"Exciting Times are Ahead" is the title of a major retrospective of paintings by David Hockney at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn in Germany, June 1-Sept. 23, 2001, a stunning show that looks at the work of an artist who has spent more than 40 years exploring the canvas without losing his passion. The British-born artist, who is 63 years old, lives in Los Angeles. He is nearly deaf, but with the help of his hearing aid is still able to have intense conversations. This interview is excerpted from a conversation that took place when Hockney came to Bonn for the opening of his show.
Barbara Weidle: Thomas Mann once said, when he lived as an emigrant on the West Coast, that California is like Tuscany, but without soul.
David Hockney: Toscanini said that as well.
BW: You have been living there for many years. What does California mean for you?
DH: First of all, the sun shines 350 days a year. That's what Ernst Lubitsch said (laughs). That is why Hollywood is there. Actually that's why they made films there. It's a stunning light. It's a very beautiful light and also Los Angeles is a city that you can live in very privately. The private spaces are marvelous, the public spaces are not very good.
BW: And in so far as your art is concerned? It is obvious which of your paintings are related to California and the American landscape.
DH: I am a Northener who went to the sun. Like van Gogh did. He comes from a rather darker northern place and goes to the sun. That's what I did, really. I was brought up in gothic gloom. Although in the summer it's very nice in Yorkshire. But I was attracted to the openness, the light, and I still am.
Actually, one misses Europe a bit. California is described as "Tuscany without soul," but remember, California is new. There are no ruins. That's why the Italians take a different view of life. They know that things come and go.
There are no ruins in California, only ghost towns. It hasn't been there long enough. It's raw nature. But raw nature is fascinating. Anybody who lives in California knows the power of nature because they know an earthquake can happen. And they know there is not much they can do about it.
BW: In your autobiography That´s The Way I See It, you write about the fact that every artist wants to share his or her experience and thoughts with people. What exactly do you want to share?
DH: I have drawn and painted for most of my life. I had to the utmost that desire to show someone what I thought, what I actually like. That essentially the world is beautiful. I feel that, really. However there is always a contradiction in art that is deeply pessimistic, for instance. Simply because the very fact that you might be able to communicate this message slightly contradicts the deep pessimism. Doesn't it? The very fact you communicate it, therefore, there is the paradox.
BW: Why do you think the belief in beauty in art is still important?
DH: I think you can't escape beauty. Again, this paradox is here that I am well aware of. One that I have always had difficulties with. I am well aware that there is beauty and violence. But I stay away from violence. I mean, as far as I can see, there is no argument against beauty. There isn't, actually. People are probably misunderstanding what beauty is. Perhaps thinking it's just prettiness or something like that. But it's more than that. There is no question you can dismiss it, you can't. No.
BW: You wrote that you see part of your responsibility as an artist in showing that art can ease desperation. How can this work, for example?
DH: I think it can. Yes.
DH: How? (Laughs.) I am not sure it does, meaning, if there wasn't any, where would we be? It's a very deep desire to depict the world. It's old. It's extremely old. And it won't go away, obviously. We need to do it. We need to think, ah. Maybe that something. Yes, I have seen something like that, I have felt something like that. It helps us think, ah, maybe and also a bit lightens that. Isn't that what it's doing? We need all kinds of artists, I think that. We do. It's true only the very greatest artist actually can see that life is both. Deeply tragic and deeply comic. A lesser artist might see, it's all tragic, or all comic. But there are two sides to it, I can see that myself. Whether I am capable of then dealing with it at all, I am not saying that.
BW: Maybe the "Yorkshire" series, the landscapes you painted in 1997 for your dying friend Jonathan, is a good example for your belief that art can ease pain?
DH: It can absolutely. Yes. I have had friends who are ill. I have usually drawn something for them. Some flowers. Send them. Send a drawing and say my flowers won't die as quickly as the real ones. And it does ease the pain. Yes. We all know that.
BW: Picasso is very important for your work and for your thoughts about painting reality. You seem also to be related in terms of creating a certain atmosphere of joy of life in painting. How would you describe his meaning for you?
DH: Tragedy is not really a visual concept in some ways. It's a literary concept. I think one of my arguments against the "health police," for instance, which is why I smoke, is that they are basing what they tell you on fear of death. That's OK because we all have fear of death. But the opposite of fear of death is love of life. And unfortunately from official positions we never get that. We get the opposite. So maybe I think, well, I point out there is something else, there is a love for life. Yes, there is.
BW: Picasso's work was so important for you. How would you describe his meaning for you?
DH: Picasso took the lessons of Cézanne, which were the first empty optical view of the world. Picasso developed them. The reason though they are not being developed much further is actually the optical view of the world is back, in a bigger way than it ever was when Cézanne moved against it. Meaning as you saw how many people were there at the press conference [at the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn] looking at me through a lens and a mirror. An enormous number. That's the way people are being shown the world. Is he very real?
I did notice for instance when the building in Oklahoma was blown up, I rarely watch television. I hate the picture. I don't care for the picture. It glamorizes everything, actually. But somebody was trying to interview someone coming out of it. And they were running backward and forward. And they simply said to the cameraman, "It's not like television in there." Meaning, you couldn't possibly show the horror of what it's like. The camera could not do it.
People don't discuss images. Not today. They don't discuss the problem of images today. They accept the camera as though it's showing you reality. It's showing you a tiny bit of it actually.
BW: Your drawings, portraits of people, are very fragile and sometimes seem to be unfinished, though they are completed. Is it because you think it is impossible to show the real person on a piece of paper?
DH: It might be just my feeble drawing really. You can only show certain aspects of a person in a drawing. Very good writers can do very good portraits of people. Visually, perhaps it's harder. But there have been great portraits. Although someone pointed out that in one of the greatest portraits ever done, that Velázquez portrait of Innocent X, it is stunning, but we are not totally sure what Velázquez thought of him. I think that's true.
I always drew my mother. She lived to be 99, she died two years ago. Whenever I went to see her I never failed to make drawings. One reason, perhaps, was my way of sitting with her. She often fell asleep and I drew that. This kind of nodding, falling asleep. She always posed, we would begin, posing for her son. Rather good. My father was a fidget, moved about. But my mother would do that and I have kept them all.
I have an awful lot of them, showing often different aspects of her. From my point of view. Whenever I visited her I always drew. Because she grew very old, I was never sure if she would be there again. She was nearly a hundred when she died. As she got older, I felt closer to her again. I also felt that power. I was an unmarried son. She knew she was the most important woman in my life, not true for my brothers, for instance. All this comes out. There is objective vision in a way. We see with memory. I mean, we are forced to. But the lens does not, that is the problem.
BW: Is Walt Whitman still one of your favorite poets?
DH: Whitman was a terrific poet. Very American. He was the first great American poet, wasn't he really? Before that they were imitatitve of English poetry on the whole. I read Walt Whitman 40 years ago. I responded to it. It was open, big, like America in a way.
BW: Walt Whitman mentions boys swimming in his poems.
DH: Yes. "We two boys together clinging..." When I first went to California, I used to say, I went to California because it was sexy. Which it is, actually. Anyplace in the sun is generally sexier than cold places. You wear less clothing. It's true of Greece as well. I read poems. I read poetry. But I have difficulties sometimes now with a lot of younger poets. I don't always get the allusions, which are often from pop music or something, I can't even look them up. It doesn't matter. That happens to most people -- I am not going to worry about that much.
BARBARA WEIDLE is an art historian and journalist who lives in Bonn and Berlin.