Hockney’s Bigger Message: hand, eye and heart

David Hockney and Martin Gayford

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.

David Hockney painting The Road to Thwing, Late Spring.

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.

David Hockney: Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

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.

David Hockney in front of Bigger Trees Near Warter (click to enlarge)

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.

A still from the 18-screen video May 12th 2011 Rudston to Kilham Road 5 PM.

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’.

John Constable: Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree c.1821

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.

See also

November blows in

And all the leaves on the trees are falling
To the sound of the breezes that blow

-Van Morrison, Moondance

Across the evening sky, all the birds are leaving
But how can they know it’s time for them to go?
Before the winter fire, I will still be dreaming
I have no thought of time

For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone while my love is near me
I know it will be so until it’s time to go
So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again
I have no fear of time

– Sandy Denny

Funny – it’s not often that the first day of a new month marks such an abrupt change in the weather.  But that’s how it was today. The calm and generally warm and sunny days that we’ve experienced through September and October – marked by what many have claimed to have been the best autumnal colours for many years – came to an abrupt end with today’s gales and driving rain.  The storm has pretty much stripped the trees of the last of their autumn-tinted leaves.

How better to illustrate this theme than with David Hockney’s vast Bigger Trees Near Warter, depicting the bare bones of proud winter trees? Particularly as the painting  has just gone on view at Tate Britain.  Hockney donated the work –  covering 50 canvas panels and measuring  5 by 12 meters – to the gallery last year.

Last Thursday, Jonathan Jones wrote on his Guardian blog:

Hockney believes that painting must renew itself by confronting nature. It is about hand, eye, brain and heart. You look, you feel, you sketch. Putting his easel in the open air like a 19th-century French landscape artist, he has set out to paint in a pure and honest way. And as you contemplate one of the best pictures he has ever made, you’ve got admit he has a point.

And last July, Jones wrote:

You’d have to have a heart of stone if you weren’t moved, just a little bit, by the prospect of an elderly painter standing in a wide open east Yorkshire landscape, touching clouds and sky and trees into a second existence on a canvas that is blowing in the wind.

Update, 24 November, from Mark Brown at The Guardian:

On a grey day in London today, a monumental painting of a grey day in east Yorkshire went on display, flanked by two photographic versions of the same grey day and watched by an artist who said he didn’t now believe in dull days. Only dull people.  David Hockney arrived at Tate Britain to see the gallery put on display his biggest work, Bigger Trees Near Warter (2007). It was given to the Tate by the artist two years ago and while this is not its first display – that was the Royal Academy’s summer show – this is the first time it has been seen with two photographic companion pieces (one pictured above).

“I think it looks very good. It’s quite an effect, isn’t it?” said Hockney. “Funny to think it was painted in a small room in Bridlington – although I’ve got a very big studio now [it’s 20,000 sq ft]. It’s a warehouse.” The oil painting, valued by the Tate at £10m, is undeniably huge, made up of 50 canvases and measures in total 15ft by 40ft (4.6m by 12.2m).  The effect of having the huge, winter trees on three walls of one gallery is slightly overwhelming. Hockney is a vocal advocate of new technology but he said painting was alive and well, it was photography that was dying.

Hockney said he had no plans to go back to the trees, although “the moment rules when you’re looking at nature. If I suddenly change my mind, then we’ll do that.” The artist has just returned to the grey skies of Britain from his other home in California, although he was not downbeat.

“Once you live in a place like California, well, you need the rain. I used to think there were dull days and now I think it’s only you … dull people.” Hockney, who will be celebrated in 2012 when the Royal Academy mounts the most ambitious retrospective of his work, filling the entire gallery, has achieved something like national treasure status, although he doubts it himself. “I smoke. I’m quite an outsider frankly, all smokers are. In England, that is.”

The rain of a night and a day and a night
Stops at the light
Of this pale choked day. The peering sun
Sees what has been done.
The road under the trees has a border new
of purple hue
Inside the border of bright thin grass:
For all that has
Been left by November of leaves is torn
From hazel and thorn
And the greater trees. Throughout the copse
No dead leaf drops
On grey grass, green moss, burnt-orange fern,
At the wind’s return:
The leaflets out of the ash-tree shed
Are thinly spread
In the road, like little black fish, inlaid,
As if they played.
What hangs from the myriad branches down there
So hard and bare
Is twelve yellow apples lovely to see
On one crab-tree.
And on each twig of every tree in the dell
Crystals both dark and bright of the the rain
That begins again.

After Rain by Edward Thomas

Looking for a poem to summon the mood, I found this by Thomas Hood (1799 – 1845),  perhaps best known for a poem entitled The Song of the Shirt which was a lament for a poor London seamstress. Although I try to avoid slumping into the SAD winter blues, the following poem does capture a certain feeling around this time of year as the clocks go back and the afternoons dim – and do note the topical touch in verse four!

November by Thomas Hood

No sun – no moon!
No morn – no noon!
No dawn – no dusk-no proper time of day –
No sky – no earthly view –
No distance looking blue –

No road – no street-
No “t’other side the way” –
No end to any Row –
No indications where the Crescents go –

No top to any steeple –
No recognitions of familiar people –
No courtesies for showing ’em –
No knowing ’em!

No mail – no post-
No news from any foreign coast –
No park- no ring- no afternoon gentility –
No company- no nobility –

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member-
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,

Finally, another resonant image – from the best photoblog on the Web, Kathleen Connally’s A Walk Through Durham Township:

David Hockney, the fallen beech trees and the lost canvas

David Hockney, the fallen beech trees and the lost canvas

From today’s Guardian, this sad story:

Summer and winter are safe, but when David Hockney turned up to begin work on spring, he found a scene which the artist described as “a massacre”; the sky empty, and the ground littered with the limbs of fallen giants.  Nothing remains except stacks of sawn trunks and branches of the little copse of mighty sycamores and beeches near his home in East Yorkshire which he had intended to paint in all seasons.

‘Summer’ is above, ‘Winter’ below; the other two seasons are unpainted.  Full story: David Hockney, the fallen beech trees and the lost canvas

Last April Hockney gave Bigger Trees Near Warter, the largest painting he has ever made – a landscape 12 metres long by five metres tall (40ft by 15ft) – to the Tate. Full story (Guardian)