David Hockney: Why art has become 'less'


David Hockney spoke to the BBC about the new exhibition

David Hockney thinks that over his lifetime art has become "less". He blames the art establishment (museums, galleries, art schools) for becoming over-enamoured with conceptual art: "It gave up on images a bit" the artist laments.

By which he means that the artworld ignored figurative art: paintings, sculptures, videos and installations that aim to represent the known world: the sort of work Hockney makes: landscapes, portraits and still lifes.

Instead he feels, museums and galleries have jumped too willingly into the unmade bed of conceptual art where lights go on and off in a game of philosophical riddles. But Hockney says "the power is with images", and in neglecting them the artworld has diminished the very thing it aimed to protect: art.

It's difficult to ignore Hockney's latest images that now fill the vast galleries of the Royal Academy in London. They are huge (two paintings are about 10-metres across), they are innovative (numerous iPad print-outs and an 18-screen film installation), and they are very colourful (purple paths and orange tree trunks aplenty).

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For all his outspokenness David Hockney is a canny man”

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By and large, they all depict the same subject: the hills, fields, woods and roads of rural East Yorkshire. These things are subjective, but I found them potent and poetic. And exciting.

Exciting because it has been a rarity over the last half-a-century for a supremely gifted painter to take on the English landscape. Constable and Turner did so in the 19th Century. And John Nash and Stanley Spencer rose to the challenge in the mid-20th Century. But not much has emerged since.

Maybe it's due to the 30 years he has spent in Hollywood that Hockney blames the camera for the hiatus. He directs a damning finger at the one-eyed monster in all its guises: photography, film and television. He believes it is the camera that has caused many of today's artists to forsake figurative art, having decided that a single mechanical lens can capture reality better than any painter or sculptor.

David Hockney

Hockney in 1963
  • Born 1937 in Yorkshire
  • Early star of British Pop Art scene
  • Found fame painting sunlit male nudes in swimming pools of Hollywood
  • More recently his focus has shifted to landscapes of his home county

"But they're wrong," he told me. "A camera cannot see what a human can see, there is always something missing." He talks about the inability of a camera to reproduce a sense of space and volume.

He makes the point that a photograph documents only a split second in time. Whereas a landscape painting, portrait or still life might appear to be a moment immortalised in a single image, but it is in fact the culmination of days, weeks and in the case of many artists (Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Hockney), years of looking at a single subject.

It is a result of vast quantities of stored information, experience, jottings and spatial sensitivity that has eventually appeared in the colours, composition and atmosphere of a final finished artwork.

For all his outspokenness David Hockney is a canny man. He twinkles when talking about why he chose to tackle the English landscape, seeing it, I suspect, as an opportunity to make another big splash: a great subject overlooked by most other artists.

When people told him that the "landscape genre was worn out" he thought it illogical. "The way of looking at it [the landscape] might be worn out, but the landscape can't be," he said. "It needs re-looking at…[to] look at it afresh."

Which is exactly what he has done. And it looks like Hockney on Yorkshire will be a hit with the public as advance bookings are already at the upper end of the Royal Academy's expectations. But I wonder if the show will have a more lasting impact than simply to re-assert the general feeling that the Bradford-born painter is the country's greatest living artist.

I think it is possible that it could mark the moment - together with the Lucian Freud exhibition that will be opening shortly at the nearby at the National Portrait Gallery - when figurative art once again starts to become the dominant genre in the contemporary exhibitions and displays mounted at the likes of Tate, Paris's Pompidou and New York's Museum of Modern Art.

The paintings of urban Coventry by George Shaw were shortlisted for last year's Turner Prize. He didn't win. But maybe this year will be different, and an artist who produces landscapes or portraits or still lifes will carry the day?

Will Gompertz Article written by Will Gompertz Will Gompertz Arts editor

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  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 18.

    Thank you Hockney
    Way too many students and artists and viewers have lost touch with British landscape. Using quick effects and trickery to express themselves.It is so easy for everyone to acquire digital skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    But as this is 1 of the 2 topics to actually comment on I will register my disgust at the US and their world-cencorship.
    As an artist Hockney would not object.

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    Comment number 16.

    "Schoolies" et al: Hasn't Art (not sure about the capital letter here) always been a commodity? there are examples of paintings by Caravaggio and Leonardo (not to mention the Sistine Chapel ceiling of MAngelo) which were either rejected or not initially well received by the commissioners. And of course the latter weren't always right - witness poor Van Gogh's lack of commercial success!

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    Comment number 15.

    To "Simon" comment 9. The purpose of Art is to promote thought and an opinion. As everyone is capable of "thought" and "of expressing an opinion" I would suggest we let them do so.

    As Oscar Wilde once said "It is the spectator, and not life, that Art really mirrors".

    If there is a market they will paint or produce it. Art? it's just another commodity now, unfortunately so perhaps.


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