Clearer, and Clearer, and Clearer Still

Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney

Thames & Hudson, 248pp, £18.95, ISBN 9780500238875

reviewed by Jeremy Spencer

The art critic Martin Gayford’s book about David Hockney is a record of their conversations over ten years that expose Hockney’s obsessions and preoccupations as an artist. The text isn’t simply a straight transcription of their talks, whether in person or by telephone or email, and their exchanges, which reveal Hockney’s thoughts on art and aesthetics, are not ordered chronologically; the text is an ‘arrangement’ of different ‘layers’ and Gayford contextualises their conversations with biographical and art historical essays. In these essays, Hockney’s relation to the history of art comes across vividly. Gayford evokes the artists and artistic traditions, of landscape painting or the application of technology to make pictures, which are in different ways antecedents to Hockney’s present concerns or can illuminate his trajectory as an artist.

Hockney has painted East Yorkshire landscapes since the later 1990s and those paintings that express his relationship with the sight of nature are an significant theme of the book. Gayford compares Hockney’s love for ‘the infinite variety of nature’, the ‘real subject’ of his painting, hawthorn blossom in late May and early June, ‘an exhibition of trees’, with that of nineteenth century landscape painters, John Constable, Van Gogh, and Claude Monet. Trees, Hockney remarks that they have ‘become friends’, recur in his more recent painting. He was captivated by the ‘constant change’ and variation in light, the changing seasons, dramatic and pronounced, he discovered in Yorkshire, in the seaside resort of Bridlington where he now lives and where can paint relatively undisturbed; Hockney says to Gayford that he ‘wanted to paint the whole year’.

The book turns persistently to Hockney’s undiminished fascination with pictures and picturing; Hockney talks about ‘a deep, deep desire to depict’ in human beings and he reflects upon the pleasure depictions impart, how we find pictures attractive; artist and critic agree that drawing is a primordial activity, innate, and human. They talk about the act of seeing, Hockney describing his ‘intense pleasure from looking’, his belief that through depiction we look at ‘things we might not otherwise see’. Gayford describes Hockney searching for ways to depict the world differently to the way the camera lens sees it; although ‘thinking about what is wrong’ with photography, Hockney has always involved himself with it, ‘participated in it’, ‘observed’ it, using photographs and lenses to make his paintings. One thing that Hockney believes wrong with photography is that it can only show surfaces; his recent paintings, like his ‘enormous’ Bigger Trees Near Water of 2007, painted entirely out of doors, depict infinite and engulfing spaces. Although he acknowledges that photography and painting are inseparable, Hockney compares the academic painting of Ernest Meissonier and Willian-Adolphe Bouguereau, which are too photographic, to ‘the more human vision of the world’ of Cézanne and Van Gogh. Despite its attraction to us, Hockney suggests that photography has damaged rather than heightened our perception of the world, partly because we tend to confuse the photograph with reality and assume it as the ‘ultimate reality’, that it ‘catches reality’ when it fact it has made the world ‘look very, very dull’. Reflecting on the differences between painting and ‘the optical projection of nature’, Hockney disputes the assumed reality of photographs, describing them as more like staged scenes. We don’t really mind if a painted scene is composed or fake, he comments; the medium of painting allows an artist to do something that photography does not.

Hockney is enthusiastic in his embracing of new technologies of image production and dissemination. The relationship of art to technology has long been a quality of his work; he had made use of unusual mediums such as the photocopier and fax machine in the 1980s, working with their limitations. More recently, Hockney has drawn using an iPhone app, emailing the drawings of familiar and natural objects to his friends. It has influenced the way Hockney draws – ‘it makes you bold’, he remarks. His ‘technological romance’ continues with the iPad, drawing on its larger screen with thumb, fingers and a stylus. He says to Gayford, ‘I love it, I must admit … Picasso would have gone mad with this. I don’t know an artist who wouldn’t.’ These new technologies have affected the things Hockney depicts; his subjects have become more domestic and intimate, his naked foot next to a slipper, his checked cloth cap. The spontaneity and informality of the iPad pictures, Gayford comments, results from Hockney having the tablet computer always close to hand; it replaces and is much easier to carry than paints, brushes, and sketchbook. In contextualising these miniature paintings Hockney makes with an iPhone and then an iPad, Gayford considers artists who also made images with light: Thomas Gainsborough, who in the 1780s painted landscapes on glass intended to be illuminated and viewed in a ‘showbox’; and the Diorama of Louis Daguerre, exhibited in Paris in the early 19th century.

Hockney, then, deploys technology to produce ‘bigger and more intense’ depictions of the visible and natural world; cameras can help artists ‘see more’; although Hockney often expresses an opposing view, saying that he only really started seeing the hedgerows around Bridlington when he’d drawn them - their technological reproduction wouldn’t demand the same intensity of looking, a photograph wouldn’t be as affecting. ‘Drawing’, he remarks, ‘makes you see things clearer, and clearer, and clearer still’. But the apparent inconsistency, which Gayford also comments on, isn’t damaging. Hockney understands their connectedness, the function of photography as the tool for the draughtsman, and in its more impure forms as collage, its affinity to drawing. He also elides the differences, talking of his fascination with ‘pictures’ as such, however they are made. Hockney’s comments on the place of drawing in art education were suggestive but too cursory. This is an enjoyable book, comprehensively illustrated, engaging in its insights into an artistic life.
Jeremy Spencer completed his PhD in art theory at the University of Essex and teaches at the Colchester School of Art and Design.