Interview with David Hockney

6 Feb|Tom Hodgkinson

Hocney_WR David Hockney by David Hockney, for the Idler

As David Hockney’s new show at Tate Britain opens, we publish Tom Hodgkinson’s account of a trip to visit the artist in Yorkshire, in January 2010

IT is not every day that you get the opportunity to meet a living genius, so I was  thrilled when David Hockney accepted my request for an interview. I had read  his book Secret Knowledge, a beautiful account of the use of the camera in art  from the Renaissance to the present day. Art historians know that portraiture suddenly became more realistic around 1400 to 1500. What Hockney shows is that, in the fifteenth century, artists began to use lenses to project an image on to a piece of paper, which they then traced to get a realistic image. That’s why Renaissance art looks so photographic when compared with medieval art. It is Hockney’s argument that the camera, in fact, far from being the only realistic means of depicting reality, is only one of many, and a rather boring one at that. It has come, though, to dominate the world. Its rise in the Renaissance comes with a new way of looking at the world: medieval art tends to look at objects from many perspectives; the camera has only one. It is fascinating to note in the book that Cubism, which was a revolt away from perspective and the camera-based view, has more in common with medieval art than with art from the ‘realistic’ period of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.

I arrived at Hockney’s house in Bridlington, Yorkshire, after a drive of about an hour. Bridlington is a small remote town on the east coast of Yorkshire. ‘We like it here,’ Hockney had said on the phone. ‘It’s quiet. We are left alone.’ His house is a thirties double-fronted detached red-brick villa. From the outside it looks like any other house in the street. Inside the house is a stylish and witty jumble of dark colours, flowers, little signs, paintings and books. There is a double-height atrium and a gallery staircase, which lends the house a theatrical air. Jonathan shows me into the front room, which is packed with books. By the door there is a pipe rack with a sign above it that reads: ‘Smoking Area’. Hockney appears in a paint-splattered  pinstripe suit with braces and a green polo shirt. He has the glittering, piercing eyes of Picasso and the same sense of mischief: the first thing that strikes me is that his face seems permanently on the edge of cracking into a smile or a grin. Hockney’s partner John gets me a Corona and I sit on the chaise longue.

Hockney offers me a cigarette – he seems to alternate between Camel Wides and Virginia Slims. I say thanks but roll my own. When I lose my lighter he gives me three of his with the easy generosity of the genuinely bohemian artist. There are two dogs, which are initially wary of me and leap back when I try to stroke them. But the male dog soon loses his shyness to the point where he jumps on to the sofa and starts trying to have sex with my arm. ‘Get down, Freddy,’ Hockney says. Then the dog knocks over my beer. I go to get a cloth, but Hockney waves me back to the chaise longue. He calls out through the door and John and another young man appear. They wipe up the spill and bring me a new beer. The whole atmosphere is enormously good-natured and convivial. You could be in the company of some jolly medieval monks: there is the same love of beauty and art, the productive atmospheree, the communal living, the intellectual curiosity, the division of labour, the interest in gardening and flowers, the hospitality and courtesy, the pleasure in food and wine. I suspect, though, that members of the Hocknickan Order are not required to take a vow of chastity.

Hockney explains that he lives here with his studio assistant, Jean-Pierre, and John, his partner of twenty years. He bought the house from his sister. Around the corner he has bought a gigantic 10,000- square-foot warehouse, just five minutes’ drive away. He has a studio and a flat in Kensington but rarely uses it these days. ‘I get too distracted in London,’ he said. ‘And to get a studio of this size in London, I would have to drive through half an hour of ugliness.’ He is right on the sea, so he can get that feeling of open space that led him to move to California in the sixties. ‘Was it the light that attracted you there?’ I ask. ‘Yes, and the sex,’ he replies. When they feel like a break, Hockney and John get in the car and jump on the overnight ferry to Zeebrugge, catching the tacky cabaret on the way. From there they drive all over Europe. Hockney can’t stand airports or trains because you can’t smoke. In the car, he can smoke, and they can drive wherever they like.

One favourite destination is the spa town of Baden-Baden in Germany. He says he likes my anarchic writings, that he hasn’t voted for many years, and that he is not political although he is interested in politics. He believes that we need beauty. He says that we all need both to take more personal responsibility for our own lives, and to be more neighbourly. He tells me with delight about the Sermon on the Mount project. He says that the original painting is very dark, but they discovered that it had been covered in soot from a fire. They cleaned it up on the computer. ‘What attracted me was the sense of space in that picture.’ I say that surely the subject matter was also interesting (I’m personally fascinated when artists return to medieval themes). And he says, yes, it is the great text on good ethics. He says he is not particularly religious but that he is very interested in religion. His mother was a strict Methodist. On his bookshelves is every conceivable sort of book: there is a lot of history and biography. There is Ted Hughes, Hardy, Evelyn Waugh.

We go through into dinner and sit down in the dining room at an oval, polished wood table. The walls are painted dark red and there are heavy velvet curtains in the windows. Along the sideboard twelve candles have been lit, and a log fire burns in the grate. It is all very cosy and convivial. Hockney seats me at the head of the table and sits on my left. He continues smoking through the meal. He no longer drinks alcohol, and has a couple of alcohol-free beers instead. John serves up a delicious pigeon pie with mashed potatoes. We drink red wine. Over dinner Hockney talks. He has an endless store of anecdotes and ideas, and speaks with great clarity, subtlety and humour. He remembers going to the cinema twice a week as a boy in Bradford, to see the Westerns. ‘When I was thirteen,’ he recalls, ‘the man next to me put his hand on my cock. I’ve loved cinemas ever since.’ He talks about the gay scene in seventies New York: ‘We used to go to the bathhouses. It was very democratic: everyone’s a prostitute and everyone’s a client.’ But they were wild, he says. ‘My friend would say, “David, is this heaven or hell?” And I said, “If you’re asking, it’s probably hell.”’ AIDS killed many of his friends and put an end to that scene. Hockney talks about his love for opera and tells me I must listen to it properly. He says that you need to put some effort into it, and then you are rewarded. Not everybody, though, gets the point: he tells a story of taking Billy Wilder to the opera. The show started at eight. ‘Afterwards Billy said, “During the performance, at midnight I looked at my watch. It said eight-fifteen.”’

Hockney says that, for fifty years, he has done exactly what he wanted to do every day, and that this is the essence of being an artist or a bohemian. It’s not about the money, he says. ‘If you can live that sort of life, you are rich. I mean, sometimes I have been working for other people, doing set design. But I have chosen to work with them.’ He says he has only really been unhappy once, when his partner Peter Schlesinger left him, in 1970. ‘It’s only when you’re unhappy that you realise you must have been happy before.’ He is interested in all the arts and says that he was rather dismayed by Mick Jagger’s attitude to opera when he met him at a party in the sixties. ‘He was very much performing the rebel pose, and sneered when I asked what he thought of opera. But surely as a singer, you would be interested in good singing?’ And this is perhaps one thing that really marks Hockney out from most artists. He is interested in everything, whereas artists tend to be rather self-absorbed and often take absolutely no interest in other people’s work whatsoever. Hockney is different; he is drenched in culture. He is also extremely well read.

He shows me to my bedroom. On the landing wall is his famous portrait Mrs and Mrs Clarke and Percy: can it be the original? My room has a huge brass bed, two comfy chairs by the window and ‘a power shower’, as Hockney points out with some delight. He seems to take great pleasure in enunciating each word, almost as if he is mocking them. It is the same when he tells me about breakfast arrangements. ‘Take anything you like. It’s self-service.’ To get his voice, imagine a (funnily enough) slightly less camp version of Alan Bennett. A copy of Secret Knowledge has been placed by the bed. On the shelf is a collection of Evelyn Waugh stories. I take it down to find that the dust jacket is marking a page right in the middle of ‘Scott-King’s Modern Europe’, a coincidence, as I had read that very story just before Christmas. It is about a Latin teacher who, having witnessed the horrors of modern Europe, decides that to teach Classics is more important than ever. I don’t sleep very well. I must have smoked about fifteen cigarettes since arriving; the room is hot and I am used to the cold, and my head is buzzing with everything I have seen and heard. I come down for breakfast at half past eight. The kitchen has black-and-white-squared lino. It opens into a small courtyard garden, with pots and a barbecue. A couple of builders walk in and out. Jonathan comes in for his coffee. Hockney is sitting at the table on his iPhone, a black and white flat cap on his head. ‘Morning!’ I say. He tells me to help myself to toast and tea, which I do. The morning papers are spread out on the table. ‘I’m drawing,’ says Hockney. Sure enough, he is drawing the hyacinths on the kitchen table on his iPhone, with his thumb. Hockney is fascinated by the possibilities that are offered by the computer in terms of changing both how images are made and also how they are distributed.

After breakfast, Hockney drives me to his studio, which is around the corner. It is a vast warehouse on an industrial estate, with natural light that comes in through ceiling skylights. He shows me giant canvases of trees that he has been painting. He is going to paint them in each of the four seasons. There is also a giant reproduction of Claude’s “Sermon on the Mount”, and along the walls are various new interpretations of the painting by Hockney. He says the beauty of such a large studio is that you can stand right back and take a good look at a large canvas. There is a scale model of the rooms at the Royal Academy which Hockney will take for his 2012 exhibition. I accept a cup of tea and a Camel Wide and we sit down to record an interview.

David Hockney: The invention of photography was the invention of chemicals to fix an image, meaning, it wasn’t the invention of the camera. You can’t name the inventor of the camera, but you can name the inventor of photography. Cameras are natural phenomena, really. But an optical projection of the world, which is what a camera does, is not really the way we see the world. Cameras just see surfaces, and we see space. I think photography might actually have made us see the world as very dull.

Tom Hodgkinson: And how would the world have looked in the medieval period?

DH: Well, I will point out that before that change [in the Renaissance] you had very few shadows. Nobody painted shadows. Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Indian; you name it, they didn’t paint shadows. The Chinese might have said, ‘Well, everything’s a shadow.’ I ask: do we see shadows? Well, we do and we don’t. We can decide not to. In a way, it was the arrival of shadows that made me see that maybe this is optical, an optical technology, simply because it needed shadows. I was surprised that art historians hadn’t noticed that. Most art historians are Eurocentric, they’re very European-trained. I’ve always been interested in photography. A friend of mine was talking about art and photography, and I said, ‘Henry, is photography an art?’ And he said, ‘I always thought it was a hobby!’ Very funny, and there is some truth in it. Actually, for the early photographers, it was a hobby, wasn’t it, because you had to be quite rich to do it. The arrival of photography slowly shifted power in the nineteenth century and created what we had for most of the twentieth century, which is mass media. Technology did it. And technology is going to take it away.

TH: That also coincides with the worst century there’s ever been for totalitarianism and bloodshed.

DH: You needed control of the media to be able to get away with what Stalin or Hitler did, or Mao, and you could: in the mid-twentieth century, if you controlled the media, you controlled all information. By about 1930 it was possible to do that. Now we’re moving out of that time. It’s probably now not possible.

TH: But isn’t the information still coming via big American companies like Google?

DH: Yeah. They are a bit frightening. I read your piece about it [We Want Everyone: Facebook and the New American Right]. And I must admit, I wouldn’t go on Facebook. If you want to keep your privacy, you have to be very careful. We do have a website, but I haven’t done much on it, simply because I don’t want to deal with people sending me things.

TH: I closed down the Idler forum because they started getting nasty.

DH: Yeah. I’m not sure that Internet democracy will be very good. It could be terrible, couldn’t it? But there’s a good and a bad side to everything; there’s a minimum of two sides. There’s always going to be a bad side and it depends how it’s managed, I suppose.

TH: Going back to the transition from medieval to Renaissance and later culture, most of those medieval pictures that you show in the book are absolutely packed with people, and then around the Renaissance you get the focus on one person. I think also of the difference between Joshua Reynolds and Hogarth: Hogarth has little characters all over the place, very funny and clearly not done with the camera.

DH: Reynolds had a camera that folded up to look like a book, which is interesting, meaning it was hidden. He gave lectures saying that you shouldn’t use it too much. He did it to get his likenesses, simply because it makes it easier and quicker.

TH: Had you really seen that isolation of the individual subject before? It seems to come along with the camera.

DH: Er, there are the Fayum portraits, which are about 2,000 years old. They found them in the desert sand and they are rather individualistic. The argument about the Renaissance has always been that it was humanism that did it. But my argument is that it is more likely to have been technology. For instance: the Mona Lisa. Why was it really interesting? Well, one of the reasons is that it is one of the first paintings to have very, very soft shadows on the face; the edges blended. He obviously saw that through cameras; Leonardo talks about cameras. People see it and think there’s something very realistic about it… but you know, there is the famous story of when the Jesuits went to China. They were fascinated by China, and realized it was a very advanced place. The scholars ran it. One of them painted the Empress of China. When she looked at it, she said: ‘I can assure you, the left side of my face is the same colour as the right side of my face.’ Very good.

TH: I don’t get it.

DH: She was talking about the shadows. The left side is the same colour. She didn’t see the shadows. It’s interesting: you start asking yourself, do I see shadows? The first dramatic use of shadows, in a way, is Caravaggio. I’m pointing out now that Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting. It’s very close to it. And if you think about it, the lighting had to be the sun, because it would be the only thing that would be that bright. It’s not talked about much. But if you look at a Caravaggio, you rarely see a scene lit like that in painting, only in films, later. Interesting subject, shadows. Interesting, yeah.

TH: The camera is not reality because it’s only a tiny millisecond.

DH: I’ll show you something. This is about the medieval world and the difference. I did this diagram twenty years ago. In pictures, we know: that’s the world, that’s the horizon, that’s the vanishing point. The viewer is here, and the viewer is an immobile point. And that, theoretically, is at infinity. If the infinity is God, this and this will never meet. If this moves, then this moves. That’s perspective as we know it. But in the medieval world, perspective is more often the reverse, meaning you could see both sides of the altar. The altar would be like that, not like that. OK, if you see both sides, that means you’re in movement. You’ve moved. That means that infinity is everywhere; God is everywhere, including within you.

TH: Rather than the Puritan’s distant point.

DH: We’re stuck with this [the new way of seeing things].

TH: It’s the same in literature, because if you think about The Canterbury Tales, there are many points of view and many stories, all in one book. And compare that with The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is one lonely journey through the world. It seems a similar thing is happening in art.

DH: Absolutely, parallels, yeah. We’ve accepted perspective, and we think everyone else has got it wrong. But they didn’t. They didn’t get it wrong. Actually, there’s no such thing. The Chinese use isometric perspective. It means that all the lines are parallel. They don’t meet. Western perspective began with Brunelleschi in about 1412 in Florence. He makes a painting of the Baptistry. Ten years ago, I’d been thinking about this, and then I had a flash and it suddenly dawned on me what he could have done. I realized he was supposed to have sat inside the Duomo in Florence and made this representation of the Baptistry which was in perspective. I point out that the Baptistry is an octagonal building. It does have sides. We went there, and set up a panel exactly the same size as his, and put it on an easel. And then, with a five-inch-diameter concave mirror, projected the Baptistry on to the panel. It acts as a lens and it will project back. You will point out that Brunelleschi wouldn’t have known this. Well, he would. Florence in 1412 was perhaps the most advanced city in the world, certainly very up to date with technology. Brunelleschi was very secretive and he was an architect, and in a way, this is the architect’s way of looking at the world. The vanishing point makes it all the same time, it fixes it, whereas a narrative painter is telling a story: time flows. So there’s no reason why a narrative painter would have devised perspective.

TH: So the photograph is just a glimpse in time, and therefore much less real than a painting which is taking in a whole range of times and angles? [On the phone a couple of weeks later, Hockney talks about the use of perspective in crucifixion paintings. ‘One of the first to use perspective was Masaccio’s Crucifixion, 1420. The crucifixion is an odd form of execution, because there is no before and after, no action. So you can depict suffering. With perspective there are gains and losses: you lose the narrative flow, but you gain a better feeling of the volume of the body.’]

DH: If you look at the medieval world and you look at the Chinese world at the same time, they have very sophisticated pictures. I found this out in a film we did about the Chinese scroll. I was fascinated by the different perspectives. I asked a scholar of Chinese art why China declined so much from the seventeenth century, when it was very, very well advanced, to the mid-nineteenth century, when it wasn’t. What had happened? And I was given two answers: one was that they’d lost their intellectual curiosity, which might have been the case; but the other was that there was superior military technology elsewhere, meaning more accurate guns and bigger ships, and so on. I immediately connected that with perspective, because when you set up perspective, you set up triangulation; with triangulation you can fire cannons more accurately, and that’s what it was used for. The Chinese didn’t have that technology; they’d rejected it, rejected it as not very human. Which is interesting, isn’t it? They had rejected the idea of a vanishing point, because it makes you immobile. I think it was something like the eleventh century. They were very sophisticated people, and their art is. I tended at one time to think that it was all a bit the same, like many people. Until you really get into it, and then you find that it isn’t at all. I got very interested in Chinese scrolls. You look at landscape in a different way: you move through it, like we do [in life]. In a way, one of my interests in this painting [The Sermon on the Mount] was its depiction of a very, very, very big space indeed. It’s very clever: it makes you feel you go round the mountain. I was attracted to it. You’ll see it, and then think about it later, and what you don’t realize is that you start cleaning the painting in your head. The subject is the Sermon on the Mount; Christ and his disciples are stood at the top; people at the bottom listening…but that subject isn’t that obvious when it’s very dark like that but the space is obvious, and the space is very big…I’m attracted to big spaces. From all of Claude’s paintings, this is highly unusual, because you have deep space on the left and right side, and what’s in the middle is closest to you, which is rather like a reverse perspective might be, whereas in most of his other paintings, the deep space is in the middle and the things close to you are at the sides, like a theatre set. TH: Now, Cubism takes off around the same time as photography is developed. DH: Cubism was a rejection of perspective, and the first rejection for 550 years. In a way, it is saying, well, we don’t see the world like that, we see it in glimpses, we put it together, we see with memory. Because we see with memory, we’re all seeing something different, even if we’re looking at the same thing. That’s why cloning somebody… would you clone all the memory in them? Can you? I doubt it. Meaning, you then wouldn’t see the same things. But we tend to think we do. We don’t ask these questions. We do have a visual culture, but it’s not very critical.


David Hockney’s new show at Tate Britain opens on 9 February.