David Hockney: A Bigger Story
What could be a more fitting final subject for the last South Bank Show than our greatest living artist? Sky Arts is airing a series of five films about David Hockney from 28th August. After 46 years at the helm of the art show that he created to knock some of the stuffiness out of the art world, Lord Melvyn Bragg is stepping away. But not before gifting us with some more trenchant insight.
Bragg spent a year making these films with Hockney, interviewing him at his studio in Normandy. One conversation went on for four hours, and you can understand why – there are parallels between the two men. Both wear their intellectual rigour and intellectual generosity lightly, and both have a ferocious work ethic in service of the arts. Hockney, instructed by a sign he made in his teens that tells him to “get up and work immediately”, still paints for seven hours a day.
The show covers all facets of Hockney’s long life and career, from his early determination, painting his own diploma when the Royal Academy of Arts refused to award him one (they later acquiesced and awarded him one), to his admiration of Picasso and ambition to be “LA’s Piranesi” (Bragg’s phrase, LA had not been painted the way London or Paris had so Hockney sought to rectify that, plunging the essence of the sun-scorched city of dreams into paintings of shimmering pools and laconic skies).
Hockney is an enchanting subject. He appears in a parade of suits in zingy colours, with his trademark round glasses and peroxide hair, a wobbly tie and a badge that politely entreats, “End bossiness soon.” The artist is genial company but this doesn’t take away from the clarity and force of his ideas. If anything, it adds to them. As art critic Martin Gayford notes, his perennial popularity actually disguises how complicated and original his work is. When Hockney talks about his approach to his work, there is always a real clarity of thought behind it. He likes to paint the same people, for instance, so that he is not distracted by getting the likeness right. He likes collaboration because it is compromise. He expresses philosophical insight with a disarming simplicity: ideas that sound obvious until you realise that no one has said them before.
His depictions of nature, and the joy he takes in it, are revelatory. Hockney tells a story about a man shouting at him as he was doing research for a project, “Why are you filming those trees?!” “As though they were all the same!” he scoffs incredulously, witheringly. His love for the world, people and his art shines through this lovely film.
It’s a great insight into Hockney, but it is also exemplary of what Bragg does so well, drawing out the best in any subject with subtlety and nuance. Whatever the mind, whatever the energy, he can match it. Bragg is a rare combination: the sharpest of minds who wields it only for empowering others. He is a phenomenal force for truth and knowledge, for everyone, in our culture and must be celebrated as much as possible. He is the David Attenborough of ideas.
David Hockney: A Bigger Story is released on Sky Arts on 28th August 2023.