David Hockney

Go East, Old Man – A recent article for The Dalesman

While this article was first published in The Dalesman, an online version of this article can also be found here on Sabotage Times

Dalesman cover May 2011

Go East Old Man; David Hockney in East Yorkshire

The work David Hockney has been undertaking in East Yorkshire has changed my understanding of my home county. I wish it could do the same for more of my neighbours.

What were once simple journeys from Hull to Malton or to Pocklington or from any random point in East Yorkshire to any other random point have, over the past four or five years, become long, unfocussed meanders. Trips to local parks with my partner and infant daughter have been replaced with extended ventures up hill and down the Wolds. See, there’s a genius at work in my backyard, documenting the landscape I grew up in and presenting the globe with his vision of the Riding he now calls home. Because of all this and because I want to understand more deeply the beauty that surrounds me, I’ve slowly (and for my family, infuriatingly) become a Hockney Hunter.

Over the past decade David Hockney – CH, RA, one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century and labelled Britain’s favourite artist, has gradually forsaken his Los Angeles, California home for a permanent base in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. He left the glitz, glamour and cosseting sunshine to live in a (rather handsome, it must be said) simple red brick house near the fairground rides, candy floss, chips and seagull poo of Brid. The warm Pacific lapping by his door has been replaced by the bite of the icy North Sea. Where most people his age are retiring to sunnier seats, he is standing in the corner of muddy fields in the least fancied of the Yorkshire Ridings, whipped by snow, sleet and rain. Why? Simply because it’s caught his eye.

The eye that helped define Pop Art and has made masterful art out of some of the most dramatic landscapes on Earth has been turned to the humble flowers and trees and hedgerows round Wetwang, Thwing and Fridaythorpe. And I couldn’t be more delighted. When I started happening upon Hockney’s East Yorkshire work it was a revelation. The first one I saw was a mid 90’s watercolour called ‘a gap in the hedgerow’. It’s a simple drawing perfectly summed up by the title. Just a hedge, a verge and some hills in the distance, but without knowing the title or the artist I knew absolutely that it was East Yorkshire. I knew because I’d seen those elements in that layout with my naked eye every day of my forty-odd years. But I’d never seen them captured so perfectly in art. When I found out it was by Hockney and that he was turning out incredible landscape works just round the corner from my house on a daily basis I very quickly became more than a little obsessed. Not in a sad ‘look-look-there’s-a-celebrity’ kind of way but in a ‘how-have-i-not-seen-my-home-this-way-before?’ kind of way.

I sought Hockney out – the pictures, the documentaries the newspaper articles, trying to find out what was happening and revelling in it. These days I see colours and patterns in the countryside of East Yorkshire that had simply not registered before. Purply-pinks in the flower tops, vivid green whorls in the trees. I’ve a new found fascination with every thistle in every thicket and there’s revelations waiting in every coppice between Bugthorpe and Boynton. I keep finding reasons to take unwarranted diversions around farm tracks and drive around to see new corners of a county I thought held no more mystery. I’m not saying I now see all this like a Hockney painting but he has made me reappraise the way I interact with the landscape and, for the first time in my life, I’m looking at it all afresh. Also, I secretly hope that as I meander around I’ll catch sight of a corner of an easel poking up from over a hedge and closer investigation will reveal a white-capped pensioner furiously slaving away turning an unprepossessing ploughed field in to a masterwork.

Hockney is doing something truly wonderful in this part of the World. When I see a field or view in East Yorkshire I don’t see it like he does. I don’t see the colours as vividly or the glory in the everyday. I think it’s because I’ve seen it forever and while my eyes see, say, the actual ‘Bigger’ trees he painted near Warter on a Summer day my brain retains a residual image of the same scene in Autumn or Winter and includes that information in my vision. My memory blurs the picture until it becomes just some trees. Hockney, however, will paint the same aspect everyday for months to eradicate the residual memory and live in the moment. He consequently sees those trees, in that moment, in that’s day’s conditions and represents that immediacy in his images. And he does this so simply, an impression created in a few lines, in the same way a good chef diligently works a stock until it becomes something refined and intense but reduces in volume. Except Hockney often goes large.

In his quest to capture the county he started with watercolour and oils drawn from memory and then moved onto huge multi-canvas works that take up entire gallery walls. He’s now brought multimedia to the party, using photography and video to assist him in capturing bigger vistas. Despite mastering all of these skills he’s still restless and wants to push further forward. He’s now using iPhones and iPads to create quick, immediate images (like the one he’s reportedly working on of sunrise over Brid for the 2012 Olympics). Despite the advent of these much easier disseminated digital formats and the fact that he’s made hundreds of these images over the past decade it’s really, really hard to get to see any of them.

I fully appreciate that Hockney has every right to do exactly what he wants with his work and if I was him I wouldn’t want to license them injudiciously so that my daily stroll along the Brid seafront was spoilt by seeing poorly printed tea towels and tote bags featuring images I’ve sweated blood over. But I’m convinced the work Hockney is doing will come to define East Yorkshire in the way that Lowry’s did of Salford or the impressionists’ did of France. I wish his work could be more accessible to the people that would benefit most from exposure to it. There have been exhibitions of his recent work in London, LA, New York and an upcoming show in Paris. There are images of East Yorkshire in private collections God-knows-where in the World and his iPictures are sent to friends on a daily basis. Yet there’s no means for the average resident of East Yorkshire to physically appreciate this work within a fifty mile radius of Brid. There’s some in London, some in his permanent collection in Saltaire and there may well be others in between that I don’t know about and it’s great that our county is being seen by people who would otherwise not know it exists. But the residents of Hull and Beverley and Driffield and so on who would, I’m convinced, be as moved and exhilarated by these pictures as I am, have to leave the county to see them. I went to see the Turner prize exhibit at Tate Britain last year without knowing that ‘Bigger Trees Near Warter’ had been installed in the gallery. When I walked onto the room housing both it and two reproductions on adjoining walls I was physically and emotionally overwhelmed. I’ve stood on the spot Hockney painted this work yet, when I saw how he had interpreted the same view it felt more real, more intense. Here I was, in the middle of London, feeling more surrounded by East Yorkshire than when actually at home. Honestly.

If only there a couple or three of the paintings could be lent to local galleries. If people could walk into the Ferens in Hull or the Triton in Sledmere and marvel and say, ‘I know where that is, let’s go tomorrow’ it would change their difficult lives for the better. For as they exit the gallery and return blinking into the East Yorkshire light, they will feel they know their environment a little better and see that despite the lack of money and investment, and despite the scant interest in the county from the media and the politicians there is someone out there creating art that will forever present this region as the unspoilt, accessible, simply beautiful paradise it truly is.

Bigger trees near warter

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Categories: The Dalesman, Writing


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