Some artists anticipate the future without even being consciously aware of it themselves. The self-indulgent individualism of 1960s California, the youths splashing around in swimming pools in David Hockney’s iconic paintings seem like they anticipated a future in which the working class adopted all the trapping of middle-class pleasures. Likewise, the unexpected decision by one of the world’s greatest living artists to move to the coast of Normandy in northern France in late 2018 can be seen, in retrospect, as an anticipation of the pandemic era, where isolation in the countryside has become the ultimate luxury.
Hockney, 83, does not have a swimming pool in Normandy, where he lives in an old farmhouse and works in a barn that he has converted into a studio. The pandemic forced him into isolation – something the artist thinks is fantastic as he can focus entirely on his work. After all, Hockney has described himself in various past interviews as a “worker” who rarely lets a day go by without being productive. He has also said that the impression many people have of him, that he indulged in all the Cavafian pleasures in their pop-art version in the 1970s, is plainly wrong. “I was never much of a party boy,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “I didn’t mind being seen that way, but I am actually a worker. An artist can approve of hedonism, but he can’t be a hedonist himself.”
Cavafy is, perhaps, the poet that stands out most in Hockney’s work. Kathimerini reached out to the artist by email recently and asked him about this connection, pointing to his well-known etchings of the Greek-Egyptian poet in the 1960s, as well as the illustrations inspired by his poems.
“Apart from etchings, I also made a painting in 1961 called ‘A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in the Semi-Egyptian Style.’ This was based on Cavafy’s great poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians.’ I have loved Cavafy since I discovered him in my early 20s,” Hockney told Kathimerini.
Hockney grew up in Yorkshire in the North of England. The landscapes of Yorkshire, where he returned 50 years later, in 2012, found their place in his work just a few years before he moved to Normandy. He never said what took him to the French countryside. A quest for the roots of the British identity (before the Norman invasion of 1066), a desire to resist Brexit, or even a new Cavafian sentiment elicited from an excursion in the land of Monet? Regardless, the work created by Hockney in the last year-and-half is currently on display at the Galerie Lelong in Paris, in an exhibition titled “Ma Normandie,” running through December 23.
We ask Hockney whether “Ma Normandie” may be interpreted as a comment on the solitude that stands to become a fundamental characteristic of this period. His response is eminently British in its rationality. “I do like solitude but I am quite deaf so perhaps that explains it; on the other hand I was in Normandy for the lockdown with two of my very best friends, Jean Pierre and Jonathon, who I can talk to because there was nobody else here. If a lot of people are talking in a room, I just get one noise, so I am out of it. Consequently, I don’t like crowds,” he said. “Most of the show in Paris was painted in 2019, when we had quite a few visitors, but I try to be as gracious as possible with them. This year 2020 I have just been working on my iPad depicting the arrival of spring, which will be shown at the Royal Academy in London in March 2021 and in October at the Orangerie in Paris. This is 118 pictures but I have gone on making them and will finish up with about 200 for the whole year,” he added.
Hockney was born in Bradford in the heart of West Yorkshire. It has been reported that an exhibition of photographs of Sergei Diaghilev in Edinburgh inspired him to live his life out in the open like the Russian ballet dancer. His parents were supportive. They allowed his friends to spend the night with him at home. Being an artist was even more outlandish in Bradford’s working-class community, yet Hockney’s parents were supportive of that too. Not so much the neighbors, one of whom proclaimed that art school students were “lazy buggers.”
He enrolled at the Bradford School of Art at the age of 16 and attended the Royal College of Art in London at 20. He worked 12-hour days and his teachers immediately spotted his talent. He stood out in the London art scene in the 1960s beside the earliest stars of music and fashion. With his peroxide-blond hair and thick-rimmed glasses, he was – and wasn’t – the personification of pop art. His first solo show, held in 1963 at John Kasmin’s gallery, was a success. Back then he had been flirting with abstraction and his paintings were busy, in a dull palette. That all changed when he moved to California, where he spent 40 years of his life.
Hockney has claimed to have a propensity to negativity that he tries to control, an admission that could be seen as a psychoanalytical metaphor for his work: Beyond the bright, it exudes a sense of departure, detachment, silence and even solitude. It is the genuine Hockney-esque use of colors that perhaps “controls the negativity” and gives his paintings such a sense of joy and optimism. It is a contrast that generates such beauty and makes his work instantly recognizable.