A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney


Christmas brought me this book and I read it before the twelve days were up. The timing was immaculate – it consolidates some of the ideas I’ve recently been grappling with on the Understanding Visual Culture part of this course, while coinciding with the Part Three – Expanse of Drawing One.

The conversations of the title are held between David Hockney and art critic Martin Gayford. Key themes are: his insistence on really looking rather than simply seeing, the truth of photography, the power of images through time and the tradition of landscape painting.

Hockney has enthusiastically adopted new media – the iphone and then the ipad, before going back to the camera – but this time with nine cameras (for the Wolds series he was working on in 2010). He has been determined to capture how we really see – not the same as how a single camera sees – but also to encourage us to look as positive act, rather than simply scanning. This was something he started investigating back in the 1980s with his photograph collages.

The book is so packed with useful quotes I want to remember so I have peppered my learning log with them and the rest are below grouped by subject to refer to when I need inspiration or clarity of thought!

(Unless specified the quotes are by Hockney)

The meaning behind images

“A picture, any picture, if you consider it for a moment, depends on several remarkable procedures. It stops time, or if it is a moving picture, it edits and alters time. Space is flattened. The subjective psychological reactions and knowledge of both the person who made it and the one who looks at it are crucial to the way it is understood.” p8

“All good artists make the world around us seem more complex, interesting and enigmatic than it usually appears. That is one of the most important things they do.”

On photography

“We think that the photograph is the ultimate reality, but it isn’t because the camera sees geometrically. We don’t.  We see partly geometrically but also psychologically. When I’m looking your face now, it’s rather big in my vision because I’m concentrating on you and not on other things.” p53


Bigger Trees near Warter, 2007, David Hockney

When talking about his huge painting Bigger Trees near Warter, 2007 “I’m very aware that the photograph can’t do anything like it; a photograph couldn’t show you the space in this way. Photographs see surfces, not space, which is more mysterious even than surfaces.I think in the final picture you have a sense of being there.” p70

“…But van Gogh didn’t have a high opinion of photography. I assume he didn’t think the world looked like that. I agree with him about that, but most people don’t. They believe the photograph catches reality. It’s catching a bit of it, but not that much of it. That’s what Van Gogh knew. Rodin said “it is the artist who is truthful and the photograph that lies”.” p121

(Further reading: Vermeer’s Camera, Hockney’s Secret Knowledge)

When talking about the Grand Canyon – “no photograph does it justice. because a single photograph sees it all at once, in one click of the lens from a single point of view, but we don’t. And it’s the fact that it takes us time to see it that makes the space.” p143

“Photography likes to claim that it is just putting reality in front of us. But that’s obviously not the case”

On his current 9-camera project:  “I was anti one lens. We are making a criticism of the single-camera view: that it doesn’t really tell us all that much. Suddenly nine involves drawing, because you have to make decisions about how you link one to the other….you’ve got to think of all the images relating on a flat surfcae. After a while, I realised that with this technique you could not only draw in space, you could draw in time.  That is, you could take an individual screen and move it on five seconds. Sometimes bit of cars appear, disappear, appear again and you realise that there are maybe seven seconds between two screens. Because it’s a different time in this corner and that, when you look from one to the other you look through time. I think we see that way anyway – we do see in bits, and link one bit with another bit and another bit. The time makes the space somehow.” p233

Link to youtube: Wolds 9 Cameras, David Hockney

On drawing, on painting

“I used watercolour because I wanted a flow from my hand, partly because of what I had learned of the Chinese attitude to painting. They say you need three things for paintings: the hand, the eye, and the heart. Two won’t do.” P62

Martin Gayford: A painter is not simply adding more and more paint to a canvas or piece of paper; fresh thoughts and observations are going on, each adjusting the one that came before. Much human experience, when one comes to think about it, is a matter of layering. We understand the present by comparing it with the past – layer upon layer – then we think about it afterwards, adding more and more layers. As we do, our angle of vision changes.

Those two elements – time and perspective – come into all our images of our experience, all our narratives about it. the more I though about that, the more I understood Hockney’s objections to the photograph, which contains by its nature a mere instant of time, and a single point of view.” p115

“In drawing I’ve always thought economy of means was a great quality – not always in painting, but always in drawing. It’s breathtaking in Rembrandt, Picasso and Van Gogh.To achieve that is hard work, but stimulating: finding how to reduce everything you’re looking at to just lines – lines that contain volume between them.” p189

“Teaching someone to draw is teaching them to look.”

The power of images

Martin Gayford:  “Many would consider ideas as the moving force that alters the human world; others, technology or economics. Hockney emphasises the role of depictions. People, he argues, are strongly affected not just by reality, but by visual reproductions – and thus interpretations – of it.” p201

Hockney discusses how prior to the mechanical reproduction of images many people would only have had access to very few images – most likely in their local church.

On the mosaics in Monreale Cathedral in Sicily: “those mosaics are spectactular today, but they must have been unbelievably spectacular in 1200….it would have been like nothing else a person had seen then – the most modern thing, the most unnatural thing, in a world in which nature was very dominant….We see those mosaics as art today, bt they didn’t. They saw the past very vividly represented: truth.”

“The big purveyors of images in the past were the churches. Religious institutions were providers of communcal spectacle: the ritual. Then slowly the Church lost its social authority. Afterwards images were distributed by what is known as the media. We are now witnessing another profound change….Technology brought in the mass media, now it’s taking it out. Nothing else would do that.”




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