Monday, August 29, 2011

david hockney: inside his reality

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972)

Pearblossom Highway (1986)

Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio (1980)

A Lawn Being Sprinkled (1967)

A Bigger Splash (1967)

California Art Collector (1964)

Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape (1962)

David Hockney has always been a hyperactive artist, exploring the potentials of painting, drawing, and photography. However, within his seemingly ever-changing body of work, persists a desire to capture reality, and not in a necessarily naturalistic manner. Geldzahler has said that “he [Hockney] has become increasingly fascinated by exactly how things look.”[1] Hockney has also claimed, “People who look hardest in the end will be good artists.”[2] I will discuss a few of the many ways in which Hockey has manifested this desire, with a particular emphasis on his paintings. Firstly, in a significant portion of his work, there is a tendency to extract and dissect as much visual information as he can from an image or scene. As has been noted by Clothier and acknowledged by Hockney himself, there is in his work a prevalent cubist approach to break up single images into multi-faceted ones. It is also important to observe that much of his work centers on human experiences. Hockney, in his frequent multi-perspective approach, presents challenging interpretations of reality; at the same time, the approachable subject matter and his clever use of space are user-friendly, inviting the viewer into the picture plane, inspiring them to look at reality from a fresh outlook.

Hockney has frequently criticized photography, claiming that “it’s a view that’s too mechanical, too devoid of life.”[3] Indeed, Hockney’s intention is to convey a sense of life in movement. He wants us to be in the picture, to feel around and inside the space of his work. In order to do so, there can be no firm edges or single perspectives. We do not live in narrow, boxed-up planes; we always have space to move in and are constantly observing the world from various angles. This is why Hockney claims to “break” or “alter” the edges of the picture plane and tends to employ multiple perspectives within a single image.[4]

These qualities are prevalent in one of his earlier paintings, from 1962, Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape. It conveys a strong sense of movement that prevents the scene from becoming contained or restrained by edges. Streaks of pale blue brush past the bodies, suggesting speed while stretching off their skin in the process. Our eye imagines a continuation to this journey, a destination beyond the edges of the plane. The colorful waves that make up the mountains are cut off mid-wave, lending the illusion of a continuous flow. The word ‘Paris’ with an arrow pointing outside to the left of the picture plane likewise signals that there is a path and a place that has already been left. The unusual use of perspective also expands the spectator’s viewpoint. The people depicted are at once outside and inside the car: their bodies are not fully covered by the car’s exterior. However, one of the figures handles a wheel that by contrast is clearly inside the car. The figure in the back also desperately grabs the figure in front of him, as if he was about to fly off - but are they not inside the car? This ambiguity of location in space continues with the rendering of the house and trees. Though both are placed in close proximity to the human figures on the picture plane, their scales are completely nonsensical: the house is practically the same size as the human figures. Perhaps Hockney wants to indicate that the house is far from the figures; but, at the same time, the shadows that wrap around the house in a ghostly manner are the same transparent blacks and reds that cover the car. The foreground and background at once separate and merge. Finally, we observe the house from a bird’s eye perspective, while we see the human figures and the car from the side. We are not confined to one view. Indeed, our perception expands the harder we look. The process of looking at this painting is like looking at something in real life: what we see changes from one moment to the next.

This close dialogue with reality is made further possible by the large scale of the works, which allows us to scan and relate to the images on a near-human scale, to enter and become part of it. The scale also requires us to spend time scanning the image and to sense the passage of time within the depicted moment. Hockney claims that the perception of time prevents a work from becoming static and lifeless. To him, time is always present in a painting “because a hand moving across it means time is involved.”[5] Thus the act of painting mimics a moment in real life: it is built in physical stages. There are various ways to feel time within his work: the appreciation that each image within one plane was born at a different moment in time; the presence of movement; and finally, the connection of the depicted moment to life itself. Hockney has claimed that his work is autobiographical, that all of his images were extracted from human experiences.[6] Thereby, the images themselves have once existed in a specific moment in time.

On the other hand, quite often in his paintings, as in his Los Angeles series, life is completely still. However, their very stillness makes us look at them even harder, as they create their own reality. Just as in Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, where Hockney aimed to value motion and perspective, in several of his still images he places every object with equal importance on a frozen plane. Hockney offers alternative ways of seeing, playing with perpetual and simultaneous motion and utter stillness.

In California Art Collector, one imagines that Hockney was at first looking at a larger scene, then selected certain elements from it and compressed them all into an apparently still new plane. The female figure seems to be under an awning outdoors; however, she sits on a living room chair that is placed on carpeting. Is she outside, or are we looking into an interior? A rainbow invades this space as a supportive architectural element. There is likewise a white form on the back wall that resembles a small cloud. This overlapping of scenes engenders a sense of displacement and simultaneity, and thus a degree of movement. Indeed, to Hockney, what lends the most movement and life to a picture is not necessarily what the subject is doing, but rather how the shapes and objects interact with the space. In his book The Way I See It, Hockney claims he does not like to excessively use horizontal shapes in his work for it engenders too much visual stillness (52). California Art Collector and other works from the same period (the early sixties) may appear entirely still at first glance, but they are not altogether static. They possess those essential elements previously discussed – large scale, a lack of confining edges, odd perspectives, and a profusion of shapes – all of which prevent the images from becoming entirely tight and frozen, giving them room to breathe.

The subject matter likewise grounds the work in reality since it consistently stresses the human experience. Even in those scenes with no human figures, the human presence is often implied through the setting or the work’s title. In A Bigger Splash, the solitary chair, the pool board, and the splash point to the event that a person has just jumped into the pool. In A Lawn Being Sprinkled, somebody obviously turned the sprinkler on; it is a domestic task, emphasized by the depiction of a house in the background. Even in some of his landscapes, such as Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio, not only does the title refer to a destination, Hockney’s own ‘studio,’ but also the mountains themselves are punctured with roads and structures. In some areas of the painting there even appears to be some ambiguity as to what is a structure and what is nature: in the bottom left there is a level plane that resembles a flattened house with windows. Thus, Hockney’s work is about interactions among people or about their interaction with the environment.

Importantly, the human perspective itself is a central theme. In Hockney’s photomontages, as spectators we are led to question and merge three ways of seeing: what we see through our own eyes, the photographic perspective, and Hockney’s unusual composition. In Pearblossom Highway, Hockney has expanded the perception of the highway by breaking the image up into squares that are in turn rotated, zoomed and overlapped. He thus breaks the flatness and one-point perspective of photography by creating a new reality that is much closer to the actual perception of the human eye – we are at once hovering from one place to another and absorbing the whole. As Clothier puts it, Hockney’s photomontages are “a truer layering of space and time.”

In Hockney’s works we are not merely spectators. We always interact with them, even when we feel, as Melia has stressed, like “voyeurs,” such as in his paintings of nude boys emerging from the pool, or in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), where one of the figures is immersed under water while the other stares with downcast eyes in an absorbed manner. Thus the figures instigate reactions from us as if we were situated in a real scene. Hockney has said, “we do not look at the world from a distance, we are in it.”[7] By pushing the limits of perspective and including us in his multiple points of view, Hockney ensures that, as spectators, we are there, in his images.

[1] Hockney, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.9)

[2] Hockney, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.130)

[3] Clothier, Peter. Hockney (p.130)

[4] Hockney, David. That’s the Way I see It (p.103)

[5] Hockney, David. That’s the Way I see It (p.104)

[6] Hockeny, David. Hockney by Hockney (p.9)

[7] Hockney, David That’s the Way I See It (p.102)


  1. Eu não conhecia ele... Achei muito legal! As pinturas do lawn sprinkler e o big splash são geniais!

  2. You need to find and print out at least 4 examples of David Hockney's photographs david hockney photocollage