Filmmaker creates intimate portrait of one of world's greatest painters
The first time I saw a David Hockney painting was in college -- one of his poolside Southern California works. Perhaps "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)" or "Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool."
This was some years before I moved to Los Angeles where I could see for myself how magnificently Hockney captured the light here (if you will forgive me playing art critic for a moment, I would say no artist has rendered the light of an environment so beautifully since Monet).
David's painted a large number of masterpieces in his life from an extraordinary amount of work and I think that makes him really special.
The artist, who was born in Bradford, England but spent a significant part of his career in the Los Angeles area, is the subject of the illuminating and absorbing new documentary Hockney, directed by fellow Briton Randall Wright.
Hockney opens Friday [April 22] in New York [Film Society of Lincoln Center and Metrograph] and in Los Angeles [Laemmle Theaters].
As intriguing as they are, the poolside paintings represent just a small portion of Hockney's vast body of work. Now 78, he has produced an immense variety of art including canvases, photo collages, stage sets, filmed projects, iPad drawings and works transmitted via fax.
In some ways what he consistently explores is how the eye perceives. The human eye captures angles and depth that a photographic lens cannot; many of Hockney's works, it seems to me, depict scenes or objects as the mind has processed them, through the apparatus of the eye.
As Wright's film made its way to US theaters, Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with the director about Hockney, his life and artistic achievements.
Nonfictionfilm.com: How much convincing did it take to get Hockney to participate in the film?
Randall Wright: I'd known him for a very long time. I'd asked him, obviously, on several occasions. The thing that ticked it in my favor was a film I made aboutLucian Freud which he really, really liked and I think he kind of realized I might do something that would end up to be at least acceptable to him.
The reason I wanted to make the film, I suppose, is to do with getting to know him and what's unique about him, because he's not quite the person -- the "Northern Gay Comedy Act" -- that he appears to be in the UK. The thing I really liked about seeing him in America when I first got to know him was that I think in America his ideas of playfulness are understood at a much more serious level... There's something with David which is playful and innocent but there's also a degree of detachment and a degree of attack in the work so there's something quite complex going on which always fascinated me.
NFF: Once you got the "yes" from David you faced the daunting task of encapsulating a life and the work of someone who's had a lengthy career. What was your strategy?
RW: I'm not very interested in sort of academic films, really... What I like I suppose with films is the way they can register something in addition to the individual work of art -- that the work of art itself becomes evidence of the character that you're trying to understand. So the logic that I thought through really, really hard on was to find emotional stepping stones through the film. And roughly the stepping stones are assembled in sort of chronological order. But the joy of finding an emotional place in David and in his life is that you can then attach to it all sorts of different works of art right across his career.
There's something very much in love with France in David Hockney, in love with a sort of possibility of a dreamy life...
NFF: I loved the score -- the clarinet music has that playful quality to it.
RW: The music's kind of deliberately playful and irrational but emotionally honest... John Harle, who's the composer, is sort of like David -- a romantic but stuck in a modern age... What we do with the music is we construct sequences and then work on musical things that relate to these emotional moments and then the music's performed live to the picture.
The music that we went for was based on [French actor/director] Jacques Tati... There's something very much in love with France in David Hockney, in love with a sort of possibility of a dreamy life where you're somewhere else looking at something beautiful, a beautiful scene, a beautiful body and yet it's something to do with modernism too -- you're attacking the way that people have seen the world in the past. It's a refusal to get earnest and serious about it as well, that you're just sort of fully alive and you're outside of any academic structures.
NFF; This is an unfairly broad question, but what would you say makes David Hockney special as an artist?
RW: I think it's unusual to be openly optimistic even though David, at the same time, is engaging with some quite dark subject matter. But he's presenting the possibility of there being a world, a tangible world that can still be looked at innocently. It's a mysterious world still... And David's still being in a way a romantic artist, his work is transparent to his ideas and feelings and there's just something delightful about that. And rare about it.
David's range as well is really extraordinary. He's a great opera designer. He's a great draftsman, he's a fantastic thinker about photography and the ideas about how we see. So to me he's endlessly interesting. Fascinating... David's painted a large number of masterpieces in his life from an extraordinary amount of work and I think that makes him really special.
RW: What I'm looking for in an artist is to be shown how to see, to see something. We all miss so much and when artists show us something they see and it affects how you see everything, I think that's remarkable. And David's always done that to me.
NFF: Some of Hockney's work that you show in the film is reminiscent of Matisse -- the colors remind me of paintings Matisse did in Morocco. And the shadows in some of Hockney's paintings, such as "George Lawson and Wayne Sleep" [1972-75], lend a melancholy air, as in Edward Hopper.
RW: There is melancholy. There's often melancholy lurking somewhere in his work. There's a sense -- David's looking for love and he doesn't really find it. He hasn't really found it. He's found a lot of people who love him and he loves them, but he hasn't found the relationship that kind of holds him and the other person together.
He loves Edward Hopper. You're absolutely right. That's lurking there. As for Matisse... David doesn't talk about Matisse. He talks about Picasso and the reason he talks about Picasso is it allows him to talk about an intellectual dimension, about Cubism... The reason he doesn't talk about Matisse is his response to Matisse is incredibly emotional. It's not about ideas. He finds Matisse a liberator. Matisse lets him off the leash, really... I think probably because David's so emotionally tied up with some artists he can't talk about them, really. The great talker that he is.
Looking at the world is for him everything. It's erotic. It's mind-blowingly interesting. It's a discovery.
NFF: Tell me about David today. I was reading that he still works all the time. What's your sense of his artistic life at this point?
RW: I think especially now David needs perhaps his art even more because -- I don't think it's unfair to say of David -- he becomes his artistic project. When he's doing it it's so all-consuming and I think as he's got older it's even more of a -- what's the word -- consolation. It's genuinely an absolute pleasure to him to make a work of art. Looking at the world is for him everything. It's erotic. It's mind-blowingly interesting. It's a discovery.
David's obsession with work is still his great pleasure -- that every day he might discover something and it's what he has left. I've seen a lot of his recent portraits but I don't quite know what he's doing right now. He's preparing for a big exhibition, a huge retrospective which is traveling from America to the UK... But yeah, he works. He had a sign by his bed at one point that said, "Get up and work." It's what makes sense to him.
NFF: Has David seen the film and, if so, what did he think of it?
RW: I promised I'd show it to him. In the end I couldn't come over to LA to show him myself because my mother was very ill. But I sent a friend a version of the film to download so he watched it and he absolutely loved it. Usually when I show people films they like a great deal of it but there's something in it there that they grate against. But David just loved it. He absolutely loved it.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.