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David Hockney: The visionary contemplations of an elusive master
Popular, Artists - September 14, 2022
By Andrew Bay, UK
Throughout his career, David Hockney has been able to create remarkable work which has mesmerised and audiences the world over. But don't let the fact that he casually wears red and green ties, blue jackets over white jumpers and golden glasses everyday, deceive you. He is still as passionate about producing fascinating paintings as he is about his clothing stylish quirkiness: Hockney is able to capture the light of the changing seasons both in his paintings and in the way he dresses up.
He has been living in Normandy, on the North West coast of France since 2018. This new environment has inspired him to fill his house with large photographs of flowering branches, upside-down plants blossoms, a drizzly small lake and a tree lodge. They formed the basis of his last splendid exhibition, called The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020.
Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937 and grew up in post-war United Kingdom. How was he able to sense all the glowing tones and colours that define his unique painterly style? Hockney always openly acknowledged that as an art student, he was largely influenced by Picasso, Matisse and Monet. But at that time, Bradford was a typical city from the North of England, with grey and overcast weather throughout most of the year.
For a young Hockney, there wasn't much else to paint but an architectural landscape mostly smudged by soot and coal. And that's what he did: there wasn't a lot of colour. But he had an epiphany at a Van Gogh exhibition curated in Manchester in 1954. Years later, Hockney fondly remembered that he had been amazed by the piercing blues Van Gogh had used in his paintings, as if the skies had been "exposed against their will," he once said, "truly a wonderful sight to behold."
Hockney's body of work continuously revisits the themes which he intuitively recognised in Van Gogh's paintings on that day: a lengthy pursuit for a brighter sun, bolder colours and clean light, vibrantly passionate and moving art. As soon as he got into primary school in Bradford, he knew he wanted to be an artist; he took every class he could to learn about drawing, sketching and colouring, and after completing his secondary school exams, he left his hometown for a London art college. He visited New York for the first time, decided to dye his hair blond and and made a promise to himself to come back to the US when he would be rich and famous.
In 1960, Hockney drafted his first important painting, titled "Adhesiveness." This was his first effort to produce a double portrait, which later turned out to be one of his signature subjects. He still feels that it was his first significant work, because it had a great deal of accuracy to it. During that period, Hockney began traveling extensively to Egypt, Berlin, Rome, Florence, filling his imagination with new experiences. This was the turning point, when his work started to gain momentum and a great deal of recognition from the art world. Awards, sold out exhibitions, and his distinctive dyed blond hair made him into a household name.
As an artist, the individual character of his work started to become more discernible; he openly disclosed his homosexuality, and started to playfully incorporate perspective as the key building block of his stylistic development. In doing so, Hockney discovered the key characteristics of the themes he would explore in depth over the coming years: domesticity, interior design, intimacy in relationships, portraiture, sexuality, and the interplay between reality and illusion.
In 1964, Hockney decided to move to San Francisco, and then later on to Los Angeles. He has often compared California to Normandy where he now resides, and still has fond memories of the time he spent on the American West Coast. His hometown of Bradford certainly wasn't a sunny, shiny place. Most of the time, the rising sun coming through the clouds at day break, was simply too dim to notice. It made the colours that filtered through the light mostly opaque and hazy, like an out of focus impressionistic painting. Hockney had always dreamed of living in a radiant Hollywood movie, which he loved watching as a young teenager. That's where he wanted to live, and he made his dream come true by moving to America, like Van Gogh picking up his brushes and canvases on his way to Provence.
Hockney is the pleasure seeking painter par excellence. His pictures talk about rapture and joy. His search for meaning, freedom and fulfilment began with unreserved depictions of gay yearning at a time when homosexuality was still a criminal offense in the UK. The paintings which depicted his life in California with friends, collaborators and fellow artists, such as designer Celia Birtwell and novelist Christopher Isherwood, are wonderful snapshot of his creative life. But they are also lyrical compositions filled with radiance and luminosity. Through the clear foam of a group of swimmers spatter, against the background of the deep blue sea and the blood red skies of California, Hockney found a distinctive way to convey feelings of loss, desire and love, lingering in every yearning instant.
Following in Matisse's footsteps, Hockney wants to fashion a personal universe of delicate beauty that needs painting.
In the summer of 2018, Hockney decided to drive through the Normandy countryside, on his way to a retrospective curated in his honour in Paris. He was struck by the peculiar radiance of the green horizons surrounding him and the bright golden sun, setting behind the hills over yonder at dusk. He deplores that in France in particular, the art of painting has been caught in a cultural deadlock for several years now.
Under the pressure of an increasingly Derridean aesthetic influence, photography has supplanted painting as the main pictorial art form over the last 20 years. But Hockney's work has proven time and time again, that the magical power inherent in painting, to display the natural world, is still as expressive and graphically resounding as it ever was.
As he says, "I still love waking up as early as I can to capture the morning light, like Renoir and Manet."