Sunday Times, 30 January 2011
At the last minute, the road turns sharply, so the house, perversely, does not face the sea. It is grand, double-fronted and odd. Built in 1924 by a trawlerman for his daughter, the style is lavish but indefinable. In what was once the front garden, a big Jeep and a white Lexus saloon are parked. The front door is protected by a wooden gate. I ring, the door opens and two barking dogs appear, explaining the need for the gate. Behind them is David Hockney.
“Come in,” he says, flat as a Yorkshire pancake.
Hockney has always been defiantly himself — cantankerous, funny, endlessly creative, chain smoking for Britain — but never more so than at 73 and back in Yorkshire. We are in Bridlington, to be exact, a decayed, shabby seaside resort with a hotel — my hotel — called, mysteriously, the Expanse, and an amusement arcade called Roxy, outside which stand pale, pimply youths holding fags under their palms. Even the North Sea seems reluctant to come here.
“It’s a time warp, this place,” Hockney says with some satisfaction as he drives me round in the Lexus. The car is important, a key to his current predicament, as I shall explain.
He likes the fact that the town has stopped dead somewhere around 1955. He also likes the fact that East Yorkshire as a whole comes up in surveys as the worst place in Britain to live. It keeps people away. Also in the car is a shock-haired young Art Garfunkel lookalike called Dominic, a local enlisted into the Hockney posse. He says little. We are on the way to the studio, which turns out to be a 10,000 sq ft industrial unit full of pictures and assorted kit.
“I didn’t have anything like this in Los Angeles. Look, everything is on wheels.”
Hockney left England for Los Angeles in 1978. He was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, but, while he was in LA, the family had begun moving eastwards. Margaret, his sister, arrived in Bridlington and was joined by his mother in 1989. He bought them the trawlerman’s house. In the 1990s, he travelled back and forth to Yorkshire to visit a dying friend and, back in California, started to paint the county’s landscape from memory. His mother died in 1999, and in 2005 Hockney moved into the house, while maintaining a place and a staff in LA.
“One of the reasons for going to LA was the light, and one of the reasons I came back to Bridlington was the light. The light is so marvellous in California, that’s why Hollywood is there. They can film throughout the year and it is 10 times brighter there. On the other hand, what I missed — and it dawned on me slowly — was the seasons and the big changes from the winter to the spring.”
Everything in the studio — tables, chairs, things I don’t understand — is indeed on wheels. In fact, there are four wheelchairs scattered ominously about the place. Is he all right? “Oh, the wheelchairs. You can move around a lot quicker in them. I saw a curator in New York scampering around in one at a big exhibition. I thought that was the best idea, so I got four for here.”
He demonstrates by racing around the shiny white floor in one of the chairs, propelled by his feet. He grins, delighted. Even at his most serious — and he does get very serious, especially about smoking — there is something intrinsically comical about the man. It is partly the dry, flat accent, miraculously and probably deliberately intact in spite of the years of exile, but it is also the whole anarchic demeanour.
“You are,” I say to him at one point, after he tells yet another tale of proving people wrong about everything, “a troublemaker.” His eyebrows rise in faux innocence.
Today, he is wearing a very fine but rather old and grubby grey suit, brown loafers, a blue pullover and a turquoise shirt. The hair is scrambled and grey, but still recognisably that of the Royal College of Art bad boy of the 1960s. He smokes Camel Turkish cigarettes and he tosses the ash and the butts on the studio floor. Behind his half-frame tortoiseshell glasses, the eyes are grey, sharp and ambiguous. When he stares at you, you don’t know whether to laugh or frown — exactly what, I think, he intends.
The most important thing about his outfit is the big inside pocket of the jacket. He had his tailor put it there to hold his sketch books. But he doesn’t put sketch books in the pocket any more, he uses it for an iPad. He had been using an app called Brushes to draw on an iPhone. Brushes actually feels like paint or pencil sketching. The big difference is that the iPad provides back light, so each sketch has a ready-made glow effect. All steps can be retraced, and the thickness of the brush, as well as the hue and opacity of the colours, is almost infinitely variable. It requires, as Hockney points out, patience and effort to master, but, at least in his hands, it is worth it. He liked the iPhone because the screen was just the right size to draw with the thumb of one hand while he held a cigarette with the other. But the screen was small.
“The moment I heard about the iPad coming out, I thought, we’ll move on. It’s bigger, and I could probably do more sophisticated drawings with it. I got it sent from LA. It was one of the early ones. It takes some time to master these apps. You have to stick with one and master it.”
Soon afterwards a friend of mine, the historian Michael Burleigh, boasted that he had acquired a collection of 65 Hockneys — iPad drawings can easily be emailed, and Hockney had taken to sending them out to his friends, one of whom is Burleigh, another of whom is now me. I have a collection of 20. I can just rest my eyes on them, which I do a lot, or I send them to my friends. The country is now littered with original Hockneys. This raises an awkward question. “I don’t know how we’re going to make any money out of this,” he mutters, the Yorkshire intonation flattening even further.
In fact, he does. The emailed files are very low resolution — less than a megabyte — and can therefore be printed only on a very small scale. Another member of his posse, Jonathan, a tech guy from Harrogate, can, by some alchemy, extract 120MB files from his boss’s iPad and blow the pictures up to full gallery size. On the other hand, prints will lack the backlit splendours of the images on the machine, so the free pictures are, in fact, the true originals. (You can see examples of them on the Sunday Times app.)
Hockney was, from the beginning, one of the greatest draughtsmen alive, producing countless unforgettable drawings. His adaptation of his art to the iPad has been dazzling, as is his demonstration of how it is done. In the studio, on a table — on wheels, of course — that is littered with Hello! magazines, he props up the machine and starts doodling.
“It’s a luminous medium, and luminous subjects suddenly become very interesting — light, light hitting glass, things that are shiny… You can have as many layers as you like. With watercolours, you can’t have more than three layers or it turns muddy. It’s not a surface, so you don’t damage it. And it’s like an endless piece of paper — you can begin at one size and you can extend or reduce the drawing. It’s like sticking extra pieces of paper on the edge. It takes you a while to grasp that you can start drawing on scales you couldn’t think of before.
“I now use a stylus, which is just a rubber thing on a tube. I can draw lines more accurately because you can see the line being drawn. Under your finger, you have to use your memory to join up a thin line over there to a thin one over here.”
The machine has one further astonishing power. It can retrace the entire drawing process as an animation, so every touch of the artist can be seen. “I don’t think you can do that on the iPhone, but with the iPad you can do it immediately. Normally you don’t watch yourself draw when you are drawing, because you are always a few moves ahead. At any given moment, you will be thinking of the next mark, the next mark. But with this, you can watch it all as it happened. The only thing like it is that great Picasso film where he’s drawing — and he realises it wasn’t the finished drawing he was doing that was the subject, it was what he was doing.”
Using only his fingers, Hockney got so lost in the process that he would wipe his fingers on his jacket and trousers when changing colours, as if using real paint. “Yeah, I used to do that, especially when I was using certain colours like clear yellow, when you need a clean brush.”
He thinks the iPad changes the history of art, but he won’t have anything to do with the commercial interests involved. “Apple have been in touch. I kind of didn’t want to talk to them. I’d prefer to do all this myself. I don’t really owe them anything. I’ve probably sold lots of iPads, but my instinct is to keep away because I want the freedom to do what I want.”
The Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent, in Paris, has just staged an exhibition of Hockney’s iPhone and iPad drawings, called Fleurs Fraîches. When he started drawing with the iPhone, he drew the first things he saw in the morning — the fresh flowers put by his bed by his partner, Johnnie.
The exhibition started with a video of Hockney drawing a view of the Eiffel Tower from a balcony on his iPad. At the end, he turns to the camera, grins, then takes a cigarette from a strange box with an integrated lighter, which I make a note to ask him about later. On one wall of the gallery were 20 iPhones arranged in rows; on another, a horizontal line of 20 iPads. The pictures on each changed continuously. In another room were projected images of the pictures, also constantly changing. The rooms were darkened, and the effect was like being inside Notre-Dame or Chartres, surrounded by glorious stained glass.
There was certainly a touch of religious awe about the way visitors examined these glowing, magical images. None was more magical than the portrait of Hockney’s old friend Maurice Payne. It was animated to show the development of the image from the very first mark. You found yourself dumbstruck by the intricacy and precision of Hockney’s technique.
Occasionally a drawn message would flash up on the screens. “Made for the screen,” said one, “totally on the screen. It’s not an illusion.” Or, most pointedly: “It is thought new technology is taking away the hand. I’m not so sure. If you look around, a lot is opening up. Love, David H.”
This, in so many ways, is the heart of the matter. Image-makers, from the stained-glass artists of the middle ages to the digital cartoonists who made the Toy Story films, have always embraced new technology. Hockney believes a key part of this history of art and technology has been suppressed.
Everybody agrees that photography began in the 1820s, then assumes that the camera was invented at the same time. In fact, in the form of the camera obscura — a darkened room into which images of the exterior are projected — it had been around for 2,000 years. With the invention of lenses, this became ever more effective, and, along with the physicist Charles Falco, Hockney has a theory that the device was used by the old masters from the Renaissance onwards. The Hockney-Falco thesis has run into criticism, especially from art historians who think it implies the old masters cheated, but he is convinced.
“I’m positive it’s true. There is no question. You can compare the way Caravaggio used optics in about 1605 to the way they were used by Vermeer 60 years later. That was a fascinating period, because lenses were developing enormously thanks to the microscope. By the time you get to Vermeer, the lenses were probably quite close to what we might have in a camera today.”
His message is that technology and the image — the machine and the hand — are natural companions. In taking up the iPad, he is following an ancient tradition of innovation. It is not the only technology he is now using. The big Jeep in the front of the house, combined with nine Canon DSLR cameras, is the other.
After Johnnie’s elaborate lunch, lugubriously, Yorkshirely, Hockney takes me up to the top of the house, pausing on the way to show me his bedroom, where he has done so many of his e-pictures. “Here’s the bowl of oranges,” he says, somewhat redundantly, pointing to a bowl of oranges. Then up another flight to the attic room. We have moved from the exquisite, tasteful chaos of an artist’s home to the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise. There are computers and banks of screens. Dominic, the shock-haired silent one, is at a keyboard. Jonathan, the tech guy, is in his element. Hockney’s assistant, Jean-Pierre — “the only Parisian in Bridlington” — is in an armchair. Johnnie is hanging around somewhere. I sit next to Hockney in front of a bank of 18 screens.
The Jeep was fitted with a rig holding the nine cameras. These were set up to shoot high-definition video and wired to a small nine-screen monitor in the back seat. They would then drive at 5mph twice up his favourite country lane, Rudston Road, once with the rig pointing to the left and once to the right. Hockney would sit in the back, watching the monitor.
This slow-moving, bizarre contraption would get in the way of bikes and cars, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. “It doesn’t matter,” Jean-Pierre shrugs in a Parisian sort of way. “They just thought we were Google.”
“You couldn’t do this in LA,” Hockney says. “You’d have to get permission.”
The results are then shown to me simultaneously on the 18 screens. They are breathtaking. They make me feel I have never seen a tree before.
“One of the things a Hollywood cameraman will always tell you,” Hockney says, as if confiding a dark secret, “is that it’s very difficult to photograph the tallness of trees, but we’ve done it here.” (An exhibition of these new nine-camera works is planned at the Royal Academy in January 2012.)
Hockney’s sense of the moving image is similar to his sense of most other things — everybody else has got it wrong. In particular, he thinks the current 3D craze is utterly misguided.
“Yes, you can make TV pictures all in 3D. It’s good for pornography, for big tits and asses, but not much else. It’s still one point of view. It’s not how the human eye sees. Actually, seeing 18 separate films is more like human vision than one camera could ever be. All photography has ever done for us is make us claustrophobic.”
His videos, he says, include time because each side is shot at a different time. In one, filming is done half an hour apart; in another, it is filmed six months apart, so the nine screens on the left show summer and the nine on the right winter. The breadth of field and the majestic appearance, then graceful disappearance, of each tree as the Jeep passes is, for Hockney, a rebuke to the one-eyed photographic view to which we have become accustomed.
He is as enthralled as if he is watching it for the first time. “The sheer variety of texture — nature, it’s infinite, isn’t it? Lovely to watch — look at the way that’s spread out. Something did occur to me about the opening of the Olympics. How many cameras could you use to get the picture? Photographing one person in a studio with one camera doesn’t work very well.”
“Are you doing something for the Olympics?” I ask, baffled by the sudden digressive non sequitur. He snorts. “Nah, a smoke-free Olympics has f*** all to do with me.”
Which brings me to the smoking. It is unavoidable. All roads lead to Rome, and all Hockney conversations lead to cigarettes. At lunch and dinner, I find myself playing a game to see if I can bring up a subject that he can’t bring back to smoking. To no avail. Something, for example, about his peasant ancestry segues into a visit to Sandringham as a guest of Prince Charles: “He seemed like a perfectly nice person to me, he seemed perfectly sane, actually. But I’ve never been invited back, probably because I smoke too much.”
All politics reduces to the iniquity of the smoking ban. He loathed the authoritarianism of Blair and the covert anti-Englishness of Brown. And the coalition?
“I don’t really care, actually. I’ve given up on politics. It has just gone so crappy to me, I have given up on it.”
Generally, he feels the country is descending into a hell of mean-spiritedness, best exemplified by the persecution of smokers. He hates nonsmoking signs — he actually removed one from a 1,000-year-old church near Bridlington that he often visits. Signs, petty authority and smoke-free zones are driving him crazy. He says he is claustrophobic, but he also seems to have become agoraphobic, fearing the petty little world outside. Inside mean-spirited England, he lives in a little bubble that is another, freer England.
“I don’t go out much — it’s more interesting in this house, where you can smoke, drink and enjoy yourself all in the same place at the same time. They’ll never get rid of smoking, people are very naive about it. They think they will, and all they will do is make this a much more lawless country. They’ll make it illegal, and people like me will still get it. F*** off, I’ll tell them.”
All this, I suggest, is why he is not Lord Hockney of Bridlington. It turns out he was offered a knighthood, but turned it down.
“I never mentioned it to anybody. I was in California, and I’ve never really been impressed by prizes of any kind. I am a Companion of Honour only because somebody else opened the envelope. I was a bit annoyed about that… It’s okay for some people, but it’s not for me. I never claimed to be a respectable person, I smoke dope…”
He now loathes England so much that he thinks he might move again, to die in LA, or possibly Paris. The fact that California is at least as fierce about smoking as Britain does not seem to bother him.
This all sounds worse than it is because, in the flesh, it comes across as part comedy routine, part genuine and justified anger at contemporary puritanism. And it is all reduced to mere background noise by his creative energy, his rhapsodic and uplifting sense of beauty, his boyish enthusiasm for his iPad and his multiscreen system, and the boundless creativity that, latterly, has manifested itself in giant, multicanvas paintings of his Yorkshire trees and, now, in his videos.
Which brings me back to the Lexus and the cigarette case. He suffers from familial deafness, mitigated by a hearing aid in each ear. He bought the Lexus because he heard it was the quietest car on the road, so he can insulate himself from the confusion caused by multiple sound sources. But, you might object, the Lexus does not have an ashtray. Hockney’s does — a big plastic one stuck on a cup holder. This also means that, via the ferry from Hull, he can drive round Europe in silence, smoking happily and able to ignore the signs on trains and planes telling him what to do.
The cigarette case with integrated lighter is much more interesting. It is a piece of tourist kitsch. Hockney picked it up at a gift shop in Giverny, where Claude Monet lived and painted from 1883 until his death from lung cancer in 1926. Now he can gleefully extract fags and light up all with one movement. “At first, I thought it was a mobile phone — that’s why I keep picking it up when the phone rings.” His mobile, needless to say, does not ring, it honks cantankerously.
The association with Giverny is irresistible. It was there that, in his later years, Monet took to painting giant pictures of nature, including the famous water lilies. This, with his huge pictures of trees and his 18 video screens, is what Hockney is doing. Bridlington is his Giverny.
One of Brid’s slightly bonkers taxi drivers arrives to take me back to the Expanse as Hockney, lugubriously, Yorkshirely, climbs the stairs to bed. He is coughing, he coughs violently quite a lot. He smokes too much, you see. He should give up, he should give up for England. We need him to show us what matters.