I’ve been reading A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney in advance of going to see Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition next week. The book, which is lavishly illustrated consists of conversations between Hockney and his art historian friend Martin Gayford, and it is one of the best books on art that I have read.
Martin Gayford has compiled a record of a decade’s worth of conversations with Hockney, thoughts and ideas that have been exchanged ‘by a variety of media old and and new: telephone, email, text, sitting face to face talking in studios, drawing rooms, kitchens and cars’. So, like the washes that make up a watercolour, the text is an accumulation of layers, arranged by Gayford but the thoughts being entirely Hockney’s.
The conversations, elegantly and plainly written by Gayford, range widely over Hockney’s career and obsessions, as well as broader questions of art and representation. Gayford prompts Hockney to talk about his move from California to Bridlington, the preparations for the exhibition at the Royal Academy, his views on the differences between painting and photography, the importance of drawing, and his ongoing love affair with the new technology of the iPhone and iPad.
During encounters at Hockney’s Bridlington studio and out at favourite locations in the Yorkshire Wolds, Hockney explains how, for the last decade, he has been drawn to painting the landscapes, trees and hedgerows of this rarely visited part of the country:
I’ve always loved this part of the world, and I’ve known it for a long time. In my early teenage years I worked on a farm here … it was a place where you could get a job in the holidays. So I came and stooked corn in the early 1950s. I cycled around, and I discovered it was rather beautiful. Most people don’t realize that, because even if you drive to Bridlington from West Yorkshire you think it consists of just a few fields. The Wolds are rolling chalk hills. No one ever comes off the main road. If you do, you’re the only car around. You almost never see another one, just occasional agricultural vehicles. I can take out large canvases, never meet anyone. Once in a while a farmer comes to talk and look. The whole of East Yorkshire is fairly deserted. Except for Hull, there’s no big city. Beverley is the county town; Bridlington is on the road to nowhere, meaning you’ve got to aim to come here. So I can paint here totally
undisturbed. I enjoy this little bit of England very much.
The two friends meditate on the problems and paradoxes of representing a three-dimensional world on a flat surface, whether by drawing, painting or using a camera. All artists must reflect on these issues, but Hockney has always expressed his thoughts publicly, whether on film or in books such as Secret Knowledge (2000) in which he put forward the thesis that European painters had used images made by lenses, mirrors and cameras for at least three centuries before the invention of the daguerreotype and the birth of modern photography in 1839.
The pair reflect on drawing, with Hockney averring that drawing makes you ‘see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still’, and explore Hockney’s turn to watercolours when, in 2003, he exhibited a series of watercolour portraits – a challenging project because the medium doesn’t allow for more than two or three layers of washes or the repeated revision that is usual with portraiture:
I used watercolour because I wanted a flow from my hand, partly because of what I had learned of the Chinese attitude to painting. They say you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart. Two won’t do. A good eye and heart is not enough; neither is a good hand and eye. I thought that was very, very good.
Hockney and Gayford chew over what significance different media have for the artist and the way we see – from the wall of the Lascaux cave to an iPad. The observations from both men range over numerous other artists – from Van Gogh to Vermeer, Caravaggio to Picasso – with shrewd insights into the contrasting social and physical landscapes of California, where Hockney spent many years, and Yorkshire, the birthplace to which he has returned. Hockney vividly recalls individuals he has encountered along the way – from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Billy Wilder – making this an entertaining read.
Although he has experimented with photographic collage techniques in the past, Hockney feels restricted by photography, asserting that it has made us all see in a rather boring similar way:
We think that the photograph is the ultimate reality,but it isn’t because the camera sees geometrically. We don’t. We see partly geometrically but also psychologically. If I glance at the picture of Brahms on the wall over there, the moment I do he becomes larger than the door. So measuring the world in a geometrical way is not that true.
This leads on to a discussion about why he has taken to painting bigger and bigger pictures such as Bigger Trees Near Warter, ‘perhaps’, says Gayford, ‘ the largest pure landscape painting in art history, certainly the the most sizable ever painted entirely out of doors’. For Hockney, the size of these recent paintings is crucial: ‘a photograph couldn’t show you space in this way. … I think in the final picture you have a sense of being there.
That sense of being there is something that he is striving for in his latest deployment of new technology – the 18-screen, multi-image, wide-angle, high-definition films of hedgerows, foliage and trees which he describes as ‘drawing in space and time’, and which are a dramatic element in the new exhibition.
Hockney loves gadgets, and he loves to paint, and, as these conversations reveal, he loves trees:
Trees are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see. No two trees are the same, like us. We’re all a little bit different inside, and look a little bit different outside. You notice that more in the winter than in the summer. They are not that easy to draw, especially with foliage on them. If you are not there at the right time, it is difficult to see the shapes and volumes in them. At midday, you can’t do that.
For Hockney, trees are long-lived, for a while they become old friends and then they outlive us (though not always).
Yes, the trees become friends. One road I like particularly has trees that must have been planted two hundred years ago. I’ve always liked trees, but being here you look really hard at them. You notice things. The ash trees are always the last to come out.
Hockney and Gayford discuss other artists who shared the same passion; they talk about Constable, who had a favourite ash tree that he passed every day on Hampstead Heath, and his 1821 Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, an intense study of the details of bark; and they refer to Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees, a book that both men admire. Gayford writes that trees are ‘like human figures in the landscape, vegetable giants, some elegant, some heroic, some sinister … but they are also remarkable feats of natural engineering, capable of holding up a tonne of leaves in summer against the forces of gravity and wind’.
The move back to Yorkshire made Hockney intensely aware of the changing seasons, another central theme of his recent work, particularly the paintings of the place he has called ‘The Tunnel’, a nondescript track leading off the road that is flanked on both sides by trees and bushes that arch over the track. He has painted this place in every month of the year. This is Hockney thrilled at the onset of spring in East Yorkshire:
Every time we get the spring I get thrilled like that. Here we’ve noticed – and it takes you two or three years to notice – there’s a moment when spring is full. We call it ‘nature’s erection’. Every single plant, bud and flower seems to be standing up straight. Then gravity starts to pull the vegetation down. It was the second year I noticed that; the third, you notice even more. At the height of the summer, the trees become a mass of foliage, and the branches are pulled down by the weight. When it falls off they’ll start going up again. This is the sort of thing you notice if you are looking carefully. The fascination just grew for me here. This was a big theme, and one I could confidently do: the infinite variety of nature.
Through these conversations we learn a great deal about art, and gain a real sense of Hockney’s boundless enthusiasm and energy – hugely productive, painting outdoors nearly every day, and engaging delightedly with the latest technology. Towards the end of the book he remarks:
I am greedy for an exciting life. I want it to be exciting all the time and I get it, actually… I can find excitement, I admit, in raindrops falling on a puddle and a lot of people wouldn’t.