With only a week to go until the opening of David Hockney’s show at the Tate Britain, we look back to Martin Gayford’s conversation with the artist in It’s Nice That.
In Los Angeles, the studio is the centre of Hockney’s world. It is the place where he spends most of his waking hours. The structure, built higher up than the house and at a slight angle, is much smaller than the one in Bridlington, but still a big room, high and spacious, with an upper gallery at one end and comfortable chairs disposed on the floor.
On most days Hockney goes there after breakfast, stays until lunch, and usually returns in the afternoon following a rest. For him it is as much a place for thinking as for working. On the walls are hung pictures in progress and also finished ones, in arrangements that frequently change. It is a private exhibition of very recent work, out of which the next pictures, yet to be made, will grow.
DH: I sit in the studio a lot, just taking in the pictures. I like being in here. A bed in the studio would suit me. It would be great. You need to do an awful lot of looking. I think unless you do that, you’re not going to “get” a lot of things.
MG: A studio is a place for looking, and also a place for thinking about looking. And there is a tradition of paintings about studios, which are therefore pictures about the act of making pictures and in a way about what pictures are.
DH: Yes, for example, Vermeer’s Art of Painting is a painting about sitting in the studio and looking. It shows Vermeer at an easel in front of you, painting it. There are paintings of studios by Braque, Matisse, Picasso, and many others.
In the early summer of 2014, Hockney’s interest metamorphosed again. By that stage, he had produced over fifty portraits in the Comédie humaine series. Then, he began to paint groups of people in his studio, who were also the sitters for some of the portraits, gazing at the paintings on the wall (which of course were created in this same space).
MG: The new series started as pictures of people looking at pictures, which suggests that they are paintings about looking and pictures about pictures.
DH: Yes, they are. The earlier groups are people in conversation, or just contemplating something. I had them all posing simultaneously at the start. The largest group is of eleven people. So I’m putting the people in the space, and then looking at them.
MG: It is actually very unusual, historically, to paint multi-figure compositions like this from life in that way. The normal procedure from the Renaissance onwards has been to study each figure separately, then fit them into a space. You are doing it all at once.
DH: Yes, I am. Rodrigo Moynihan did a large figure composition of the Penguin editors at a supposed cocktail party After the Conference, 1955]. But because there was a large number of people involved, he filmed it, then took stills. That was a terrible idea. A filmed picture – like any photograph – will only have one perspective. In real life when you are looking at ten people in a room there are a thousand. Because the moment the eye moves, it changes. That’s what real life is. The eye moves all the time. When my eye moves in one direction, the perspective goes that way. So it’s constantly changing with my eye.
MG: In a sense, what you are doing with these group paintings is putting yourself in the picture. Everything is seen from your viewpoint, which is inside the picture space, not outside it, as a normal photograph or single-point perspective picture would be.
DH Yes. There’s a weird spatial thing going on which seems to me to be about the centre of the picture, not the edges. In these groups, there’s a general perspective for the room but also for each person, because I’m looking at them. In fact, they may have several. If a figure is close to me, I am seeing his face head on, but also looking down at his feet. So you are moving in to view just that one individual. Then, you have to turn to look at another person, if he is close too. You cannot actually see both at the same time. In moving, you see another figure, then another. You make space through time, I think. And the space between where you end and I begin is the most interesting space of all. It’s far more interesting than outer space.