Examining The Sun-Filled Life Of Legendary Artist David Hockney
David Hockney is perhaps the art world’s biggest living legend. While known as a national treasure in Britain, the artist moved to California in 1964 and became associated with Los Angeles in a visceral way, his famous pool paintings symbolizing the leisurely pleasures of Southern California. And while he was a massively important contributor to sixties Pop Art, Hockney’s works span multiple decades and techniques and styles, all adding up to an inimitable career.
Director Randall Wright’s documentary Hockney manages to capture the essentials of the artist’s life—which aren’t exactly easy to fit in two hours. Born in 1937 in Bradford, England, Hockney, an openly gay man, lived through World War II and massive cultural upheaval in the 1960s. He was struck by the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, which claimed the lives of about two thirds of his closest friends, trampling on an idyllic life. Yet all throughout, both Hockney and Hockney maintain an optimistic outlook, almost as sunny as the artist’s bright, glistening paintings.
Rather than a purely chronological narrative, the film plays as a collection of experiences. “I’ve tried to [portray] emotional stepping stones in David’s life,” said Wright, who previously directed a Hockney documentary for the BBC. “It’s an emotional logic going through the film, not chronological logic.”
It plays beautifully, relaying Hockney’s tender outlook on the world. Wright understands the artist, leading to an intimate portrait that cuts through the lore of a legend. We chatted on the phone about the artist’s personality, the effects of the AIDS crisis, and picking flowers with Hockney.
This is your second film about Hockney. What draws you to him?
Lots of things. I’ve known him for a very long time, since the mid 90’s, and of course I’m a fan of his work. Especially because the context of art now is conceptual art, in a framework rather. I’ve always been interested in figurative painting. It’s sort of an intellectual thing, intellectual connection. But really, I wanted to make this film because of David, he’s such a fascinating character. Very complex, very warm. There’s an attractive edge to his work, which I was really attracted to.
What are your favorite elements of Hockney’s work?
What I love about David is his playfulness. I love his life. He often says, “Let’s love life.” It’s a very awkward position to take up as an artist. Even though, in his case, that isn’t all what he represents. There’s light and playfulness in his work, but there’s also a kind of detachment as well. And I think he often talks about being alone. But he’s got this tremendous excitement around him for finding things out, and really looking at things. He in fact is like a filmmaker, a documentary filmmaker. Life is a mystery for him and he’s constantly exploring it. He’s looking closer and closer at things. Ordinary things to him become quite mysterious, when he looks even closer. There’s something immensely attractive about that to me.
I think there’s a lot conflict within [artists]. Their art is often kind of interesting because it reveals what’s wrong with human nature. We find it easier to identify with artists who have a sort of, not cruelty, but a realism. Whereas David comes from a very interesting time really, after the second World War, where despite all the monstrosities, there was a lot of optimism. So there’s a fundamental optimism in the work, and at the same time, a sort of detachment.
Think “A Bigger Splash.” It’s a beautiful theme, and there’s something sexual about it. Ejaculation, or whatever it is that you want to see. But there is no sign of a person except for the splayed water up in the air. The person is always below the surface in the paintings. [With the] painting itself, there’s a framing with the raw canvas. It’s separated from the rest of the canvas around it. It’s a bit lonely, but there’s kind of this great pleasure in life, the fragility of things.
Speaking of the fragility of things, the film addresses the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s. How did you take that on?
Well, in a very straightforward way. It’s kind of evidence of David’s spirit, really. He is probably as much affected by AIDS as he was by his fear of war and violence that came around from growing up in the Second World War. [The AIDS crisis marked] the end of a lot of things for David. It was the death of his best friends. But it was also the end of bohemia, which for him, was a great hope, that people could somehow make something of their lives in much of a way they chose. Two thirds of all his friends died in that period.
“You can have as much fun and swim in all the pools that California provides, but at the same time you still have to deal with human beings and the problems of life.”
Hockney spent many of his great working years in California. Could you explain the connection to that state?
Being brought up British, there is a bit of Britishness that’s injected into people. We’re through and through British. We find it very hard to transform into anything else. And for many British people, if you take them out and stick them in any part of the world, they’re very similar actually to how they [would be] if they stayed in the UK. And what’s very interesting about David is that he is California. And I think that to really change, he took it as a real challenge, to ask himself the kind of process, the guilt, the kind of difficulty in relaxing and enjoying himself He’s looking for Shangri-La, he’s looking for an ideal romantic life. He discovered it, he really did, but at the same time he discovered the impossibility of that, because there is no perfect life. You can have as much fun and swim in all the pools that California provides, but at the same time you still have to deal with human beings and the problems of life.
I think [California] was very necessary to him, if I dare to say. I think he really needed it! I think he needed it as a gay man, because he grew up in a time where it was illegal to be [gay]. And when he was painting his first gay paintings, it could’ve been constricted as breaking the law. So California was a delightful—and also, I know, then in Los Angeles, the art world was really small, compared to New York, London, and Paris. He wants to get that out of his system too! He wants to get away from everything and recreate himself.
Is there anything in particular that you took away from your time spent with Hockney? Anything that he taught you that you’d like to share?
One thing that David has that is really special, that everyone should have, or that everyone should try and cultivate, is a sense of innocence. He’s preserved his ability to see the world with an innocent eye, and he takes great pleasure in small things. I’ll tell you a story. Once, I was walking along with him and he saw something. He picked it up a tiny flower and he held it between his hands with a cigarette smoldering. He looked at it for a long time. Then it he put it down and he said, “I haven’t seen that color for years.” David seeing small things and seeing them as mysterious and beautiful, that’s being really alive. That’s being alert, open, that’s why he’s a great artist–he has preserved an ability to see without judgment. That’s the quality I like most in him.
Hockney is obviously a huge legend. Was it difficult to cut through all that to get to the man himself?
David really trusted me. I’d known him a very long time, he couldn’t hide himself from me in any way. So I was in a very lucky position. I made a film about Lucien Freud, before making this film, which he liked very much, so I think that made him see that I could make a film that would be very fair to him. I’m very fond of David. He’s amazing. Just an endlessly interesting person.
Images courtesy of Film Movement.
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