David Hockney: My Yorkshire

Anyone who has browsed the most-read posts on this blog will know that I am a fan of David Hockney’s recent Yorkshire paintings, as seen in the exhibitions at Salt’s Mill last year and, currently, the Royal Academy.  But I have to admit I was a tad disappointed with David Hockney: My Yorkshire Conversations with Marco Livingstone that I have just read, courtesy of the embattled Wirral library service.

The book consists of conversations between Hockney and Marco Livingstone who has written extensively on Hockney and co-curated the current Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture.  It’s a lovely book to look at – produced in A4 landscape format with reproductions of many of the paintings from the RA exhibition on good quality paper, with several of the larger paintings printed across double A4 fold-out spreads.

Where the book disappoints, for me, is in the text.  Livingstone has chosen to transcribe verbatim several conversations he had with Hockney during the period when he was engaged in his painterly exploration of the Yorkshire Wolds, producing the huge paintings of trees and rolling landscapes through the seasons that culminated in the RA exhibition.  Unfortunately, these conversations are not, for the most part, particularly revealing.  Hockney is often rather opaque and contradictory when expressing his well-known views on, for example photography and art; and Livingstone’s prompts often fail to push Hockney to clarify his meaning.  All in all, these conversations are nowhere near as revealing or interesting as those that form the basis of Martin Gayford’s excellent A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney.

The issue of Hockney’s attitude to photography keeps recurring in his discussions with Livingstone, particularly with reference to the controversial argument he articulated in The Secret Knowledge, that advances in realism and the accuracy of representation in art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical aids such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than being primarily due to greater artistic skill. What can be confusing is that, on the one hand Hockney insists on the importance of photographic technology, whilst at the same time speaking of photography being finished and presenting a flat and restricted view of the world.  In this respect he often talks of his return to landscape painting in Yorkshire in the late 1990s, first in watercolours and then in oil paintings, as his ‘photographic detox’; yet, at the same time the recent period of work in Yorkshire has also seen a return to photography with his experiments with nine-camera arrays.

Hockney does, indeed, admit to being contradictory:

Well, I go hot and cold about things.  I’m interested in images.  I’m interested in how images were made in the past.   .. If you’re interested in images, you’re interested in the photograph as well; it’s an image.  So I’ve always been interested in photography, but I’ve always thought it was not that good a way to make pictures.  I see now it’s because the camera isn’t used right, and all my criticism has always been this: it was always the same, ‘Well, use the camera another way’.

Livingstone begins, though, by taking Hockney back to the time when he first became aware of the Wolds:

I would have been 14, I think.  1952. In the summers of 1952 and 1953, when I was at Bradford Grammar School, I worked on a farm between Wetwang and Huggate, stooking corn, as a schoolboy.  I had a bicycle, of course that was the only way you could get around here, and I cycled around, all over…

There were no paintings of the Wolds then: working ‘long, long days’, from 7 in the morning to 7:30 at night; ‘but I was aware that I was in a lovely space. Those fields are still there.  You get wonderful views.  I do react to space, I am very aware of that.’  Later, in the 1980s, his brother went to live in Flamborough, and later still his sister moved to Bridlington, followed by his mother.  When his mother was in her nineties Hockney visited her regularly in Bridlington, and began exploring the Wolds.  Then, in 1996, when Jonathan Silver, his great friend and developer of Salt’s Mill in Saltaire, was dying of cancer, Hockney for the first time stayed over in Yorkshire for six months or more and began painting the Wolds.  He was driving every day from Bridlington to Wetherby to see Jonathan, and every day he was travelling up and down Garrowby Hill.  He made some drawings, and after Jonathan died, back in Los Angeles, he did the wonderful Garrowby Hill painting.

After Hockney returned to settle in Yorkshire, the first paintings he did were watercolours.  He speaks of the discipline of working with watercolours:

Watercolour has to discipline you in the sense that there are certain methods.  For instance, you have to paint from light to dark in watercolour.  In oil painting you can do what you want.  I liked the disciple of it;  the discipline is making you do things.

Soon, though, he was painting in oils and excited about the possibilities of painting compared to photography.  He became deeply aware that we ‘see with memory’:

None of us see the same thing.  No matter what we are looking at.  When I am looking at anything now, it’s now.  Memory is also now.  When I am looking at you, I have memories of you before.  Someone who has never seen you before doesn’t, so they see something different.  That’s what I’m saying.  That’s true of everything.  The landscape, where you are.  I became rather fascinated with this, especially when you are watching seasons change; the same trees change.  Because you have the memory of last winter, but you are seeing more this winter. ‘I didn’t notice that last winter’.  The first winter, I didn’t notice how all the branches were reaching for the light, especially in December, that’s when they stand up the straightest.  You don’t notice that until you’ve been around a while or looked at them.  This was also linking it with memory.

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

Hockney tells Livingstone how he went about painting the trees near Thixendale (a sequence of three observed at each season).  The paintings were based on observation, rather than photographs:

We took some photographs, but they were all flat to me, and I am painting spatial feelings.  With those trees, the first time I decided it was a subject was August 2006.  I thought I’d do them in August, because they looked so majestic to me.  I realized they were about 200 years old each.  There were a lot of things about them. … Once you spend the winters here, you realize that every tree is different.  Every single one.  The branches, the forces in it, they are marvellously different. [...]

They are like faces , they are.  Especially in the winter.  They are not skeletons, either.  They are very, very living; a skeleton isn’t.  So you come to see that a tree, after all, is the largest plant form we know.  It’s also a kind of physical manifestation of the life force, and we can see and feel that. … Van Gogh was thrilled by that, the infinity of nature, the never-ending variety.

William Carlos Williams was on the same wavelength:

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.
-
‘Winter Trees

Three Trees near Thixendale, Summer 2007

The Thixendale Trees – all four paintings – were done entirely in the studio.  Hockney says,  ‘I wanted to use memory, you see.  I had done a lot of hard looking.  I was beginning to get a vocabulary’.  And the paintings got bigger:

What was thrilling was painting from nature on what were quite big canvases – but remember there were six.  It’s unusual to paint on that scale direct from nature.

Later, of course, they got bigger still.

In the second of the two conversations which make up the book, Hockney talks at length about the ideas that lay behind the films he has created using an array of nine video cameras attached to a moving vehicle.  The films form part of the RA exhibition and create the sensation of being in nature and travelling through it.

When I went back to the camera, I didn’t go back to using it like Vermeer, like everybody else does, but I’ve used it as a collage. That’s why I went back to photography.  My critique is more that it doesn’t showyou enough, and that’s why I was bored with it.  So I took it up again to demonstrate that if you use a camera a different way, you can open it up. … A single camera isn’t very good at showing a landscape.  But nine cameras are.

Hockney 'drawing' with images from nine cameras

Towards the end of their conversation, Hockney and Livingstone discuss the new computer technologies that the artist has been using in the last few years – iPhone, iPad and printing directly from drawings created on the computer using Photoshop.  Some of these Photoshop images are reproduced in the book, and, personally, I think they are dreadful.  Onto a background painted by Hockney on the iPad are superimposed what look like superior clip art images of trees.  Nevertheless, Hockney is enthusiastic about the advantages of using a computer for both speed and precision.  He can magnify a small area of the painting temporarily so that he can work on it in detail.

For Hockney, the iPad has taken over as his sketchbook ‘totally’:

Why go back to a sketchbook?  This is terrific. … The iPad is affecting the way I’m painting, because I’m drawing bolder and bolder on it.  My mark-making is becoming bolder and bolder.

For me, the best of the iPad images reproduced in the book is this one, Untitled 12 August 2010:

In one exchange, Marco Livingstone suggests what Hockney’s recent flurry of work might signify:

With all these investigations into forms of picture-making using new technology, you have also managed during the past two years to continue using the very old technology to which you have always been devoted, that of oil painting.  Most of these pictures, including an immense painting on 15 canvases of felled logs, Winter Timber 2009, and a series of hawthorn blossom canvases, were made  in the large warehouse studio rather than from the motif. You call that sudden period of manic flowering in the spring ‘action week’, all the more exciting for its brevity and for your knowledge that a single downpour will bring down most of that delicate blossom. Is that feeling of the brevity of life – and the cycle of birth, death and renewal – particularly poignant to you as you get older? Is it an urgent desire to embrace the vitality of life that you wish to communicate in these pictures?

To which Hockney responds:

Yes, there is a desire to embrace the vitality of life and yes, it becomes more poignant as I get older.  It does for everybody, doesn’t it?  When people are in their twenties, they think they’re immortal, don’t they? When I was 23, after a year at the Royal College of Art, I received a letter from the National Insurance saying that unless I put more stamps on, ‘This could mean four and sixpence less in the pension’. The old-age pension. Well, I was 23: ‘Fuck your fucking pension! … And I thought, Fuck off. I didn’t care. I mean, four and sixpence less, this is in 45 years’ time! What are they going on about?’  Well, you think you’re immortal when you’re 23. You think you’ll never be 63, and I certainly wouldn’t have worried about four and sixpence less. [...]

Well, you ponder your own mortality. But when I signed the lease for this huge studio two years ago, the moment I’d signed it I felt 20 years younger. I’d taken it on for five years, renewable to ten. I started planning, and I’m going to tell you, it gives you a lot of energy. I’d recommend it to anybody. I wouldn’t recommend retirement. Retirement isn’t a thing you even think about as an artist, anyway. Anybody who is spending their life doing what they like, any creative artist, continues till they fall over.

I’ll raise a glass to that!

Footnote:

A friend borrowed this book from Wallasey library which, according to the borrowing slip, is managed by Wirral Council’s Department of Regeneration.  Seems something very much of our times about that – books and reading seen only in terms of economic development.  I’m sure Hockney would snort.

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