Encountering Hockney

An article for the Dalesman about meeting David Hockney.

Dalesman June 2011 Hockney featured image

An edited version of this article appeared in the Dalesman in June 2011.


Encountering Hockney

After years of admiring the works of David Hockney and, as I described in the last issue of the Dalesman, becoming a little bit obsessed with his current East Yorkshire work, I had the great fortune to meet the great man and spend a brief but enlightening amount of time in his company.

After writing about my admiration of Hockney’s ongoing work in my home county I happened across a post card in one of my office drawers that took me back to my first encounter with his work, some 30 or so years ago. It was a reproduction postcard of one of his early works ‘Life painting for myself’ which had caught my eye on one of my childhood visits to my local art gallery, the Ferens in Hull. Its a1962 abstract, a half-finished looking oil showing a figure (or two, it’s hard to tell), some hanging clothes (I think) and not much else apart from the title of the work written across the top right corner. I don’t remember what exactly struck me about the picture other than it appeared very wilful and petulant, at least compared to the gallery’s normal fair of traditional portraits by the likes of Elwell, Maragliano and Hals. Something about it, however, must have appealed to me; after all I bought a postcard of it and held on to it for three decades.

I mention it here because on discovering the postcard after all this time it struck me that my admiration for Hockney’s work must be more deeply ingrained in me than I had previously realised. Something about the Bradford-born curmudgeonly genius and his work must connect with me beyond the previously stated love for his East Yorkshire landscapes. It’s a realisation that I’m very glad came to me before the day in mid-February when I found myself stood on the steps of the York Art Gallery yarning merrily with Hockney himself.

Interest in my previous piece on Hockney lead to an invite from the Yorkshire Tourist Board (or Welcome To Yorkshire as they’re now cheerily named) to attend the opening of this year’s Art In Yorkshire programme, a series of art exhibitions occurring right through 2011 of which the northern debut of Hockney’s masterpiece ‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’ was the inaugural event. During welcoming speeches by Sir Nicholas Serota of the Tate and various tourist board and art gallery bigwigs I noticed a solid, slightly hunched grey haired figure march out through the gallery entrance to the front steps and proceed to light a cigarette in a very demonstrative fashion. A careful look confirmed my initial instincts and I realised that David Hockney himself was here and taking the opportunity the speeches presented to nip out for a crafty fag. Never one to miss an opportunity myself I forsook Sir Nick’s opening address and sidled out to try and say hello to the man of the hour.

I found him stood on the gallery steps, inhaling deeply on his cigarette and soaking in the surroundings. From the front of York Art Gallery you can see the top of the Minster, some of the Roman Wall, High Petergate and the De Grey Rooms and grand terraced houses of Saint Leonard’s Place. I took a place a few feet away, appreciating the same vista. Within a few seconds I had caught Hockney’s eye and we nodded at each other, exchanging ‘how do’s’ and ‘hello’s’. ‘It’s a grand view’, I ventured. ‘It is,’ he replied, ‘excepting that’. He waved his tab-clutching hand dismissively at the rather dull modern fountain affair a few feet in front of the gallery. ‘Aye. True enough’, says I while thinking how typical it was of Hockney to single out the one thing that offends his aesthetic sensibilities in an otherwise very pleasing view. Relationship (cautiously) established I politely offered Hockney my thanks for his recent work and expressed how much it had affected my relationship with my home county. He smiled and expressed gratitude in return. I took this as an encouragement to press on with the conversation. I told him how I often drive round the countryside looking for the locations of his paintings. ‘Found any?’ he asked. I know where the trees are near Warter. Hockney raised his eyebrows, looking mildly impressed. I said that I couldn’t see what he saw in them, I mean they’re a nice bunch of trees but I couldn’t imagine what it was about them that convinced him to spend weeks painting and photographing them. ‘It was the trees themselves, I just thought I could do something with them’ he offered as explanation. I was none the wiser but very happy to interacting with the man.

Hockney has extraordinary eyes. Both in the way they look and how he uses them. They’re a striking blue colour and as he talks to you he maintains unblinking eye contact at all times. He observes you and gauges your response to his comments; it feels like he’s deciding whether or not you know what you’re talking about, whether you understand his work or whether to walk away and leaving you standing on the gallery steps feeling like a lemon. At least that how it felt to me when it hit me that this was now my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to say something worthwhile to one of the greatest artists on the planet.

‘Why here?’ I ventured. He shrugged and smiled. For a second I wasn’t sure if he’d heard me – he struggles with his hearing – so I tried to clarify. ‘I mean, you live in LA, you’ve travelled and worked all over the world. Why the East Riding?’ He paused for a drag of fag and offered, ‘Because it changes all the time’. This is something I’ve heard from him before, he has an interest in the affect the seasons, the weather and agriculture all have on the landscape. He has often expounded theories about capturing time in paintings and photographs and had a period of creating photographic montages that attempt to illustrate the effect of time on the subject in a single image. He’ll take a set of portrait pictures and montage them in such a way that they don’t and can’t portray a single moment in time but rather they represent a period of time. He’ll paint a landscape exactly how it is in a particular moment but then return to the same spot in differing seasons and weather conditions and paint it again to see how it has been affected. Obviously, when he’s working in permanently sunny places like LA or Arizona – where he once spent months painting and photographing the Grand Canyon – the weather changes very little, if at all. The only thing that gives notice of changing time over the course of a day is the light and the shadows, both very subtle to successfully capture. East Yorkshire, in contrast, is a predominantly agricultural landscape, the workings of man and the elements have a constant, day-to-day and even hour-to-hour effect on the appearance of the landscape. This allows Hockney to put all the theories and techniques he’s been developing for years into practice. Not that long ago he spent months and months proving that 18th century painters used primitive cameras to create their pictures and he’s now showing equal dedication by spending his time proving that he’s right about capturing time in still images.

He’s using painting and photo techniques developed over many years to demonstrate that still life needn’t mean that time stands still in the image. He’s also extending the theory to video montages, using multiple cameras tracking through a landscape to create a viewpoint only normally available to the widescreen capability of the human eyes but from a viewpoint deliberately at odds with how we digest visual information – he’s made ‘bigger pictures’ on canvas and now he’s doing it in film. Of course videos do unfold over a period of time but the films he’s making unfold strictly in real time and then he shoots exactly the same scene in differing weather conditions so the films are, contrarily, presented as a series of moving stills rather than a single moving image. It’s all very high concept stuff and when he talks about it you get the impression that it’s a theory very much undergoing constant development in his own mind. He’s not making it up as he goes along – far from it – but he’s utilising all the tools available to him to reach a conclusion that only makes absolute sense in his own head. No doubt he’ll get there and when he does he’ll make sure it all becomes clear to the rest of us.

Of course, there’s no reason why he can’t do this anywhere – there are suitable landscapes in Surrey, Scotland or even round Scunthorpe – so it doesn’t entirely explain his decision to work in the East Riding. But if you factor in his ongoing family commitments in Bridlington and his childhood memories of the region (he used to work in the cornfields as a boy) it makes perfect sense for him to be here. Whatever the real reason, I’m just glad he is.

Back on the gallery steps, we chatted on about some more of his paintings I’d seen, about Brid and about how he likes his iPad – it felt, very marvellously, like just two Yorkshire blokes yabbering in the street – but eventually my personal audience was interrupted when the members of the press attending the opening twigged that they were missing a scoop. Out of the gallery poured a few notepad-clasping journalists and a camera crew. Sensing my time was at an end I withdrew a few paces and let them take my place. Hockney’s demeanour altered noticeably – he became slightly starchier and somehow distant. And as the questions the journos started asking were fairly unadventurous (‘why did you decide to come today?’ and so on) it became obvious that they weren’t expecting him to be there and hadn’t prepared any pertinent questions and so Hockney began pushing his own agenda on them. He talked of his disdain for the smoking ban and the worst city he had encountered for enforcing it – Liverpool, surprisingly. The only real answer he gave of interest was when asked when he thought he may move back to LA – ‘I don’t know, maybe soon’ he replied, much to my concern. When eventually he was ushered back inside the gallery by officials he proffered his hand to me, which I shook with gusto. ‘Nice to meet you’, he said. ‘Hope to see around’, I replied, and off he went, back into the gallery and the waiting crowd. I went for a celebratory pint.

There are now two Hockney images on my office wall. One is the postcard I bought from the Ferens all those years ago and the other is a reproduction of Bigger Trees Near Warter that I picked up from the York Art Gallery that day (adorned, though I hesitate admitting asking for it, with Hockney’s signature). When I look at them I feel a real sense of pride in East Yorkshire and a validation of my decision to continue to live here. I’ve had opportunities to move away many times – to Prague, to Australia, to London, obviously – yet I’ve lived my entire life in this unfavoured, overlooked and underappreciated part of the world. It’s a decision I’ve often questioned, contemplating how differently my life may have turned out had I gone. But when I look at those two pictures I realise that Hockney, one of the greatest artists of the past century, has lived and worked all over the globe and could choose to live the rest of his life as royalty in any land he so wishes. But he doesn’t, he chooses the same chalky hills and verdant vales as I. It says, to me, that East Yorkshire is as good a place to live as anywhere else and probably better than most. It proves you don’t have to have moved away to know you were in the right place to begin with.


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Categories: The Dalesman, Writing


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