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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

David Hockney: Why I Paint Instead of Just Picking Up a Camera

Interview by Martin Gayford - September 18, 2006

Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- David Hockney was struck by a remark of Jeremy Deller, the Turner Prize Winner in 2004: ``Artists don't paint these days, in the way that people don't go to work on a horse.''

``I pinned that up on my studio wall,'' Hockney said in an interview. ``I thought, he obviously thinks photography has supplanted painting. A lot of people think that. But I thought that remark was naive. I take a very different view of art history.'' He certainly does: in fact he has been busy for the last few years trying to turn the history of art upside down.

This autumn, there are three major events involving Hockney, who is seldom out of the limelight. There are two exhibitions: new landscapes at the Annely Juda Gallery, and a retrospective of his portraits next month at the National Portrait Gallery. And Hockney is publishing an enlarged edition of his controversial book ``Secret Knowledge,'' which argues that European painters used optical devices such as lenses and mirrors as far back as the 15th century.

All three of these apparently separate endeavors are linked. Each is connected with this David's struggle against the giant of photography. His complaint is straightforward, yet profound: He thinks the camera has dulled our image of the world. He feels that the dominance of the camera-eye view of the world in all the media -- and increasingly in art too -- is ``doing us damage.''

It isn't that Hockney despises photography. On the contrary, he admires masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom he once encountered by chance on the street in Paris.

``He was looking through his viewfinder and moving his camera slightly up and down, and side to side. I thought: That man knows what he's doing, I'll follow him a bit.'' The next day, they were formally introduced. ``He wanted to talk about drawings and I wanted to talk about photography,'' he said.

`Matisse Picasso'

Hockney still wants to talk about that subject, but not to praise it. He told me this anecdote about a visit to the great ``Matisse Picasso'' show at Tate Modern in 2002.

``I went with Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and John Golding (co-curator of the exhibition) at 8 o'clock one morning, just us. And it was stunning, a terrific show. When we came out, I noticed there were four big photographs hanging on the wall, recent acquisitions by the Tate. Lucian and Frank just walked past them. I looked at them and I thought, 'F*** me, Picasso and Matisse made the world look incredibly exciting, photography makes it look very, very dull. Yet now we're moving back to all the stuff that modernism moved away from.''

This dichotomy can be traced in Hockney's own work, and therefore in the ``Hockney Portraits'' exhibition. His first mature style, with which he made his name in the early 60s, employed a cheeky figurative drawing together with near-abstract passages. Then his work got steadily tightly focused and -- for want of a better word -- photographic until the mid-70s.

I Am Not a Camera

At that point, Hockney was famous, successful -- and very dissatisfied with his own work. ``There was something wrong with what I was doing. I've called it `obsessive naturalism,' but then I didn't know what it was.'' He abruptly changed course. ``I worked in the theater solidly for three years, which was a liberation, a new kind of space for me, and the moment I stopped working in the theater, I started playing about with a camera, when I made the pictures with Polaroids.''

It was with these works -- paradoxically using a camera -- that he began to explore the question, ``What can't photography do?'' One answer was that it can't represent the 360-degree wraparound space in which we really exist. But Hockney found he could map this using a mosaic of small, close-up Polaroid images.

History of Art

From there he was led to examine Cubism -- a non- photographic idiom if ever there was one -- and eventually to a completely new reading of the history of art. According to this, the Hockney thesis, there are two ways of representing reality. One, which he calls eyeballing, is done solely by looking, and depicting what you see. The second makes use of the ability of lens and mirrors to project images, creating images that appear photographic.

Hockney has pushed the photographic approach back far further in time than ever before, as far as Van Eyck and Brunelleschi. He is irritated by the oft-repeated statement that the camera was invented in 1839. ``It wasn't invented at all actually. You can't name the inventor of the camera. The 19th- century invention was chemical: the fixative.'' Types of camera had existed long before.

All of this stirred up a hornet's nest of enraged academic rebuttal when ``Secret Knowledge'' was first published in 2001. The controversy persists in scholarly articles and on Web sites. Hockney is sticking to his guns. On the claim, for example, that Caravaggio worked a little like a Hollywood director, he is unapologetic, and also dismissive of the suggestion that, if so, the great master was ``cheating.''

Approach to Life

``I never got why the art historians got so het up. Actually, it makes Caravaggio more important and more original. He's really drawing with optics in a fascinating way. But I don't think there's any other explanation of how those pictures were made.''

The more you talk to Hockney, the more you realize this isn't just an art-historical question. It's about an approach to life. A drawn or painted portrait, he said, incorporates much more time.

``I pointed out that Sam Taylor-Wood's video portrait of David Beckham for the NPG was an hour long. Whereas Lucian Freud's portrait (of Hockney) took 120 hours of sitting -- layered into it -- which makes it infinitely more interesting.'' Hockney himself often works much more quickly than that, but his portrait models, almost all family and friends, are people he has been observing for years, if not a lifetime.

Yorkshire Countryside

Everything Hockney does is about seeing what's around us, and seeing it better. Recently, he went out in the Yorkshire countryside, where he has been painting for the past two years, and stopped his car beside the road. ``I took one of those Japanese sketchbooks and I'd draw different grasses in the hedgerow. After 2 1/2 hours I'd filled the sketchbook, and after that I saw that hedgerow a great deal more clearly.''

``If you'd just photographed it, you wouldn't be looking in that way. Drawing makes you see things clearer, and clearer and clearer still, until your eyes ache. The image is passing through you in a physiological way, into your brain, into your memory -- where it stays -- and it's transmitted by your hands.'' That way of working, in Hockney's view, is well worth preserving.