An evening with David Hockney | Long Read
Illustration by Anna Karetnikova
Words by Daniel Hubbard
One of the most influential artists of the 20th century, fellow Yorkshire native David Hockney was born in Bradford on July 9th 1937. He knew he wanted to be an artist from an early age attending the Bradford College of Art and later, studying at the Royal College in London from where he has had continued success and recognition, creating influential art in his unique and characterful way for seven decades.
I first met David Hockney as a child when he was visiting a friend’s house in Bridlington. I didn’t really understand the importance of the interaction, I just wanted to play with my friend while he was drawing a portrait of him. But years later I have found a lot of my inspiration comes from his work and I've continued to follow and appreciate his work.
While studying fashion design at university, I decided to escape the patterns and pins and write an art history dissertation on Hockney’s work. A heavenly escape into beautiful art, which I enjoyed every moment of researching, analysing and writing. It was comparison and contextual analysis of his works between 1960-1967, a significant period of Hockney’s life and career. But what would have been the cherry on-top, was an interview from the man himself, and being the brazen person I am, I sent him a letter saying I would love the opportunity to do a short interview but I didn’t get a response, so with nothing to lose, I decided to turn up at his door. Thankfully, one of his assistants answered and I explained the situation, gave him my details to pass onto Hockney and I made my way back to London. Two weeks later I got a text message from David Hockney inviting me round for an interview and I immediately screamed with excitement in the middle of the street.
We sat down together with cups of tea at his house in Bridlington, and I went through my extremely amateur interview questions. We often went off topic and I hung on and listened to every word he had to say. He talked of his friends in fashion and how Yves Saint Laurent had the perfect shade of red in his house that Hockney copied and put into his dining room, his upcoming trip to Baden-Baden with Celia Birtwell to enjoy the spas and how Cecil Beaton bought a painting off him while he was a student for £48, carrying the painting to him in South Kensington. We also discussed poetry and his admiration of Walt Whitman and Constantine P. Cavafy, being gay in the 1950s and 1960’s, the difference between London and California at this time and how he embraces technology and the creative opportunities they bring to his work. He has a never-ending amount of fascinating stories and anecdotes which he delivers with great humour and intellect.
After finishing the interview we headed to the dining room to eat, served up is a delicious homemade shepherds pie. I have a glass of red wine while Hockney has a non-alcoholic beer and enjoys some fancy brown and gold cigarettes between courses. After dinner David gave me a tour me a tour of his house, which he bought off his sister. The double height atrium with the gallery staircase is at the centre of the house, a cinema room and a small studio in the loft where he showed me new photographs of the trees he is working on near my old school on Bessingby Road.
The house is eclectic, and bohemian, decorated in rich, deep colours, lots of pictures adorn the walls including an enlarged postcard of Bridlington from the 1950’s. More interestingly there are also lots of his paintings around, all familiar, of his mother and father in the dining room, and the large painting of Mr and Mrs Clarke on the first floor. We later went into the kitchen where John Fitzherbert and an assistant are doing some scratch cards, we have a drink and a smoke and chat. Hockney offers me a camel wide and says how nice it is to see young people are smoking.
John and the assistant get ready to leave, they are going to Bempton to collect some game and I thank them all for being so kind and hospitable to me and say my goodbyes, pick up the book that Hockney gave me earlier en route to the front door where he invited me to the new Bridlington studio the following day.
Hockney has always had strong ties to Yorkshire and especially the small coastal town of Bridlington, which he began visiting with his parents as a child in the 1950’s. Since then his siblings have settled in the area, his late mother spent most of her later years here and Hockney splits his time between Yorkshire, London and L.A. He told me he appreciates how quiet and remote it is, how he is left alone so he can concentrate on his art, unlike being out and about in London. Journalists and well known friends of Hockney’s occasionally make the journey to rural East Yorkshire, including the photographer Juergen Teller who came to photograph Hockney in his house, I bet he took him for fish and chips.
I often find it surreal that his paintings capturing the East Yorkshire landscape, in locations such as Woldgate, Kilham and Garrowby Hill show the places I grew up and the place I call home. Seeing these familiar places in artworks has made me see the area with a fresh pair of eyes and appreciate the beauty and abundance of nature in the Yorkshire countryside so much more. I particularly like how he captures the sheer expanse of green fields as far as the eye can see, like a patchwork quilt in pieces such as “The road across the wolds” and his bold use of colour and perspective in his large scale paintings of Woldgate that envelop you when you stand in front of them.
Hockney was drawn to Woldgate and used the setting for various works. A piece I found particularly moving was the video “The Four Seasons, Woldgate Wood”. 9 screens show footage from 9 individual super high definition cameras that were rigged onto a vehicle and put together to create one large screen. You are immersed into the pin sharp environment where you are calmly moving forwards, seeing every detail of the surroundings you would ordinarily miss, seamlessly transitioning into the different seasons along the same path. Hockney was surprised that when they filmed the summer season it was actually the darkest, with the trees in full bloom, they created a canopy over the path making it look like you are travelling through a dark tunnel. He first showed me these videos on his iPad in his kitchen when he was planning the design and layout of the retrospective at the Royal Academy of Art, an incredible honour getting a sneak peek but nothing could compare to the impact of seeing it on a 20 foot screen at the exhibition. It was a moving experience.
Personally, I have always been drawn to his early university works, abstract impressionist and naive in style they are a dramatic contrast to his iconic 1960’s Californian acrylic paintings for which he is most known for. The work he produced while at the Royal College were abstract and often personal in their subject matter, allowing him to deal with themes including sexuality and love.
He first visited California in 1964 and said he was in awe at how beautiful the people were and how colourful the place was, adding that it was like going from black and white to technicolour.
The most notable series of works produced in this period are the pool paintings, with the most prominent being “A Bigger Splash”. Painted in Berkeley, California in the spring of 1967, it is a perfectly composed graphic piece, with the main focal point as the title suggests being the energetic splash in the centre, which took Hockney a painstaking 2 weeks to paint. Using a variety of brushes to capture the smallest drop and different levels of transparency, he recreated the splash from a photograph he found from a book on how to build pools. The enormous level of detail capturing the explosive aftermath of the dive is a contrast to the rest of the piece which is still, linear and minimal, Hockney stated that it took more time to paint the splash than the rest of the piece. He froze a moment in time that only lasts a couple of seconds in reality and provides the viewer a prolonged glimpse of something they can witness but cannot look at. Unlike most of the other pool paintings, there are no figures in this piece, only the baroque flourish of the splash signifying the aftermath of a diver disappearing under the still surface.
The pool, a sun drenched oasis with its connotations of glamour, the high life and beautifully tanned people are a stark contrast to life in the U.K, so I understand why Hockney become enamoured with what they represented. It is an enticing image that has a sense of escapism that draws you in, the pink modernist building, the palm trees and perfect blue sky give you a glimpse into a life most of us can only dream about. At this point in time Hockney was becoming increasingly interested in photography and creating his own references to paint from, I think this shows in “A Bigger Splash” with paint applied to the canvas with rollers adding to the flat, photographic spirit of the piece, reinforced with the unpainted raw canvas border giving the look of a Polaroid photograph.
The piece has gained cult status, with everyone being familiar with it, it has come to define this era of Hockney's work and the pop art movement. There has even been two films that have used the name, the 1974 biopic that documented Hockney’s breakup with Peter Schlesinger and the 2016 film starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. Throughout the pool series Hockney experimented with many different techniques and styles of design to capturing the depth, shadows and movement of the water in its various states of motion. Lines, squiggles and an abundance of blues interpret movement in a modern, pop art style which brings the pieces to life and make the water seem to dance.
He liked to capture the private spaces behind closed doors in LA, mainly at his friends’ houses that portrayed the glamorous and exotic life in the sun. The mood is tremendously optimistic, accented by the fresh youthfulness of colour in the pieces, displaying a profound leap forward with this artistic style, with the change of his environment from the U.K to L.A being the main driver for this. Hockney told me that he never felt as free as when he arrived in LA and this sense of liberation was being communicated in his art.
Hockney has had a significant influence on modern art and popular culture and unlike most other artists, has continually experimented with many new forms of media in addition to drawing and painting, such as photography, set design, film, print making and digital works on iPad. This excitement of experimentation in new technology shows his confidence and openness to working with new techniques, his adaptive and reactive style makes him a rarity within the art world. While other artists stick to a signature style, Hockney thrives on artistic exploration and puts his hand to an array of disciplines, most recently designing the stained glass window in Westminster Abbey to celebrate the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
A kind, open and down to earth man, he has spent 70 years continually producing original, beautiful art and from my experience with him, rarely stops creating. He is a dedicated artist, even making drawings on his iPhone and sending it to his friends as a hello, he continues to work and was often seen on a regular basis in the east Yorkshire countryside painting.
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First published in DOG Magazine | Issue 6