By Jim Greenhalf
This month London’s Royal Academy stages its second huge exhibition of paintings by Bradford-born artist David Hockney in the last four years. The first in 2012, called A Bigger Picture, filled all 12 rooms of the Academy and attracted 600,000 paying visitors before going on tour.
The forthcoming show features portraits that Hockney has been working on in his Los Angeles studio for the past couple of years. Hockney, 80 on July 9 next year, must have inherited his Protestant work ethic from his late parents Kenneth and Laura Hockney.
Although somewhat glamorised with the reputation of being a gay man about town from his time as a student in the late 1950s at the Royal College of Art, Hockney has never rested on his laurels. Throughout his working life as an artist he always applied himself to whatever task he had in hand with single-minded diligence.
One of the features of Jack Hazan’s unusual documentary biopic, A Bigger Splash, is Hockney’s obsessive re-working of a huge picture showing a young man peering over the edge of swimming pool while a naked man swims towards him.
Don’t imagine that the Royal Academy show, which will include more than 82 paintings, is somehow Hockney’s last word before he slides off the canvas into retirement or senility. In May next year Tate Britain is staging a huge retrospective of Hockney’s work.
It will have to be huge because since 1962, when Hockney was awarded the Royal College’s Gold medal for painting, he has covered a lot of ground in portraiture, lithography, painting, set designs for operas, photography, printing, landscape painting, electronic drawing and even films. He has also written two volumes of autobiography and many other books covering various aspects of his work as well as his ideas about photography and painting.
When he reached the age of 70 (I was one of the 70 invited guests to his party at Sledmere House, near Bridlington), it was Hockney’s humour to refer wryly to a Chinese saying: painting is an old man’s art. On that Sunday he looked ten years younger than his age and joined his brother Paul (a former Lord Mayor of Bradford) and sister Margaret in singing a couple of songs that their father used to sing to them.
Shortly before his 75th birthday, when Hockney was still working and smoking in his house in Bridlington, he told me: “I don’t trust doctors much anymore, Monet was a chain-smoker, you never see a picture of the old Monet without a fag in his mouth. He began the water lily paintings in his 70s, they took ten years. He died at 86, probably with a fag in his mouth.
“What he had was a terrific sense of purpose, something big to do, not measurable in medical terms at all, but which I believe to be a powerful force, and you don’t have to have the genius of Monet to have it, but no doctor will tell you this. I get on with my work, I’ve a lot to do. I’m continuing with the experiment.”
Painter David Oxtoby says in Randall Wright’s 2014 evocative documentary movie, Hockney, that in spite of all the years he has lived in Los Angeles, Hockney remains a Bradford lad who is “still searching”.
For what? Certainly not wealth because art has made Hockney a multi-millionaire with homes and studios in East Yorkshire, London and Los Angeles. In each of those places he employs assistants and helpers. He has cars on hand and he buys only the best art materials.
With no need to worry about where his next joint of meat is coming from Hockney can afford to devote himself to painting or drawing what he wants, wherever he wants and when he wants. He is self-motivated to a high degree. Most of his work since the 1970s reflects his central philosophy that classical Renaissance one-point perspective, which places the vanishing point away from the viewer, is a distortion of reality.
In August, 1985, during a 70-minute interview with me for the Telegraph & Argus, Hockney explained this by referring to Cubism, the style of painting people and objects associated with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque from about 1907.
Cubism, Hockney said, was not about the structure of objects – landscapes, still lifes, portraits – but how objects are seen. The eye is not static, a camera on a tripod. The eye moves, the brain remembers what it has seen. Reality is not an unchanging still life: it is many-faceted, moving through time. And time, as Albert Einstein revealed in 1905, moves at different speeds relative to where you happen to be.
“It is a participatory world,” Hockney said. Twenty-one years later, in his South Kensington studio in London, he showed me examples of what he meant by this.
Big canvases of landscapes Hockney had painted out in the countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds, south of Bridlington which showed particular places at different times of the year, a pictorial version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, the difference being that you could see the same place in winter, spring, summer and autumn.
When I observed that there were no people in any of these magnificent pictures, Hockney looked round and said: “There is. It’s you.” By which he meant the viewer, whoever that happened to be.
In 2006, three years into the Iraq War, painting bucolic pictures of the English countryside rather than the horrors of war, may have struck some people as eccentric. But Hockney has never been topical in the sense of painting the news.
In his second volume of autobiography, That’s the Way I see It (1993), he takes up this point of view:-
“I know people say I avoid it (human suffering) in my painting, the subjects I choose. To a certain extent this might be true, but I’m not sure. If I described my own, as it were, suffering, it would be about loneliness. There are times when one feels intensely lonely – this is a form of suffering. But I stop myself because I think, as my mother would say, there’s always somebody worse off.”
Hockney is profoundly deaf, as was the composer Beethoven. The last time I saw him in September 2011 he said he hadn’t seriously listened to music for years and, although perfectly able to communicate with others, he admitted to shying away from crowded rooms whenever possible.
Brought up with three brothers and a sister in back-to-back terraced houses in north east Bradford during the end years of the Depression in the late 1930s, David Hockney never used his humble circumstances as an excuse for failing or not trying. His parents did not raise a victim.
“I was never timid, no,” he told me in 2000, prior to being made Freeman of the City of Bradford. “London was as far away as New York to Bradford people in 1937.”
Yet he made a name for himself in both cities before the age of 30. Moreover he had done so manifestly as a homosexual, at a time when same-sex relationships were illegal. With his peroxide blond hair, big black-framed glasses and trendy clothes, Hockney was being himself at a time when it was safer to pretend. John Lennon kept quiet about the fact that he was married lest it spoil his image as a Beatle during the early Sixties.
“It’s not possible to give me much of a hard time. I just ignore it,” Hockney said. “I am not the type who can be given a hard time because I can always go off on my own. If you are willing to be alone, it’s hard to be given a hard time because you’ve got an inner life.”
His resolve to be successful as an artist may have set during the two years in the late 1950s when instead of compulsory National Service Hockney worked in Bradford hospitals, scrubbing floors in St Luke’s and laying out the dead.
“Before you did it you had a fear; but not once you had done one or two. It’s amazing what you get used to and most of them were older than me. The opposite of the fear of death is the love of life. That’s my argument against all the anti-smokers. They are basing everything on the fear of death. The logic of that was Hitler: he was non-smoking, tee-total and vegetarian,” he added.
Judging by what’s been happening in parts of the Middle East, Africa and on the Indian Sub-Continent, some people do indeed love death more than they love life.
If you don’t fancy going to the Royal Academy to see Hockney’s new pictures, there are plenty of others closer to home that you can inspect free of charge. Salts Mill hosts one of the biggest collection of Hockney images you can see all year round.
Among the most recent additions are the iPad landscapes of East Yorkshire called The Arrival of Spring, located on the third floor of the mill. These pictures, drawn between January 1 and May 31, 2011, show the changes seasons in particular places. Lanes that are leafy in summer are bare in winter, but full of colour.
“Winter is not black and white; when the snow is there it can be, but it doesn’t stay long. Even on dull days there is a lot of colour if you really look,” Hockney said.
The pictures are certainly worth a look. They amount to a love letter to the northern English landscape which Hockney left behind when he returned to California a year or two ago.
His birthday next year will be marked with exhibitions of his phenomenal output in galleries all over the world, according to his friend and Salts Mill director Robin Silver.
“I don’t think he’s bothered that much about being 80,” he added. The art world will be. So too will his home town, hopefully. Laura Hockney lived until the age of 99. If she passed on her longevity gene to her son he could be filling the world’s galleries with pictures for another two decades.
*The new edition of Jim Greenhalf’s book, Salt & Silver: A Story of Hope, is available at Salts Mill.