Saturday, 7 January 2012

David Hockney - by Martin Gayford

I have just finished reading Martin Gayford's "A Bigger Message", conversations with David Hockney. This was a much appreciated Christmas present from Margaret.

It is a wonderful book. A superb read. Not least, for artists but also for everyone who loves Hockney's pictures, or has an interest in how artists think and work.

Hockney's comments on his methods, motivations and enthusiasms are exquisitely articulated and must give every artist pause for thought. It will influence the way they look at things and the way they work themselves, whether they allow that or not.

I can't possibly do justice in this short review to the insight I have gained from reading this book. Gayford asks just the right questions and makes just the right comments to draw from Hockney just the detail you want. The book is beautifully illustrated with reproductions of Hockney's work on almost every page, alongside the artist's deeply persuasive explanations. Wonderful.

Among many other deep insights Hockney comments on drawing, perspective, photography, colour, trees and size. I'll try to paraphrase the insights that he gives us into these few topics because these are the ones that have influenced me most immediately.

I am sure I have failed to absorb many equally important insights on other topics. Those insights will no doubt surface in the next few weeks as I work with Hockney's voice in my ear.

Drawing. "Drawing makes you see things clearer ...". Hockney observes that the way an artist understands an image is by sketching it, and sketching it, and sketching it ... Drawing makes you ask the right questions and only then will you begin to see the right answer. Always be Drawing.

Perspective. In art, perspective won't normally be what a camera would see. This is beautifully illustrated by discussing Claude Lorrain's "The Sermon on the Mount" and Hockney's own recreation of it: "A Bigger Message". The observer is placed in a position that would be impossible to create with linear perspective. The observer is simultaneously looking up at the mountain and down on the lake and hills beyond. This false perspective works for the observer of the paintings and is clearly intentional on the part of the artist. Now that Hockney has illustrated it so clearly I am now going to look at all pictures in a new way.

Photography. A single camera gives you one perspective. Linear perspective. Even if that is foreshortened by long focus lenses or by massive cropping in the computer. Wanting to reflect the world more as we see it, Hockney has experimented with various mechanisms, not least his joiner photographs from the 80's and more recently with arrays of cameras. In this way a still image can come to recreate the cubist experience that an observer has at the original scene as they look around and as time passes as they observe. Hockney's attitude to photography is somewhat explained by his attitude to perspective. A camera is a tool. You need to find a way to use it that recreates the cubist image you imagine. You will need to do more than just point and shoot.

Colour. Hockney has worked with printing, of course, as well as with more direct means of placing colour on a surface. His observations about the way that colour is reproduced in prints (and on screens, for that matter) is most reassuring for those of us who struggle to create images which will transcend all these media. His observations about Green are particularly helpful. Don't think I'll be using much green any time soon. But his observation that he experimented with printing by seeing what a printer would create and adjusting his colour choice accordingly gives me a new freedom that I had not previously permitted myself. I feel released from constraints that I had really only imagined.

Trees. Hockney talks a great deal about the difficulty of observing trees. He returns to the same trees day after day throughout the seasons in order to understand their architecture. He explains why it is easier to see a tree in the winter when it is bare and why this is important even if you want to reproduce it fully clothed. He explains why it is difficult to photograph trees. They are very tall. You want to be close up. Means you have to look down and up at the same time. It's that perspective issue again. His own illustration of trees, amply reproduced here, take on a new clarity with this explanation. These magnificent, huge pictures of trees near his home are monuments to his greatness as an artist.

Size. I have often observed that size in pictures is an immediate crowd pleaser in galleries. But I have often argued, from a theoretical point of view, that size isn't everything, content is more important. I am beginning to doubt my own rhetoric (I know, that's a good thing). I think my initial comments on size were in relation to Miro's triptychs, which were little more than a slash of paint across three huge canvasses. Walking into the room in which they were displayed was stunning. Much the same can be said of Hockney's massive multi-panel tree pictures, which are even more stunning. But because his images are of real places, standing next to the almost life-size trees is an emotional experience it is difficult to reproduce in a book. You can put your head very close to the page and use a magnifying glass if you need to, but it doesn't compare with standing before the giant itself. Size may not be everything, but is is a very important component.

With his tree pictures, Hockney has improved upon nature.

As with all his images, his emotional attachment to the scene transmits to you directly. He is every bit as good an artist as Turner or Constable. Hundreds of his pictures will be remembered in the centuries to come whereas most other British artists will be lucky to be remembered by one or two.

Also, Hockney will be remembered for his insight and his ability to share that insight. This book will help you get inside Hockney's head, which all artists and lovers of art should crave.