Interview: David Hockney

The British artist on Beijing, iPad art and inspiration

'I might approve of hedonism, but an artist can’t be a hedonist; he’s a worker,’ says David Hockney in his typically forthright manner. He’s talking about where he finds the inspiration – and, at the age of 77 – the energy to continue travelling and painting. ‘The bohemia has gone now I think, anyway. You can’t have a smoke-free bohemia, you can’t have a drink-free bohemia,’ he says with a boyish grin, as he takes another puff of his Camel Wide cigarette.

We’re talking to him in his suite in the Ritz-Carlton. Hockney seems tired and travel-weary, but is effortlessly charming as he greets us. He takes a seat next to his iPad which, along with the Camels, is never far from his side (more on that later). He’s dressed casually yet colourfully in an orange polo shirt, blue sweater and lime-green cardigan. Whether by design or default, his clothes perfectly complement the colour palette of the room; we prefer to believe it’s the former.

‘So it’s about a strong Yorkshire work ethic?’ we ask, surprised that after spending decades in California, Hockney retains a soft Yorkshire accent. ‘I’m working now more than ever,’ he says. ‘I produce more than I did 20 years ago; I’m still very excited by the things I do. I mean, most people die of boredom, don’t they?’

There’s not much chance of Hockney getting bored any time soon. Up next is an exhibition in London’s Annely Juda Fine Art gallery, a show of ‘3D photographs without the glasses’.

‘I think I have made photographic drawings,’ says Hockney. He proceeds to dig out a coffee table book of the show and excitedly huddles over the pages, drawing us closer to inspect them with him. The works are collages of hundreds of closeup photographs of people, objects and furniture, taken from different perspectives, that have been stitched together as a whole scene. The idea most likely stems from his oft-mentioned belief that photography is too flat: ‘There’s no space, a single photograph just doesn’t have space in it. [Whereas] landscape is a spatial thrill, I think.’


David Hockney and Editor, Lee Williamson.

We move to discussing his Beijing exhibition, The Arrival of Spring, which is made up of iPad drawings and a video installation, which were originally shown as part of the comprehensive exhibition A Bigger Picture, at London’s Royal Academy. For the series of iPad works, ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)’, each piece was drawn in one day between January 1 and May 31 2011 to slowly reveal the changing of the seasons in Woldgate Woods, near Hockney’s hometown of Bridlington, on the Yorkshire coast (see a gallery of works from the show here). The video installation, ‘Woldgate Woods, November 26th (2010)’ is a nine screen grid, showing footage from nine cameras attached to a car as it drives down a snow-covered lane through the woods.

We shouldn’t make the mistake, as many do, of getting too hung up on modern media, scolds Hockney. ‘I’m not an iPad artist; I’m an artist that uses an iPad. It’s just a new media. I mean, you’re just drawing – you do have to know how to draw.’ The artist’s embrace of new technologies shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s followed his career: from cassette tapes to iPhones, Hockney has always strived to find new ways to create his art. Famously, Canon would send him new ink cartridges they were developing, back when the photocopier was a new technology, to see what he could do with them.

For Hockney, the subject matter is infinitely more important. When he returned to live in London for a while, he realised he’d missed witnessing the change of the seasons after decades spent living mostly in temperate California. ‘In 2001, when I was sitting for Lucian Freud, I lived at the bottom of Holland Park and he lived at the top, so I walked through the park every morning to go and pose for him. It was the first spring I’d noticed in 20 years, and I was rather thrilled with it because each day something more was there… the snowdrops come up and then the daffodils, and I thought: Yes, I’ve missed that, I’ve missed the seasons.

‘I didn’t intend staying in England for that long, but I went to Bridlington, where my mother lived, and started painting there. And then the Royal Academy offered me a large exhibition. They wanted to do it in 2011 but I said no, it would be better in 2012 because I wished to observe three more springs. And I wished to observe three of them, meaning observe it carefully, know what plants come up first – you have to know what trees come out first,’ he says, as he lights up another cigarette.

We ask if he’s heard about Beijing’s impending smoking ban. ‘Would that mean I wouldn’t be able to smoke here?’ If so, I’m not sure I’d come back!’ he jokes, eyes twinkling behind his iconic horn-rimmed glasses. ‘I mean, I’ve smoked for 60 years, so what’s the point of stopping now?’

David Hockney_installation View5 Photograph by Wang Xiang

Image: Wang Xiang

All of which, of course, brings the conversation to China: ‘I was last here in 1981, and it’s incredibly different now. In 1981, everyone was on bicycles, wore Mao suits and the only cars were official cars. We thought we’d come to visit the ‘New China’ then. But actually, what we saw was the Old China.’ He looks around his opulent surrounds. ‘This is the New China, isn’t it?’

‘And what do you think of the New China?’ we ask with relish. Hockney steals a furtive glance at the young Chinese woman representing the gallery sitting at the table, who suddenly looks up for his response. He lets out a large, throaty laugh: ‘Well, it’s different. It’s more like everywhere else now, isn’t it? Loads of cars and things, traffic jams and everything. I mean, I suppose it’s a proper city now. ‘I came here because China is an interesting place, of course. I thought: China will have artists now, it will have all kinds of things… so we came, and it’s interesting.’

Hockney’s responses are the polite, grounded comments you’d expect from a man that, in later life at least, possesses the wonderful sense of understatement and lack of hubris for which Yorkshire gents are known. Certainly in the ’60s and beyond, Hockney, who was openly gay when many homosexual artists were not, was considered a radical, but he’s mellowed over the decades.

Take ‘My Parents’, his 1977 portrait of his folks that was completed just before his father’s death, which last year was voted the UK’s favourite painting. Hockney says he’s still happiest with his sister’s praise: ‘It was a personal picture. My sister, at the time she said she thought it was very accurate. Well she would be the best critic for this, because they’re her parents as well, so I was very pleased with that.’

And with that sparkle back in his eye, there’s also the trademark dry Yorkshire wit: ‘I’m not sure how popular painters really are. I mean, there were more people in London that didn’t go see my exhibition [A Bigger Picture] than did,’ he says with another laugh, which descends into a chesty cough. ‘Even if 600,000 people went to see it, that means that 8 million didn’t!’

Indeed, Hockney seems uncomfortable with his ‘national treasure’ tag. ‘I don’t bother with that, I don’t bother,’ he demurs modestly when we bring it up. He famously turned down a knighthood in 1990, but did accept an Order of Merit a few years ago, another accolade awarded by the British monarchy. In general, however, unless it’s related to his right to smoke – on which he is particularly outspoken – Hockney appears mostly uninterested in politics or the establishment.

‘I’ve only voted twice in my life. Mind you, I live in countries that are reasonably free – England, America and so on – and I just accept them for what they are. I accept their rules and regulations and stuff. But, I mean, you are rather free in Western Europe. Although, I suppose I’d be okay here [in China], somehow.’

As we’re about to wrap up, we again touch on what keeps Hockney, who’s now partially deaf and suffered a stroke a few years ago, wanting to work as hard. His take on his steadily worsening hearing, perhaps not surprising given everything else he’s said, is admirably upbeat. ‘I think I see space a bit differently or clearer [because of it]. A blind man locates people around him through hearing. Well, if you can’t hear, maybe then you see more. I think that I can get bigger spatial thrills from landscapes because of it.

‘Picasso didn’t care for music at a time when Braque played the violin. He didn’t care for music because he said couldn’t tell the masterpieces apart. In all probability, he was tone deaf. Well, he might have been tone deaf, but if you use the word ‘tone’ for visual things, he saw more tones than anybody else.’

David Hockney: Arrival of Spring is at Pace Beijing until June 6. See full details here.

  • 4 out of 5 stars