Thursday, July 02, 2009

Review: David Hockney - A Bigger Picture

BBC TV - Imagine - David Hockney a Bigger Picture

David Hockney was recently voted the UK's favourite living artist - by virtue of being the highest placed UK artist in The Times Top 200 Artists of the 20th Century to Now

On Tuesday night I watched Bruno Wollheim's film David Hockney - A Bigger Picture about David Hockney and his return to both Yorkshire and painting. You can read Brono Wolheim's own account of making the film in this Daily Telegraph article David Hockney profile for A Bigger Picture and this article Making the bigger picture with David Hockney

How you can watch this film

First - for those who didn't see it
  • if you live in the UK - you can catch up using the version on the BBC iplayer David Hockney - A Bigger Picture
  • Wherever you live, you can also see small excerpts from some of the filming on Bruno Wollheim's own Coluga Pictures website. Click the link to see:
    • Hockney painting a watercolour and talking about Rembrandt
    • Click "Latest" in the menu on the left to see links to two further clips from the film in the drop down menu
    • Click "The Making Of" to see Bruno Wollheim talking about the making of the film and yet further clips - some of which didn't make it to the final edit
    • Click "Reviews" to see some of what has been said about this film so far.
Next - the good news - there is going to be a DVD. I've asked for details and I'm currently waiting to hear about a publication date an distribution arrangements (bookmark this post for an update).

Why you should watch this film

It's unusual to be able to see a film of an artist working through a process of both changing direction and creating work. It's even more unusual to see a documentary about an artist towards the end of their career. All too often we see documentaries after they are dead with extracts of interviews filmed by different people.

This film records the move from California back to East Yorkshire - back to his home in Bridlington and the Yorkshire Wolds which are beautiful, unspoilt and very quiet - and back to painting.

It's apparent from the interview with Bruno Wollheim that he wasn't too sure what the film was going to be about when he started or how it would finish up. Personally I'd have liked to see it continue with Hockney's recent developments in digital art but I guess it needed to end somewhere and the focus on painting makes for a more coherent documentary. Plus it leaves space for another one about the digital art!

I'm very happy with documentaries which place an emphasis on observation, listening and asking salient questions from time to time - they give you time to think and to respond to what you see and hear. It seemed to me that this documentary was very much about letting Hockney talk for himself about the things he wanted to talk about.

There were also various mini-themes within the documentary
  • about transitions towards the end of his career - and how these impacted on his sense of place and home. It struck me that the deaths of both his mother and of Stanley (his dachshund) were both important in bringing him back to live in the UK. He now lives in his mother's house in Bridlington and he loves the fact that the office is in LA and he never gets disturbed during his painting time in the day!
  • about photography and its place in his work -
I don't look through the camera anymore
David Hockney
  • about what's involved in painting
You need three things for painting - the hand, the eye and the heart
David Hockney quoting a Chinese proverb
  • about painting his childhood (he used to work stooking corn in some of the fields he has painted) and painting for posterity
  • about painting as an extreme sport - painting nature outside in all weathers - stripping painting down to the essentials
  • about perspective and the principle of the moving focus - and how this affects how you portray landscape. He's very interested in ancient Chinese scrolls where the landscape is painted as a continuous painting in a massive 'landscape format' where you can only see part of it any one time
  • about drawing - with a brush; how drawing enables you to see more and how drawing more also enables you to work faster
  • about the process of seeing and how pictures are the product of subjective experience
We always see with memory.... we can't be looking at the same thing as everybody's memory is different"
David Hockney
It's a real Royal Academy Picture - the big one
David Hockney

In terms of visual images, we see him, with his assistant, setting up his easel and folding table for paints at the side of tracks and Hockney painting - in all weather. He obviously became very good at knowing how many layers are required to keep the cold out! We also see paintings set in their context and in front of the views which are being painted.

As the film progresses we begin to see him working on more canvases at one time - plein air. Plus we're not talking about small canvases - these are big ones. Every plein air painter will identify with the moments when the easels fell over! I did spend some time wondering how they managed to keep the canvases from blowing off the easel!

Wollheim comments on how the subject matter seems unremarkable to him, subjects he wouldn't notice. Hockney comments that making something quite different out of it - through painting - is what makes it attractive. His style of painting is apparently naive and yet, as with Van Gogh, it involves some very complex mark-making within a simplified vision. He strips out all that is unnecessary. He's creating work which is representational and yet is nowhere near photographic.

What was fascinating was that the only time he ever saw Bigger Trees near Warter as a whole while painting it was on a computer screen. Each canvas was photographed individually and then each canvas was added into a matrix of completed canvases which made up the bigger picture. (I'm still trying to work out how they managed the stitching and the file size!) The work was erected with some difficulty just once to check it before it was delivered to the RA for the Summer Exhibition of 2007. You can read about how Bigger Trees near Warter was developed in this interview The bigger picture with Martin Gayford for the Daily Telegraph.

It struck me also that Hockney was maybe 'doing a Monet' - painting a work deliberately for posterity, like the large panels of the Nypheas at the Musee de l'Oorangerie, to give to the nation - which indeed happened with Bigger Trees near Warter when it was donated to the Tate. (The painting is due to go on exhibition in the Autumn of 2009) In fact the catalogue for the German exhibition mentions Hockney visiting the Musee Orangerie to see Monet's panels when it reopened in Paris in 2006.
The Tate called Hockney's donation one of the most generous gifts presented by an artist to a British gallery in recent years.
Independent - Hockney donates biggest painting to Tate

Hockney is knowledgeable about art history and dropped quotations from other artists into the conversation from time to time
Never believe what an artist says, only what they do
Walter Sickert
The radical departure of this documentary is that Hockney wanted to b seen painting. I couldn't help thinking, when I heard a comment later in the documentary, that being filmed painting was maybe his way of emphasising the fact that HE created his work and this was the difference between his work and that of artists whose work is painted by other people and they just sign it at the end! (I think it might have given him great satisfaction to know that he beat Hirst to being the most popular living artist in the UK - he was ranked 33 in the Times Poll while Hirst came in at #53! I guess he must have even more pleased that his 'mentor' Pablo Picasso came top!).

Maybe Hockney's decision to invest both time and effort in this project was about him demonstrating that it's important for an artist's reputation and longevity to be seen to do and not just to have "a good idea".

Whatever his reasons, I thought this was a fascinating film which all Hockneyphiles will want to rush out and buy on DVD - it will certainly repay repeat viewing.

You can also read Vivien Blackburn's perspective on the documentary here in David Hockney. review

More posts about Hockney

Tomorrow I'm going to be reviewing his exhibition Drawing in a Printing Machine at Annely Juda Fine Art

On Making A Mark Reviews, I'm also going to be reviewing the catalogue of David Hockney Nur Nature Just Nature - the German/English language catalogue for the current exhibition at Kunsthalle Wurth - which I bought at Tate Britain on Tuesday.



  1. Thanks for the great post! I love this film, very intimate and honest. It was especially interesting because I myself (being an expat) often wonder where I will end up and if I find a reason to come back to live in my country.

  2. Caught it on tv the other night - it's great! I am ever impressed how much you've been able to carry out of the experience though :). Will do my best to catch his show till July 11.

  3. A wobbly biographical update of a film that, nevertheless, allowed the real man to shine through with all his trenchant Yorkshireness. Hockney's return to Bridlington, East Yorkshire, is significant nationally, internationally and locally as well as a more than welcome additional breath of fresh air to this chill and windy part of the coast. This homecoming film revealed Hockney's abiding love for an often neglected part of the world. Painters round here tend to produce rather mimsy, unexciting and predictable scenes rather than the intense exploration of nature we witnessed in the film. It'll do all of us in this neck of the woods a power of good!

  4. Thanks for this. Because of your post I just watched it on i-player and very much enjoyed it. I made a link on my blog to your post.

  5. I haven't seen the film yet (square eyes from too much Wimbledon tennis!), but I have recorded it. We have a wonderful video tape narrated by David Hockney about a scroll called " A day out on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China" We bought it after seeing an exhibition of chinese scrolls, I think at the Hayward Gallery. (must have been in the early 90"s ) The changing perspective as the scroll unrolls is truly amazing.

  6. A great post and thanks for all the links. We can't get BBC things here so the link to the clips on Coluga Pictures was especially welcome.


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