The Times May 09, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

As a major exhibition of new landscapes opens, Britain’s best-loved artist talks about mortality, family, his return to his beloved Bridlington, and why iPhones are the future for art

David Hockney is a very funny man. If he ever wanted to give up the day job — about as likely as Bridlington becoming the new St-Tropez — he would make a superb monologist; Spalding Gray, perhaps, channelled by Alan Bennett.

He may have lived in Los Angeles for the greater part of the last 30 years but his humour, and accent, remain dry and forthrightly northern. His mother, Laura, who died in 1999 at the age of 99, was quite religious, he tells me, and was wont to refer to her late-beckoning mortality thus – “I haven’t been called yet.” Her son would sometimes joke: “Well, stay by the telephone.” He continues: “When I told that story to a friend of mine he said, ‘You might live longer than her, David, because you won’t hear the call’.”

Hockney’s current pair of hearing-aids — he’s been experimenting with them for three decades — are small and neat. They also seem effective. He doesn’t strain to hear but he is still in the habit of going off on curious tangents, or taking a thought and running it into the ground, which may be a legacy of being deaf for so many years.

The last time we met, in 2005, I could not get him off the subject of smoking — he is passionately pro — although we were meant to have been discussing his curation of a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective. It still appears to be Hockney’s favourite subject and I have to firmly reroute his conversational drift.

He’s been living in the old guesthouse — with his partner and French assistant — which he bought for his mother in Bridlington, the East Yorkshire seaside resort, for the past three years, with another three to go, while he completes a monumental group of landscape paintings. We are strictly not to interpret this as Hockney coming “home”, since he still views Los Angeles as his base. “There’s a side of England I don’t like at all, I must tell you,” he says. “The meanspiritedness gets me down.” Of English people? “The smoking is one thing,” he says. “It’s outrageous and I won’t stop attacking it anyway.”

What would he say if he met Gordon Brown? “I would not be polite, I’m going to tell you. Four or five years ago Paul Johnson told me that Gordon Brown was talking about making it [England] smoke-free. He didn’t say we’ll make it convenient for anybody. This is Stalinism, practically.”

Is this the only reason you’re cross with him? “Well, I don’t think he’s got any vision.” Do you think David Cameron is any better? “Not much, no. Of course I don’t.” Hockney’s never been one much for politics anyway: “But somebody’s got to decide which way traffic goes and who picks up the rubbish and I’ve left that to other people. I don’t mind the taxes, I’ll pay whatever, but when they begin to affect my life personally, I think, ‘Well, wait a minute, what is this about?’ It isn’t about smoking; it’s about them telling me what’s best for me.”

He’s not even excited about Obama “although Bush was pretty ghastly and I think he [Obama] is rather good. But I’m not political — in fact, I’ve rarely voted, to be honest — and I don’t want to be either. I’ve something else to do.” That “something else” is his work, by which he is more consumed than ever before.

We are talking in a lovely light-filled private gallery, the Kunsthalle Würth, converted from an old brewery in the medieval town of Shwäbisch Hall, near Stuttgart. A handful of English journalists have been flown in, joining a horde of German media people, to look at 70 new works produced by Hockney in the past couple of years. It is the largest and most comprehensive museum exhibition of the artist’s Yorkshire landscapes to be shown to the public for the first time.

At the morning press conference, before our interview, Hockney anticipates the obvious question — so why Shwäbisch Hall? — although no one has been tactless enough to ask it. “Why did I do this exhibition? I’ll be frank, I did it for myself to see all the work together.” And on he goes in his marvellously undiplomatic way. “At first I didn’t take much interest in it, but when I came here I thought, ‘It is a lovely area . . . with individual trees and every one is different, just like we are’ . . . Also I knew that journalists would travel to see an exhibition. It’s an opportunity you don’t get often, and I am an opportunist I must admit.”

The best-known British artist of his generation is 71, and is often described as a national treasure. Despite his determined efforts to come across as a grumpy old man, he still retains the mischief and curiosity of a boy; an impression reinforced by the way he peers wide-eyed over his spectacles, and shuffles his feet impatiently under the table. When you laugh at his more preposterous statements, he joins in, which suggests that his curmudgeonliness is partly an act. There is a sense of fun in the way that he dresses, although his flamboyance, these days, is restricted to the odd detail: a flat white cap over his undyed hair, a red and white spotted handkerchief dangling elegantly from his jacket pocket.

After the conference, when we follow Hockney around the exhibition in a clingy pack, he explains that his suits are especially tailored to include an inside pocket in the jackets large enough — he gives us a quick flash — to accommodate a sketchbook and brushes that he always carries.

He is well aware, as he says, that “the art world thinks that this is a genre that’s quite exhausted – but nothing is quite exhausted”. Images, he says, help us to see the world: “I keep thinking that people have stopped looking at landscape . . . and I’m very interested in how we see; seeing is memory and memory is now. We don’t all see the same things even if we’re looking at the same thing . . . looking is a positive thing — you’ve got to decide to look.”

In the northern hemisphere, “you’re hit over the head with seasons, and each season I see more . . . how early spring begins at the top of trees, for instance. And I’m eager to get back right now [to Bridlington], as it’s just coming up for ‘Action Week’, which is what I call early spring.” In East Yorkshire now, Hockney says, he would be up at 6 in the morning, when the sun comes directly up over the sea: “The best light is between 5am and 8am, with the long shadows and the sun lighting everything from the front. Everything is very, very clear, whereas in the afternoon it’s all silhouettes.”

Marco Livingstone, a Canadian-born curator, writer and friend of Hockney, has contributed an illuminating and charming essay for the show’s handsomely produced catalogue. He told me about a recent visit to the artist’s Bridlington home, where he and his partner had been invited to stay the night. After a jolly dinner, the guests had retired at 1am and woke in fright a few hours later, with a loud banging on their door (the old guesthouse numbers have not been removed, apparently). Their host insisted they get up immediately and drive with him to a particular copse because the light was so magical, and he didn’t want them to miss out on the treat.

If this could be described as Hockney’s love affair with the landscape of East Yorkshire, it has been a slow burn rather than instant infatuation.

In the last ten years of his mother’s life, her son came to visit every three months: “And I never went there without drawing her because at that age you think, ‘Well, how long will she live?” Did she like the results? “Well, she’s your mother,” he says, throwing me the sort of look that suggests he’s thinking, ‘You daft brush’. “She’s going to like what her son does, yes, of course.” They were close and he misses her but the drawings comfort him: “I’ve still got them and there are lots of them and I won’t let them go, so that makes a big difference.”

They used to go on drives down the empty lanes and Hockney found himself responding to the subtle, undramatic landscape — so different from the showy lushness and bright light of California — and now that she has gone he feels even more deeply connected to the countryside of his youth. It’s tempting to see this as a way of bringing his mother back to him, especially with him moving back into her house, but he says not.

He describes his neighbours, pithily, as “modest and not too disappointed because they never expected much.” Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, his assistant, is probably the only Parisian, Hockney says, to have visited Bridlington. It is Jean-Pierre, I admit, who responded to this comment with the joke that it was the new St-Tropez, which was too good not to appropriate. There’s a picture of JP, in Hockney’s Photoshop computer works now on show in London, in formal black tie that, he jests (presumably), is normal dinner dress for the Bridlington ménage à trois. There’s also one of the artist’s partner of the past decade, John Fitz-Herbert — a former chef. What an honest face, I say, as we flick through the book of the exhibition. “He’s an honest human being,” Hockney replies.

There are several drawings of Hockney’s brother, Paul, and his sister, Margaret; and in each picture the subjects seem mesmerised by a small gadget in their hands, which turns out to be an iPhone — Hockney’s latest enthusiasm: “Yes, my brother and sister sat there for three or four hours, totally engrossed.” Hockney is thrilled that he has finally persuaded Celia Birtwell to buy one so that he can send her pictures: “I draw flowers on them and send them out every morning to a group of people.”

He demonstrates, tracing his finger over the tiny screen with such absorption that I worry he will stop talking altogether. “Who would have thought the telephone would bring back drawing?” he exclaims with glee.

“It’s such a great little device, it has every Shakespeare play in it and the Oxford English dictionary. In your pocket! But it’s also amusing, look at this.” He blows into it and his new toy becomes a harmonica.

At the other end of the scale are his epic landscapes, including the one created out of 50 separate canvases to form an enormous painting, which took up an entire wall at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. The most striking thing about these landscapes, initially at least, is their size.

Perhaps it is still too early to judge to what extent — apart from the obvious technical differences — Hockney has made them his own.

As a student at the Royal College of Art, Hockney’s famous complaint was, “I’m not doing anything that’s from me”. Then came the light-saturated Californian pictures of palm trees, swimming-pools and naked boys in the 1960s, which made an instant (bigger) splash and are still instantly recognisable as Hockneys; as are his beguiling portraits through the years, set designs and elegant book illustrations. But in these oil paintings, there are constant refrains of other painters; a forest scene that makes you think of Matisse, another of Rousseau. Here and there, in certain details, you detect the free brushstrokes and wild exuberance of Howard Hodgkin.

These echoes may be deliberate. Back in 1976, Hockney wrote: “I am very concious of all that has happened in art during the last 75 years. I don’t ignore it; I feel I’ve simply assimilated it into my kind of art.”

In January 2012, Hockney says, there will be a big show of his work at the Royal Academy, mostly landscapes: “Just before the world ends on December 21st.” Sorry? “That’s the Mayan calendar and that’s when the sun will be at its fiercest. Look it up on the web.” He proceeds to go on at great length about a book he found in his favourite bookshop in LA — Book Soup — and the riveting new information it contains about the edge of the Universe and time and the Sun being at a certain pitch. All of which makes me think that you can take the boy out of Bradford but you can also, clearly, take Bradford out of the boy.

When I ask him whether he truly believes it’s going to be the end of the world, he says: “What I suddenly realised is that it could just be me — the end of the world for me.” But, unlike his mother, Hockney is not waiting for the call. “I don’t think about it much,” he says. “I assume I’ll just work until I fall over.”

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Drawing In a Printing Machine is at Annely Juda Gallery to July 11 (020-7629 7578). Just Nature is at Kunsthalle Würth, Schwäbisch Hall, Germany, to Sept 27. Imagine on Hockney, BBC One, June 30.