For a few months, David Hockney was the most expensive artist in the world, after his masterwork Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold at auction for $90 million in November 2018. (He was outsold last May by Jeff Koons, who set the previous record in 2013.) The sale says all kinds of things about the state of the art market, but Hockney has always been driven by a need to make things, not to profit, a compulsion as relentless as that of one of his heroes, Vincent van Gogh.
A Portrait of an Artist’s creation, told in the 1974 film A Bigger Splash, is the story of a labor of love. Hockney painted and repainted and repainted, giving up once then starting over again, working with a very van Gogh-like intensity. Otherwise the influence may not be obvious from his most famous, and most expensive, canvas. After his “L.A. swimming pool period,” however, Hockney moved on to other subjects and other media.
In the late 90s, he returned to the Yorkshire of his boyhood when his mother became ill. He took up plein air landscapes painting in oils and watercolors. Hockney describes this transition in a March 2019 interview above from the Van Gogh Museum. In part, he says, he wanted to answer a challenge. “I knew landscape was seen as something you couldn’t do today,” he says. “And I thought, ‘why?’ Because the landscape’s become so boring? It’s not the landscape that’s become boring, it’s the depictions of it that have become boring. You can’t be bored of nature, can you?”
You also cannot become bored of van Gogh. He knew, Hockney says, how to “really look. He saw very clearly. I mean, very, very clearly.” Van Gogh expressed the clarity of his vision in lucid, lyrical prose. Hockney begins the short interview above with a quote from a December 1882 van Gogh letter: “Sometimes I long so much to do landscape, just as one would go for a long walk to refresh oneself, and in all of nature, in trees for instance, I see expression and a soul.” The passage gets a knowing nod from Hockney, who has had much more to say on this theme lately.
Both van Gogh and Hockney describe their experiences with landscape painting as a kind of intensive art therapy. Hockney, now sequestered in Normandy while France is in lockdown, has suggested that others should do the same during this time, as a way of relieving stress and appreciating their place in nature. People should put away their cameras (and, by definition, their phones). “I would suggest people could draw at this time,” he says, “Question everything and do not think about photography. I would suggest they really look hard at something and think about what they are really seeing.”
Hockney has come away from his time painting nature with some particularly intriguing insights. “In a way,” he says above, “nature doesn’t really have perspective. I’ve noticed trees don’t follow the rules of perspective…. Perspective is a strangling, I think. It’s not really making space, it’s strangling space.” It’s an observation we can apply to rigid ways of seeing at reality, none of which seem to make much sense anymore. We won’t all be as visionary or as driven as van Gogh or David Hockney, but time spent learning to “really look” might be time well spent indeed.