David Hockney on Vincent van Gogh & the Importance of Knowing How to Truly See the World

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch as David Hock­ney Cre­ates ‘Late Novem­ber Tun­nel, 2006’

Down­load David Hockney’s Play­ful Draw­ings for the iPhone and iPad

Near­ly 1,000 Paint­ings & Draw­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online: View/Download the Col­lec­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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