Interview: David Hockney

Ossian Ward talks to the ever-restless British artist David Hockney

© Rob Greig

I meet a flat-capped David Hockney chuffing on a cigarette (of course) in the courtyard outside the Royal Academy of Arts. I don’t mention the smoking, for fear of provoking a rant about the nanny state from a man known for his forthright views. Instead, we’re straight into another bugbear of his: the misleadingly selective history of art.

Hockney whips out a second constant companion, the iPad, now as much part of the artist’s life as the ciggies, the horn-rim glasses and the near-constant urge to draw (this may indeed be the order in which he starts every new day). He deftly swipes through the menus, showing me the most recent in his ongoing series of country-lane drawings, dated December 29 2011, which is brought to life as an animated movie of sketched-in clouds, dead leaves and brown tracks, soon joined by details of branches, the puddles and even their reflections, magically redrawn on the screen in front of me.

After a couple of minutes of super-accelerated artistic endeavour he shows me two versions of a Van Dyck painting of 1638. ‘Can you spot the difference?’ he asks me of the twinned dandyish figures of Lord Bernard Stuart, one of which is from a painting in the National Gallery. ‘His chin looks smaller, have you made him less inbred?’

I offer, lamely. It’s the other way around, Hockney says: he’s enlarged the man’s head to better fit his body size – which, in the original, suddenly looks pinheaded by comparison. It’s only a small, virtual act of sacrilege and art-historical desecration, but one that puts an impish grin on the 74-year-old’s youthful face. ‘I’m a natural sceptic,’ he says.

Hockney has previously challenged the old masters of art history by claiming that Vermeer and Caravaggio, among others, used primitive lens technology – perhaps a kind of camera obscura, for example – in order to copy more truthfully from life. This often led to their paintings being awkwardly stitched together from areas projected on to the canvas, which is a form of painterly cheating, if you like. This is not the case here, he contends: ‘The head has been painted by Van Dyck and the body by the assistants,’ reckons Hockney. He is perhaps hinting at the controversy caused by a comment he made a week earlier, something he addresses when we sit down to talk in the delightfully olde worlde wood-panelled room reserved for the use of Royal Academicians. When a much younger Academician walks in for a cup of tea and a biscuit, he quickly leaves us to it once he hears Hockney holding court in full verbal stride.

‘It was a joke I made. I was going to put up a notice [at my exhibition] saying: “I personally hand-painted all the pictures myself.

‘Winter Timber’, 2009 ‘Winter Timber’, 2009 - © David Hockney

I made no reference to anybody else. I knew it was quite funny, that’s all.’ With a worldwide exhibition of Damien Hirst’s spot paintings – famously manufactured on production lines, rather than by the artist – opening only a few days later, the throwaway quip became a headline-grabber and forced the Royal Academy to issue a retraction of sorts: ‘Contrary to recent reports, David Hockney RA has not made any comments which imply criticism of another artist’s working practices nor are there any words to this effect on the poster promoting his forthcoming exhibition.’

David Hockney RA has also recently  become David Hockney OM, having been appointed to the Order of Merit, an honour only shared by another 25 souls. But again, he has been portrayed with an uncharacteristic air of disdain in the press, due to his previous rejection of a knighthood: ‘That was a long time ago, when I lived in California and I did not wish to be “Sir”. I did it very politely but told no one, not even my friends or family. No one should ever have known. It only came out when a civil servant handed a list to the The Sunday Times, and I did point out that it was a great breach of trust. It was disgraceful and I’m a gracious person.’

Of course, Hockney’s views on preserving the hand of the artist in his work are also far more nuanced than described in the papers: ‘Don’t forget, Rembrandt was apprenticed from the age of 13 or so to watch a painter and copy him, which was a very good method of teaching. Assistants don’t necessarily churn out paintings; it can be a system of education actually.’

Few artists are connected so incontrovertibly to their student days as Hockney. He left the Royal College of Art a star-in-the-making, bottle-blond and dressed in a gold lamé jacket to receive the prestigious Gold Medal for Painting in July 1962, despite not technically having passed the course. ‘It was farcical,’ he says. ‘Just as I arrived at the RCA they were changing the whole system and abandoning the teaching of drawing for this general studies course. I objected to this: I’d been working in a hospital for two years and I expected to draw. They said that the Minister of Education had complained that people were leaving art school ignorant, so I replied that there was no such thing as an ignorant artist – they were all interesting – and told them off, saying, “You are a professor of painting: you have to profess painting.” They didn’t like that I was cheeky and confident enough to criticise them and that I didn’t even bother signing in to these lectures, so they said, “You’ve failed this course.” I didn’t care. Who’s going to ask a painter to see a diploma? They’d say, “Can I see your paintings?”, wouldn’t they?’

And everyone wanted to see Hockney’s paintings. His outrageous compositions of pop-art motifs and semi-naked boys were snapped up by a gallery immediately and Hockney was quickly introduced to the upper echelons of the art world in both New York and then Los Angeles, where he soon settled to paint his famous swimming pool ‘splashes’ and society portraits. ‘I was 18 when I first visited London, I’m very provincial like that, but I must confess the moment I got to America I thought: This is the place. It was more open, with 24-hour cities and pubs and restaurants that didn’t close. I’ve been living in California for more than 40 years, far longer than I’ve lived here [in the UK], so I guess I’m an English Los Angeleno.’

Despite going back half a century to include some of Hockney’s earliest paintings of his birthplace Bradford, the Royal Academy show, ‘A Bigger Picture’, doesn’t contain ‘A Bigger Splash’ or much at all of his Stateside work, instead focusing on an intense period of re-engagement with his native Yorkshire. ‘I’ve always felt very English. All my ancestors were scratching the ground in East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire as agricultural labourers – I’m from the peasantry, frankly. But it makes you connect with the land and because I found this subject, at my age it’s terrific, you stick with it and get turned on.’

Just over a decade ago, Hockney started coming back home more regularly. ‘By the time my mother was in her nineties I’d come over to Bridlington every three months. She lived to be 99, and I always drew her because I thought: Will she be here next time?’ The devoted son also began visiting a sick friend who ran a museum of Hockney’s work near Bradford. ‘I was doing that [half-hour journey] almost every day for two months and could take different little routes to vary it, taking in the landscape as a driver,’ he says.  The great thing you notice in the Wolds is that, because it’s agricultural land, the surface of the earth is constantly changing. Whereas in West Yorkshire it isn’t: the surface of the moors doesn’t change.

‘Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 and 29 November 2006’ ‘Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 and 29 November 2006’ - © David Hockney

These drives produced fantastically winding road-trip paintings such as ‘The Road to York Through Sledmere’ (1997) and ‘Garrowby Hill’ (1998), which he would paint from memory back in his Bridlington studio, before packing up to go back to LA to see his beloved dachshunds, Stanley and Boogie.

‘I always thought it was a little too dark here, I mean you only have six hours of daylight and it’s grey. I never really stayed in the winter, until about 1998.’

On ever-longer visits to the UK, Hockney would set up an easel on the roadside with his assistant Jean-Pierre, madly painting en plein air as the impressionists had done in warmer climes. ‘I thought the best thing to do to build up a vocabulary of forms was to take out canvases and bold brushes and paint that way,’ he says. ‘I did that for a year, maybe. It was a terribly old-fashioned thing to do. I’m well aware of the art world saying that landscape is a worn-out genre, but I thought: It’s only the method of depicting the landscape that’s worn out, not the landscape itself, so you find other methods. There’s always another way of looking, of observing.’

Indeed, Hockney developed not only an innovative technique for creating multi-panel pictures that, at some 40 feet across and 12 feet high, conveyed something of the immersive feel of the woodlands he was painting, but he also began drawing feverishly on his iPhone and, eventually, the iPad. ‘In about 2003 or 2004 I started using sketchbooks which I carried in my clothes along with a system of pens; I always had pockets for them. In a way, the iPad drawings [which he started doing in 2010] began in sketchbook form, because if you carry it around, you’ll draw all sorts of things you’d never draw – it’s like a photographer has to have his camera to take photographs. I was sometimes doing one a day – I was painting as fast as possible, the way Van Gogh did.’ These diaristic records of the shifting seasons became an epic project of almost a hundred iPad drawings, entitled ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, 2011’, which he has slimmed down to 51 for his Academy show. ‘Spring is an event about change, as is autumn,’ he says. ‘In Southern California you don’t get that change at all.’

Although Hockney assures me he hasn’t left Los Angeles for good (‘I point that out to my office there, using the Hollywood phrase “I’m on location” ’) the new bodies of English work do contain an uplifting spirit of renewal, of somehow starting a new life. My own response to visiting the Wolds last year was more of reflection and loneliness, perhaps owing to the time of year, I tell him. ‘I’m searching for the light, like “The Magic Flute”, or the light at the end of tunnel,’ he responds. ‘Like the Enlightenment: that’s the very word. There’s a dark side to everything, of course, but in the end, looking at the world is a positive act and I think the act of looking is very beautiful and therefore the world is beautiful if you look at it.’

Certainly his worldview differs in tone and timbre from that of East Yorkshire’s most famous adopted son, Philip Larkin. ‘In a way tragedy is a literary concept, not a visual concept,’ offers Hockney by way of poetic comparison. ‘One of the problems of imagery is that it has to attract the eye, and if images are too confused or repellent, the eye won’t look into them. And there’s a kind of contradiction here. In her book “Regarding the Pain of Others” Susan Sontag talks about war photography, but even that has to catch the eye. You could argue then that there’s beauty in violence even. These are the problems of depiction and they’re permanent.’

I sense a rant coming on, and we’re definitely getting on to interesting terrain. ‘That’s why the argument that painting is dead is a mad one,’ he continues. ‘I mean, how are we going to depict the world? Just with photography? It would be rather dull and very restrictive if you know about cameras.’ Despite this outburst, Hockney, of course, has been experimenting with ever more cutting-edge computerised film

making technologies and is also exhibiting an ambitious bank of nine screens showing a drive down his favourite lane. ‘People seem to think that if you point a camera, it gets exactly what’s there, but it doesn’t,’ he says. ‘I always said that you teach drawing because it is teaching people to look harder – you can see more. If you don’t, then you are stuck with the camera.’

I remind him of his short stint as a teacher, at Maidstone College of Art after he left the RCA in 1962, when he wrote the word ‘WORK’ in giant red letters across the studio wall, adding below, in lower-case parentheses: ‘(think big)’. ‘They used to criticise me for banging on about drawing,’ he says. ‘They’d say, “That’s Hockney – back to the life room,” and I said, “No, it’s forward to it. You’re getting the direction wrong.” ’ Wherever that may lead: onwards, upwards, in nine ways all at once, or over 32 canvases, and every day of the year – Hockney is there, thinking big and changing directions as mercurially as the view through the windscreen of a moving car. You can take away the gas-guzzling and fast-paced lifestyle, but it seems you can’t take either the LA sunshine or the beautiful Yorkshire landscape out of the boy.

‘David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture’ is at the Royal Academy Sat Jan 21-Apr 9. See Art for more details.