights that most of us would pass by with scarcely a glance-flowers and grasses, undergrowth, the sprouting leaves on the branches of a few roadside trees.

Mr Hockney has been concentrating on such everyday items-the quiet terrain of the Yorkshire Wolds, which, echoing a wine merchant that markets ‘good ordinary claret’, I think of as ‘good ordinary English landscape’. It is a forgotten corner of England, a zone of gently undulating hills and fields, seldom visited by tourists-despite the attractions of Beverley Minster and Burton Agnes Hall-where Mr Hockney can work undisturbed. He repeats a remark a friend made to him: ‘I see why you like it here. It hasn’t changed for 50 years, but it changes all the time.’ What alters is the light, the sky and the vegetation.

The hedgerows, rural roads, farm tracks and clumps of woodland in this local area have provided him with subject matter for not just a few paintings, but series after series of works in a variety of media, both time-honoured and up to the minute, such as iPhone and iPad drawings, and nine-
camera, high-definition films.

The exhibition at the RA will be made up almost entirely of work from the past four years, and is largely derived from those few favourite places inland from Bridlington, a half-forgotten resort on the Yorkshire coast. Mr Hockney’s concentration on this little patch of artistic territory brings some notable parallels to mind: Constable at East Berg-holt-making great art out of a disorderly jumble of barges, vegetation and towpaths and Monet at Giverny, to name two. Certainly, Mr Hockney is strongly aware, as artists tend to be, of his predecessors.

Monet’s is a name that has come up frequently in the conversations I have had with him over the past decade (collected in my book, A Bigger Message, reviewed Decem-ber 14/21, 2011). His experience of working out of doors in the Wolds has given him close insight into the problems and methods of the Impressionists. ‘I think I understand what Monet’s technique must have been, for example, when he was painting clouds. That isn’t easy. Once you start looking at them, you find they are mostly moving quite quickly. Monet must have had a method of notating tone and colours, just putting in bits, so that back in the studio, he could finish the picture. His skies are terrific. I’m now doing just that with my iPad.’

The difficulties of working outdoors are caused by the mutability of the natural world as opposed to the studio, where light and temperature can be controlled. In the landscape, the subject itself is a moving target the clouds pass over, the light is constantly fluctuating. And the artist is exposed to the elements. Mr Hockney has become a connoisseur of light and weather conditions. His accounts of spring, autumn and winter snow are both precise and lyrical.

The snow in December 2010, for example, filled him with enthusiasm. ‘We were ready at 8.30am, the sunrise was about 8am. Clouds would come over from time to time, then the sun would come out again and it would hit the tops of trees, making them glow white and pink. The snow was about 4in deep on each branch. It was fantastic-we couldn’t have asked for a better light. You could see each little twig on the ground so clearly, as if it was a black line on something white.’

But however beautiful they may be, painting or drawing in such conditions is testing from the practical point of view. ‘If your hands and feet get cold, you are not going to paint well; you need to be reasonably comfortable. If it’s exceptionally cold, certain things happen that are just natural;
you will make decisions faster and work faster.’ Consequently, Impressionist snow-scapes tend to be loosely painted.

The changing light also imposes deadlines. Last summer, Mr Hockney’s guests were told that they might be awakened at 5.30am, the idea being to experience the very early morning light in the Wolds. The best times of the day for painters, he believes, are when the sun is low, either at sunrise or sunset-and particularly, on the east coast, the former. ‘Here, if we have a very grey day, it makes everything flatter, but on a summer morning when we’re up at 6am, when the sun is still rather low, you get marvellous dark shadows in the trees. You see the volume very clearly.’ He suggests that the landscape artists of the past-Claude, Van Eyck, Turner, Constable, the Impressionists learnt the same lesson: ‘I look at Rem-brandt’s landscape drawings, and see the speed that they were done at, in the early mornings usually, with a little bit of shadow.’

Mr Hockney’s search for ways to represent this ever-changing scene with even greater clarity led him-without his ceasing to produce paintings and drawings at a prolific rate to pioneer a novel medium. In the past year, he has been making films, using nine separate high-definition cameras, mounted on a 4×4, each pointing in a slightly different direction. The result is a sumptuously detailed, moving Cubist collage-and a surprising departure for an artist who has used photography in the past, but has expressed scepticism about video art. He has, however, always been a restless experimenter with new techniques. In the past, he made prints using the then novel technology of colour photocopiers and fax machines. In the past 18 months, the iPad, using an App called Brushes, has been his drawing medium of choice.

‘I’m never been against new things just because they are new,’ he says. ‘I try them out and see whether they’re good tools for me. The nine cameras are. The fax machine was in the 1980s, the iPad is today. But editing the films is not like anything I’ve done before-you have to think about time in a way you don’t in painting.’ It’s a challenge that Mr Hockney has enjoyed, following up the nine-camera landscapes with silent nine-camera movies made in the studio with a cast of friends and assistants, and a discernible influence from Jacques Tati and Charlie Chaplin (but shot in brilliant, saturated Hockney colours)-he is contemplating a nine-camera custard-pie fight.

Mr Hockney is interested in pictures of all kinds-film, photography, even television (although he has a low opinion of that). But he remains a strong proponent of painting and drawing. ‘I saw that wonderful owl of Picasso’s recently at the Louisiana Museum outside Copenhagen. Today, I suppose, they’d just stuff the owl and put it in a case. But Picasso’s owl is an account of a human being looking at an owl, which is a lot more interesting than a stuffed owl, I think, a lot more interesting.’

And good artists, he believes, get better with passing time. ‘I used to say to people who dis-missed late Picasso that they ought to look harder. If you do, I think you’ll find something interesting. Artists as great as that don’t repeat themselves in old age. One of the great thoughts of the Chinese is that painting is an old man’s art. I told that to Lucian [Freud, an old friend to whom Mr Hockney sat for a portrait in 2003]. I said “you’ll like this”.’

Mr Hockney himself is now 74, but it’s impossible to think of someone so dynamic and voraciously curious about art and the world around him as old. ‘You need a sense of purpose,’ he muses. ‘You need a big job to do, like Monet and Picasso. Monet didn’t begin the Nympheas until he was in his seventies. Working gives me so much energy, more than I had 10 years ago.’  That’s good advice, and so too is the message with which he sometimes ends his emails: ‘Love life. Live in the now.’

First published by Country Life