David Hockney: “Photography has been making the world a bit too dull”

David Hockney: "Photography has been making the world a bit too dull"

The following is an edited transcription of the conversation I had with David Hockney while recording the Radio 4 Documentary “Back in LA”

Martin Gayford There are 82 portraits (and one still life) in your new exhibition at the Royal Academy [which runs from 2 July to 2 October]. You get the sense that it’s one work, as it’s a consistent set-up with most of the sitters on the same chair. It’s one of the longest cycles of portraits that I can think of in the history of art. Continue reading “David Hockney: “Photography has been making the world a bit too dull””

De Chirico: The long way down

Writing in 1960, at the age of 72, Giorgio de Chirico contemplated his long career in art with complete satisfaction. Looking back he saw only, “consistent progress, a regular and persistent march towards those summits of mastery which were achieved by a few consummate artists of the past”.

To achieve this – indeed, even to comprehend it – de Chirico noted it was necessary, over and above his own “exceptional intelligence as far as true painting is concerned”, also to possess his “mighty personality”, his courage, not to mention his “ardent desire for truth”.

A new exhibition at the Estorick Collection, North London, will explore one aspect of his late works: the statuettes which he made in his 60s and 70s, based on figures in his earlier paintings. However, not everybody agreed with de Chirico’s ecstatic assessment of his own accomplishments.

In the early Thirties, the painter Max Ernst declared his perplexity at the manner in which, as he saw it, de Chirico’s art had declined in “a very mysterious way”. Some people tried to explain this on the basis of old age – de Chirico was around 40 at the time – or physical disability, but Ernst was not persuaded by either explanation.

Ernst described a visit he had paid to de Chirico’s studio, in company with Giacometti and the poet André Breton, leader of the Surrealists. De Chirico showed this Surrealist deputation a series of pictures of Venice, “which had been done in the lowest post-card style”. After looking at a number of these, Breton suddenly exploded, and insulted de Chirico “most horribly”.

The latter didn’t seem to mind at all, remarking that if Breton didn’t like the paintings of Venice, he had some others of Naples that he could show him. Ernst suspected, surely correctly, that de Chirico took pleasure in driving Breton – a despotic character dubbed the “Surrealist pope” – into paroxysms of fury.

This was the enigma of Giorgio de Chirico, as the Surrealists, and – on the whole – posterity have seen it: why did one of the most original artists of the 20th century abandon his early manner, and spend over half a century producing fuzzy, academic pictures, copies of old masters and endless tired repetitions of the masterpieces of his early phase, sometimes deliberately misdated? Ernst’s own answer was that he was practising a form of deliberate artistic self-destruction, undertaken out of despair at the human condition, “a very slow self suicide which included not only his own life, but his work too”.

If so, it must be said that de Chirico disguised it very well, apparently sailing on until the age of 90 in the belief that everybody who disagreed with him was wrong – particularly the Surrealists, whom he described as “that group of degenerates, hooligans, spoilt brats, loafers, onanists and wastrels”.

He also denounced Cézanne, modern art, and attacked the Italian Fascists on the unexpected grounds that they were “modernists enamoured of Paris”. He signed one self portrait, ”Pictor Optimus”: the best painter. If this was all an ironic put-on, as some revisionist art historians have claimed, it was extremely well sustained.

By nature and upbringing, de Chirico (1888-1978), was doubly an outsider. From the point of view of Parisian avant-garde, which he encountered in the years before the First World War, de Chirico did not fit in because he was wealthy and aristocratic. He was also, effectively, born in exile: of an Italian family but in Volos, Greece, where his father Evaristo de Chirico was working as an engineer building the railway lines of Thessaly. (He also had shares in the company.) Giorgio and his younger brother Andrea, who later became an artist under the pseudonym of Alberto Savinio, were brought up in Greece.

De Chirico studied art in Athens, Florence and Munich. By 1910 at the age of 22, he had already absorbed the late Romantic style of Arnold Böcklin, with its air mysterious, dreamlike melancholy. At this point, he claimed to have had an epiphany while sitting in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence, one autumn afternoon.

He was convalescing, he recalled, from a long “intestinal illness”. As he looked at the square and the autumnal sun on the statue of Dante, he felt that the whole world, including the marble of the square, seemed “to be convalescing”. It also felt strange, as if he “was looking at these things for the first time”.

Like most moments of sudden revelation, this was one that de Chirico had been primed to experience, not only by paintings such as Böcklin’s, but also by reading the German philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who argued that man was an outsider in a godless world of alien and senseless things. He had also begun to encounter the Parisian avant-garde, after moving to the French capital in February, 1910.

The sensation of all-pervading strangeness he experienced in Piazza Santa Croce, de Chirico termed “inexplicable”, and – a favourite word – an enigma. It was the foundation of the paintings he began to exhibit at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1912. These typically feature deserted classical squares, with Renaissance arcades, pervaded by a sense of eerie waiting. These were often the setting for juxtapositions of incongruous objects: a headless marble statue of a nude women and a pile of bananas, for example.

Such pictures struck the youthful Surrealists with the force of revelation. When, in the early Twenties, René Magritte first saw de Chirico’s Song of Love from 1914, featuring a marble head of Apollo flanked by a rubber glove, he felt tears come into his eyes.

Effectively, de Chirico had invented Surrealist painting a decade before Surrealism itself was officially founded. Magritte spent the rest of his life producing pictures of just such strange combinations of objects as he had seen in the Song of Love. It is not surprising that, for a while, the Surrealists regarded de Chirico as a heroic forerunner.

There was almost literally a honeymoon in 1923, when Ernst, the poet Paul Eluard and his then wife Gala (later married to Salvador Dali) visited him in Rome. In a typical Surrealist spirit, they promptly invited him to join them in what the tabloids would call a four-in-a-bed romp. De Chirico agreed, though he later claimed not to have been keen on the idea. He also painted Eluard and Gala, dedicating the portrait to “My friends forever and wherever”.

These cordial relations did not last. In 1919, de Chirico had had another epiphany, this time in the Borghese Gallery, Rome: while looking at a Titian he “saw tongues of fire appear” and had “a revelation of what great painting was”. In the magazine Valori Plastici, he proclaimed “Pictor classicus sum”: I am a classical painter.

he more the Surrealists saw of the work he did in this new spirit, the more aghast they became. He was given marks producing a bizarre work of fiction entitled Hebdomeros in 1929 (hailed by the writer Louis Aragon as “interminably beautiful”), but in the long run he was cast out as an apostate.

On the whole, they were right. De Chirico’s work of the Twenties retained some quality, but overall his long career shows a loss of that early, poetic inspiration. Perhaps there is nothing enigmatic about this after all. Many major artists have a phase of brilliance, followed by a decline. The ones who sustain an epic career – the Picassos and Matisses – are the exception.

After a decade of great achievement, de Chirico started to lose it. But of course he could not admit that, even to himself.

Originally published in the Daily Telegraph

Naked Keeler’s Painting on Show, 50 Years After Profumo: Review

There is something extremely British about marking the beginning of an era with a political sex scandal.

These are of course a national specialty, going back at least to the late Georgian days of the Prince Regent, with his mistress in Brighton and epically unfaithful royal bride.

There was something unusual about the Profumo affair, which made headlines half a century ago. No other such brouhaha has ever been seen as a watershed: the beginning of the end of political deference.

True, the Brits had little enough of that in the 18th and 19th centuries, so it must have been a short-lived phenomenon. Still, the argument runs, when John Profumo, the U.K.’s secretary of state for war, stood up in the House of Commons and lied about his relationship with the model Christine Keeler, something began to change.

Before, the public had tended automatically to believe politicians, afterward not so much.

The other thing that began then, at least according to historical myth, was sex. The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote that “sexual Intercourse began in 1963.”

Admittedly, his two pivotal items were the end of the ban on publishing D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” because of its alleged obscenity, and the Beatles’ first LP.

Larkin might just as well have added the great scandal of the year. The Beatles had much more cultural importance, the Chatterley verdict transformed what might be described in literature. Of the three, the Profumo case had by far the most drama and — importantly — visual impact.

Cold War

This imbroglio had everything: a cabinet minister, a reputed Russian spy who also had an affair with Keeler (giving a John Le Carre touch to the tale), a fashionable doctor and Keeler herself: a beautiful young woman with connections to seedy gangland criminals. It sounds like the cast of a Cold War era film (and indeed has been the basis for several movies and plays).

In addition, the murky business threw up one enormously memorable image: Lewis Morley’s celebrated shot of Christine Keeler, naked, sitting astride a modernist chair.

This photograph, on show in a display about the Profumo affair at the National Portrait Gallery, sums up 1960s London: sensuous, enigmatic, and stylishly contemporary. In a way, the chair was just as important as the nude.

It was, it turns out, not quite a design classic, but a commercial “knock off” of a design by the celebrated Danish architect, Arne Jacobsen. Genuine or not, it was the chair that made the photograph so cool.

Immortal Click

The allure of the image, in turn, makes the whole archaic shenanigans memorable. What we cannot visualize, we cannot easily bring to mind. This is one reason why Henry VIII, for example, is such a famous king: he was rendered unforgettable by Holbein’s pictures. Similarly, Keeler was made immortal by the click of Lewis Morley’s shutter.

There was one other artistic consequence of the photograph. It became the centerpiece of a lost painting by a beautiful, doomed artist named Pauline Boty.

A member of the same generation of artists at the Royal College of Art as David Hockney and Allen Jones, Boty (1938 – 1966) was enormously talented and beautiful (she was known as the “Wimbledon Bardot”). She was 28 years old when she died of cancer.

Her Profumo painting, “Scandal ’63” has not been seen since then. It was however recorded together with the artist herself in photographs by Michael Ward. These, which are included in the display at the National Portrait Gallery, are in their way as evocative of 1960s London as the Profumo affair itself, and more poignant.

First published on Bloomberg Businessweek

Animated Hockney Ipad drawing here now!















This drawing – reproduced on page 199 of A Bigger Message:Conversations with David Hockney, was drawn by David Hockney on his ipad. To see the iPad drawing illustrated on page 199 re-draw itself click here, with the picture being built up stroke by stroke – showing exactly the process by which Hockney produced it. 

A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney

The record of a decade of conversations with the painter David Hockney, this book reveals the fruits of his lifelong meditations on the problems and paradoxes of representing a three dimensional world on a flat surface, told with a characteristic passion and humour. It explores, in Hockney’s own words, how drawing makes one ‘see things clearer, and clearer and clearer still’.


Lucian Freud Tribute for The Lady

One evening during 2004, while I was posing for a painting that was eventually entitled, `Man with a Blue Scarf`. Lucian Freud got on to the subject of a fellow artist, but not one with whom one would normally link him: the German exponent performance and installation Joseph Beuys. They had not, as it turned out, got on at all well, and one of the reasons for this lack of sympathy was romantic.

One evening during 2004, while I was posing for a painting that was eventually entitled, `Man with a Blue Scarf`. Lucian Freud got on to the subject of a fellow artist, but not one with whom one would normally link him: the German exponent performance and installation Joseph Beuys. They had not, as it turned out, got on at all well, and one of the reasons for this lack of sympathy was romantic.

Or rather, Lucian was offended by Beuys’s lack of chivalry. “He would talk about the women in his life in the dreary way that men talk in pubs, “Isn’t it a shame that we can’t get on without them?” This immediately brought out the feminist in me. I felt, “How dare you speak about my gender in that way!”

Now, the idea of Lucian Freud as a feminist might strike some readers as surprising. But part of the charm of his company was that his remarks, opinions and observations were so often unexpected, even startling. I remember a anecdote which began, “My great hero, who is of course..”, at which point I ran through my mind a series of possible candidates for that position, such as Matisse, Titian, Chardin and Courbet. Then he carried on and named his idol. It turned out to be Lester Piggott. This was perfectly consistent with another reminiscence, that his second choice of career, if he had not been able to become a painter, would have been that of jockey.

Lucian was amused and flattered to read of himself in newspapers as “the world’s greatest lover”, noting that his name was linked with that of many young women, “some of whom I know much better than others”. But in his own mind at least, he was more a romantic victim than a Don Juan. This came out in his account of his adulation of nurses:

“I am very strongly affected by them. In fact so much so that when I go to visit people in hospital, I can scarcely concentrate on them. I ought to wear blinkers. It started, I think, when I was in hospital for a lengthy period during the war. Nurses would come and tuck me into bed firmly and all that sort of thing. I thought that was marvellous. I think that was the origin of my nurse worship.”

He loved the way they talked, giving as an example, in a cockney accent, the following scrap of remembered conversation. “That bastard down the ward didn’t die until 4 o’clock in the morning. Kept me up all night”.

It is a statement of the blindingly obvious to say that Lucian was in every way an artist, and that that affected his attitude to everything he encountered. But it is worth emphasising how thoroughly his concern for nuances and subtle aspects of people and things that might strike others as mere details. This applied to his response to food, places and people as it did to colours, forms and textures.

His sensitivity was, naturally in the first place visual, but might be adjusted in the light of other impressions. Once, I invited him to come to a concert given by a jazz singer. Afterwards, he confessed that he had initially thought she could be any good, “wearing a trouser suit like that”, but that in fact she had sung wonderfully.

In a way he wasn’t fussy. “I’m not after what people are always advertising for, someone like-minded I’d be quite happy with a savage.” But in other ways he was. Lucian hated banality and one remark could be enough to make him start feel as he put it, “demoralised”. Of one person he was sees in the 1990s, he reported, “She said that basically everyone is nice, and you just have to understand them, which made me feel rather tired”.

Lucian disliked cosmetics, which was of a piece with his attitude to cooking – he liked everything au naturel: his spinach without oil or butter, his game wild and not farmed, nothing that had been frozen.  Of someone with whom he had “a sort of date”, he complained that she was wearing so much make up, “I felt I couldn’t really see who I was talking to”.

On the other hand, he would put up with a great deal, if he loved or liked someone. Even traits that many would find tiresome, he found powerful attractive if displayed by someone he loved, as in this fond recollection of the chaotic incompetence of his second wife, Caroline Blackwood.

”I once painted a miniature for my Caroline. It was of a bird in a cage to go inside a locket. She lost it almost immediately – left it on a train – as she almost always lost everything. She would lose her suitcases if she went travelling. Caroline always lit a cigarette with the match held upwards, so it would go out very quickly and she would take ten matches to light one. She smoked all the time so that her nostrils were blackened like the entrances to a tunnel, which was absolutely marvellous. She even smoked in her sleep”.

As for his feminism, I believed in it. Even though – as he was ready to admit, his behaviour with women had been far from faultless – his sympathy and laser-like interest were entirely genuine. That was one reason why he held such charm for them.

Lady Gaga’s Fleshy Outfit Echoes Artistic Lobsters, Maggots

Vegetarians and vegans are outraged, I read, over Lady Gaga’s meat dress.

Journalists scent a good story, though not the odor of decaying beef (reports claim it smelled good). We in the art world, meanwhile, have a different problem to ponder: Was this an example of pastiche, conscious revival or accidental imitation?

The most obvious point of reference, art historically, is “Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic” (1987) by the Czech-Canadian artist Jana Sterbak, consisting of 50 pounds of well tailored and salted steak. In photographs, it resembled a loudly patterned pink chintz frock.

This caused a scandal similar to the current Gaga brouhaha when displayed at the National Gallery, Ottawa, in 1991. In a highly original form of protest, people who disapproved of the work sent food scraps to the museum. There is, however, a wider and more intriguing lesson here: Rock and pop music have a lot to do with performance art.

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Artist in View: Frank Auerbach

An exhibition of Frank Auerbach’s 1950s paintings of London building sites opens at the Courtauld Gallery this month. Martin Gayford visits the artist in his north London studio to talk about his long engagement with paint. Portraits by David Dawson.

Frank Auerbach definitely does not believe, as Walter Pater famously did, that all art aspires to the condition of music. ‘I very definitely take issue with that.’ We are talking in his studio, a brick-built workshop hidden in an alley in Camden Town, north London, where he has been working unremittingly, day after day, year after year, since 1954: one of the great marathon efforts of art history (Figs 1 and 5). ‘Visual art’, Auerbach insists as soon as I bring up the subject of Pater and music, ‘is made with resistant matter and comes up against awkward rebarbative obstacles. Art aspires towards the condition of something altogether more material than music. It has grit in it.’

Of few pictures is that more true than those Auerbach himself painted half a century and more ago of post-war London. These works – which are gathered together for the first time this month in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, London – are images of excavation and reconstruction, scaffolding, drilling equipment and piles of earth. Their titles refer to familiar places: the Shell Building (Fig. 3), the Empire Cinema (Fig. 4). But what they show is flux, half-way between ruin and resurrection. They seem to be painted, if not with grit, then with thick, glutinous London clay and heavy riverside shale. These are paintings that don’t seem to be so much of the city as to contain its physical substance. A photograph from 1964 of Auerbach in his studio (Fig. 2) shows him spattered in paint as a construction worker might be in cement, handsome and powerfully built, his head resting on his arm in the pose of a thoughtful athlete by Michelangelo.

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