Previously unseen footage from David Hockney’s personal video library and revealing interviews with those who have known him at different periods in his life make this the definitive biography of Britain’s most influential living artist.
“Why are you popular?” David Hockney is asked at the beginning of this feature-length documentary. “I’m interested in ways of looking and trying to think of it in simple ways. If you can communicate that of course people will respond, after all everybody does look. The question is, how hard,” he replies. What follows is a fascinating exploration of how hard Hockney has looked at things throughout his life. For the first time, he has given access to his personal archive of photographs and films, and unique access to his work. The result is an unprecedentedly frank visual diary, intercut with reminiscences from Hockney, fellow artists, friends and family – the most significant surviving figures from his life.
Hockney’s life has spanned continents and eras – from wartime Bradford to California via Swinging London, then back to Yorkshire. As charismatic as ever, at the age of 77 he is still working in his studio seven days a week. The film traces the development of his work to the present day, enriched by the artist’s own dry comments on his work and art in general. That he was different was obvious to his family from an early age, when he would draw anywhere he found a space. There’s his own film of his childhood bedroom with walls painted in his style, identifiable even then. Despite his fame and transatlantic lifestyle, he maintained a good relationship with his parents, brothers and his sister Margaret, who in the film comments uncannily perceptively on his talent and how it grew.
In London at the Royal College of Art, his idiosyncratic image – eye-catching clothes, hair and owlish glasses – takes shape, and his fellow students comment now. The key to his development was his need for space, which he found by migrating to America, first New York and then settling in Los Angeles. In the land of sun-drenched swimming pools, his life suddenly opened up. He cycled round Hollywood – until, though a non-driver, he bought his first open-top car, went blond (inspired by the advertising slogan ‘Blondes have more fun’) and his art and fame took off.
His paintings at that time reflected his developing sexual identity in an era of the emerging openness of gay life. They are full of shimmering blue swimming pools, naked men, his lover Peter Schlesinger, one of his students, his first live-in relationship – the iconic era that was the subject of the celebrated Jack Hazan film A Bigger Splash. He met Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and painted their portrait. He had close friendships with Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Henry Geldzahler, art dealer John Kasmin, who discovered him in the Sixties, and designer Celia Birtwell. And all the time, we now discover, the boy from Bradford was himself compulsively filming his colourful new life, something he has continued to do, and which provides so much fascinating footage for this feature-length documentary. Eventually, his new world was marred by the coming of AIDS – “something you never expected” – and the loss of many friends.
In London, he formed many friendships with celebrities of the Seventies and Eighties. Now, with homes still in California, he has also settled in Bridlington in his native Yorkshire, where his series of gigantic paintings of the local wolds resulted in a recent major exhibition at the Royal Academy which has travelled the world. Nature for him has become a way of looking at infinity. The film is infused with colour and life: Hockney’s colours at different stages in his career – the bright, sunlit California acrylics and the mellow, earthy Yorkshire tones. Throughout his artistic life, he has constantly sought out new tools and embraced new genres and new technologies – fax and photocopier artworks, cut outs, set design for operas, multiscreens, multiscreen videos, and now the iPhone and the iPad, which he used for his Grand Canyon pictures, and whose technology allows us to rewind his creative process and see it for ourselves. Always for him a non-photographic way of seeing the world, art for him now is about opening out, incorporating the viewer into the larger work.
The film brings his well-known paintings to life. The two-dimensional pictures morph into their real-life subjects, speaking about the work’s genesis. Beverly Hills Housewife becomes Betty Freeman, interviewee. George Lawson and Wayne Sleep emerge to comment years later in the same poses and same location they were originally painted in. Hockney reveals Hockney’s originality, wit and sense of humour, constant innovation, experimentation, striving, openness and stubborness, which have turned him into a national treasure. Although now, in his later years, these qualities are mixed with a touch of cantankerousness and growing deafness. Director Randall Wright has directed major television documentaries including Lucian Freud: A Painted Life, which won an RTS award, and Arena: Sister Wendy. He first met Hockney when directing The Shock of the Old, a BBC Omnibus film and he offers a unique view of an unconventional artist who is still reaching new peaks of popularity worldwide. He says, “I would have wanted to make a film about him even if he hadn’t been a famous artist. He is an extraordinary person.”
Hockney is released on 28th November 2014 in the UK