âI think it looks terrific,â says David Hockney. âItâs all on one theme, isnât it? And thereâs not many exhibitions like that, really, a show all about the spring.â
The 83-year-old artist is taking a look around his new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London for the first time. He seems happy with it â and rightly so, for it is hypnotic and ravishing. But while I am getting a sneak preview in person, Hockney is here only virtually, his face appearing on two screens, one a giant TV, the other on a small laptop.
He is at home, at what he calls his âseven dwarves houseâ in Normandy, in northern France, wearing a red, black and white check jacket, a checkerboard tie, a blue-green pullover and round, gold-framed glasses. His kaleidoscopic choice of clothing, challenging the limits of the video callâs bandwidth, is as vibrant and beguiling as the canvases hanging around us. Hockney has not just painted spring; he has come dressed as it.
The artist has agreed to talk me through the exhibition, called The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020, and the arrangement underlines his idiosyncratic ease with technology. To make these iPad paintings, he and his team created a version of the Brushes app, working with a computer expert in Leeds to speed things up. âDrawing requires a certain speed,â Hockney says. âIn Rembrandtâs drawings, you can see how fast he drew.â
I canât handle Hockney on the big screen, so I sit in front of the laptop â after first taking in his art. He has filled some of the grandest rooms in the Royal Academy with pictures of blossoming branches, spilling flowerbeds, a rain-spattered pond and a tree house: simple subjects, faithfully depicted. I first saw many of these last spring, in my email inbox. Day after day, sometimes more than once a day, I would find a new Hockney, fresh from France, which was a great pick-me-up as the full scope of the pandemic began to dawn.
The trouble was that I was soon running out of superlatives in my replies. He was âdoing the arrival of spring in Normandyâ, as he puts it, and the work made headlines around the world when he released a few images to the media. Clearly, it was not just me who found Hockneyâs passionate pictures of new life in his cottage and garden in the Norman paysage uplifting. Here was movingly optimistic art, full of the promise of spring, even as Covid plunged the planet into despair.
Now those pictures have been printed up to the scale of oil landscapes and are looking even better. This is Hockneyâs best exhibition in a long time, perhaps his most important ever, given the ode to joy it offers an injured world. It is also âa homageâ, he says, to the painters who first inspired him. Hockney was born in industrial Bradford in 1937 and grew up in a smoggy postwar Britain. Where did he get a feeling for all the bright, strong colours that sweep this exhibition?
âWell, it came from Monet and Matisse and Picasso. Bradford was a very, very black city then. The buildings were totally black from coal. And thatâs what I painted: you couldnât see colour much. But I do remember going to a Van Gogh show in Manchester in 1954. I thought Van Gogh was quite a rich artist, because he could use two whole tubes of blue to paint the sky. Iâve always remembered that exhibition. It was a marvellous thing for me to see.â
That reminds him about Van Goghâs turbulent personality. âThereâs a story â I think this is true â that Van Gogh was always bothering Toulouse-Lautrec to start a commune for artists. Well, Lautrec was an aristocrat painting in Paris, and he wasnât interested in communes at all. He said to Van Gogh, âYou should go to Arles.â He wanted to be rid of him.â Hockney is laughing. âIâm sure thatâs true, because heâd be annoying him. Well, he did go to Arles, and it was good, wasnât it?â
Hockneyâs life can be seen as one long quest for brighter sunshine, stronger colours, sharper light. He always wanted to be an artist: when he got into grammar school in Bradford, he found it was only the bottom class that was allowed to âwaste timeâ on drawing, so he deliberately failed every subject. He left his soot-black birthplace for art college in London, then went on a trip to New York, where he bleached his hair and realised postwar London was drab compared with the United States.
By 1964, he was living in Los Angeles. The way he feels about Normandy now is the way he felt about California then. âI remember in Bradford there werenât many shadows, because the light was just grey light, mostly. Iâd noticed the shadows in Hollywood movies, and I knew Hollywood was a bright place with sun, so I wanted to go there. Like Van Gogh going to Arles.â
Hockney is a hedonist painter. His pictures are about enjoyment. His pursuit of life, liberty and happiness first expressed itself in unabashed portrayals of gay desire, at a time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. But his paintings of his Los Angeles friends, such as the writer Christopher Isherwood, of swimming pools and swimmers, of men in showers, are not just records of his life; they are poetic rhapsodies of colour and light. It is through the white spume of a diverâs splash, against dark-blue water under a light blue sky, that he expresses longing, love, the moment held. âCalifornia has a very clear light. You can see 100 miles sometimes. Itâs very, very clear, and thatâs what I loved about it.â
On November 15th, 2018, at Christieâs in New York, one of the greatest of Hockneyâs early works â his sensual and mysterious 1972 masterpiece Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) â set a world record for a living artist at auction when it fetched $90 million. But Hockney had other things on his mind then. He had found what he calls his âparadiseâ. Not the glamorous paradise he once saw in Hollywood but the pastoral paradise of a French garden.
He had driven through Normandy and was struck by the countryside. âItâs very, very beautiful, this part of the world. Itâs unbelievably green. Everywhere we look is green. The horizons are just all trees: the only buildings we can see from the house are my studio or the barn. Otherwise, itâs just trees. We canât see, quite, the sunset, because thereâs some hills in the way. The sunrise I can watch from the kitchen window. Just as itâs coming up, a little gold bar comes over the horizon. Itâs quite magic: you can only look at it for about two minutes, three minutes, then itâs too bright. I can see it in the winter from my bedroom, because then itâs moved south. It will move north until June 21st; then it will start its journey south again.â
He said he had thought about finding a place to paint spring in this lush region, discussing the project with his assistant, Jean-Pierre GonÃ§alves de Lima. âJ-P said, âWell, if you rent a house, you might not be able to smoke in it.â So he rang up some agents. From the moment we entered this place, we both fell in love with it. We were only here about 25 minutes and decided to get it, because it wasnât that much money. In Sussex, it would have cost a hell of a lot more.â
Hockney seems to think his impulse purchase needs to be justified. His groundedness, like his accent, is one of the ways in which he has never left Yorkshire. But there is nothing modest about the project on which he has embarked. âIâm teaching the French how to paint Normandy. They gave up painting, didnât they? Thatâs Derrida, isnât it? When he said painting was dead, I always thought that was wrong, because I thought, Well, that means the only depiction taken seriously is a photograph. Everybodyâs a photographer now, arenât they? Drawing is far more interesting.â He gestures around the gallery. âIf these were photographs, they wouldnât look anywhere near as good, I donât think. At all!â
The great âtraditionâ of modern French painting has, he thinks, been allowed to die: there is no equivalent, in the country, of the painters who have kept the flame alive in Germany, Britain and the US. So here is a Yorkshireman, in his cap, to teach France how to see itself afresh â and the lesson seems to be going down well. âSome French company has named a rose after me,â he says, beaming.
The Arrival of Spring was shown in Paris last year, and Hockney is preparing for a major show at the Orangerie, one of the French capitalâs great museums. There, he will join together his Normandy pictures to create a modern Bayeux tapestry 88m long. The show will also put him alongside the most symphonic of all French landscape painters, Monet, as the gallery is home to Monetâs NymphÃ©as, his expansive, enfolding paintings of the lily pond at his garden in Giverny, in Normandy.
âAww, heâs a great, great, great painter,â says Hockney when I wonder why Monet is often misunderstood as a âchocolate boxâ artist. âMonet saw 40 springs, 40 summers, 40 autumns and 40 winters in Giverny. Theyâre fantastic paintings. Theyâre still very, very fresh, arenât they? They could have been painted yesterday. It was horticultural, mostly flowers, because he lived in a walled garden.
âHave you been to Giverny? The lake where he had the nymphÃ©as, you had to cross a railway to get to it. He had a little bridge. He would look at it and probably smoke two cigarettes and then walk back to his studio and paint it. The walk was three minutes, really. You can have a very, very strong visual memory for an hour or so after youâve been looking at something intensely, and thatâs what he did. I donât care if theyâre on chocolate boxes!â
Like Monet, Hockney is creating a personal world of natural beauty to paint. His garden covers 1.6 hectares, or 4ac, and has a stream at the bottom. Walking around the Royal Academy exhibition, you feel as if you are there, strolling around, entranced. There are even a couple of lilies in a pond, which Hockney has depicted full of reflections, like Monetâs. What does he think is the appeal? âI think itâs space: the trees exist in space. How do we see space? Sometimes people say, âWell, we only see objects, we donât see space.â But we feel space, donât we? I think thatâs absolutely true. I feel it here.â
GonÃ§alves de Lima is shaping his garden just as Monet shaped his: âWhen I was doing The Arrival of Spring in 2020, J-P was planning for 2021. He was already planning new flowerbeds, placing trees in different places. Weâve got a pine tree now, with cords holding it up. They will stay there for a while, then it wonât blow down. He sees that I draw in layers and he arranges trees, flowers and things accordingly.â
Monet gave the paintings that hang in the Orangerie to the French state after the tragedy of the first World War. A century on, Hockney has shown again that painting nature is a resonant response to a great crisis. But today he is not in the mood to be mawkish about the pandemic. Instead, he jokes that GonÃ§alves de Lima calls these pictures âthe Covid collectionâ, as if they were in a fashion show. And, far from suffering, he insists he had the time of his life in lockdown. At last, it gave him total peace to work. âI had a wonderful time,â he says. âI worked long hours. Iâd go to bed at nine oâclock sometimes â and sometimes it was still light when I went to bed. But I loved getting up early in the morning, like Monet did.â
In California, he adds, there isnât really a spring because there isnât really a winter. It was only when he started spending more time in Britain that he noticed the season again. âThe first spring Iâd seen in 20 years was in 2002,â he says. âI was sitting for Lucian Freud and I walked every morning through Holland Park. I noticed the spring and I thought, Oh, itâs very exciting, this. Very exciting.â â Guardian
David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 is at the Royal Academy in London from May 23rd until September 26th, 2021. Spring Cannot Be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy, by Martin Gayford and David Hockney, is published by Thames & Hudson