David Hockney: ‘My time was the most free time. I now realize it’s over’ | art and design

dfervent Hockney takes two crumpled cigarette butts from his pocket and places them on the lunch table. “You are disgusting,” says his lifelong girlfriend Celia Birtwell, who has featured in many of his paintings. “Awful! Awful!” However, the harmful objects he placed next to our sandwiches are not what they seem. “They’re not real,” Hockney says. ‘They are sculpted. They come from a gallery in Berlin.” He beams.

Hockney, on a short visit to Britain from his beloved new home in Normandy, has stopped by to see an exhibition of his work at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Depiction opened to him on an otherwise closed day, with select curators and friends awaiting his arrival. The mood is one of waiting for a royal audience, and everyone gathers in mild awe when he finally makes his entrance, in a wheelchair pushed by his partner, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, known as JP.

The artist, now 84, is dressed in typically stylish clothes: blue and yellow checked suit, light blue socks, white shoes, red tie, flat cap and large round glasses with gold frames. When we go to look at portraits in a dimly lit gallery, the mood is low. But everything changes when Birtwell arrives, unmistakably the same woman standing against greenish blinds, her golden hair catching the sunlight, in Hockney’s 1970-71 masterpiece, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.

Birtwell was married to Ossie Clark at the time. She is a well-known textile designer and her husband was a fashion guru. He is depicted spread out in a chair with Percy the white cat on his lap, while Birtwell stands and grabs Hockney’s eye in dark blue and red. Hockney later often drew and painted Celia alone, in various clothes and nude. She kisses him in his wheelchair. She has white hair, is radiant and is small – I realize Hockney made her look much bigger by letting Clark sit.

Golden hair against green blinds... Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy.
Golden hair against green blinds… Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Photo: Mark Heathcote/David Hockney

Birtwell looks at Le Parc des Sources, Vichy, the best painting in this show, a wide, eerie view of grass and trees. She asks Hockney when he painted it. “Just before I painted you!” he says, grinning at her. “This was in my 1970 retrospective at the Whitechapel [Gallery]† And not Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy because I still did.’

The painting shows two men sitting in metal chairs that have been painted an enameled olive. They look at two rows of tall trees in a cool, misty morning light. “That’s Ossie Clark and Peter Schlesinger,” Hockney says. “Peter was wearing a snakeskin coat.” Like so many of Hockney’s unforgettable paintings from the early 1970s, this work is full of suspense and mystery. Schlesinger was Hockney’s lover. On the left is a third, empty chair. Was that from Hockney? Was it symbolic?

“Yeah, that was it,” he says. “I was up to do the painting.” The empty chair has a haunting presence, like Van Gogh’s chair. As Hockney points out, chairs can represent people, “They have arms and legs.” Hockney points to a split in the painting, where the lawn meets the brown foreground. “It’s like a picture down there, isn’t it?” he says. “Then there are still some seats in front of it.” So it is as if the two men are looking at a huge painting of a park. “It’s like pictures in pictures,” Hockney says.

Green and a ghost… Le Parc des Sources, Vichy.
Green and a ghost… Le Parc des Sources, Vichy. Photo: © David Hockney. Photo by Diane Naylor

In the next gallery, the artist’s iPad images of flowers intersect on a screen set amongst the museum’s 17th-century Dutch flower paintings. ‘The first year I was at the Royal College of Art,’ he recalls, ‘I went to a lot of small museums in London because I thought I had to catch up because they didn’t have any in Bradford or Leeds. Every little one in London I’ve been to. Do you think we can just smoke a cigarette?’

Outside, Hockney lights a Davidoff. “They’re only sold in Germany and Switzerland, maybe in the Netherlands too,” says JP, who wears a fawn suit and blue patterned shirt, his brown hair a little wild and his beard lightly mottled with gray. “I have Hans send them to Germany,” says Hockney. “He sends me 20 packs at a time — 2,000 cigarettes — and I keep them in drawers.” Is it an addiction? “No, I enjoy it. Smoking is a very pleasant thing. Why go against it? A lot of people get lung cancer who don’t smoke.”

For Hockney, smoking is a symbol of the freedom of the sixties. He was a pioneer in this era of liberation, arguably the first artist to portray the gay lives of men without apology or melodrama, just as he and his friends happened to live. His portrait of Patrick Procktor shows his fellow artist smoking in an almost wild pose.

Hockney traces the comparison of cigarettes and bohemia to 19th-century Paris: “In Boston they have that beautiful Renoir painting of a dancing couple. If you look closely, there are many cigarette butts on the floor. They smoked while they danced. They had a good time – they did!” He smiles.

'I've locked myself in a nice house in Normandy where I can smoke.  And there I remain'... Hockney at the Fitzwilliam.
‘I’ve locked myself in a nice house in Normandy where I can smoke. And there I remain’… Hockney at the Fitzwilliam. Photo: Steve Hatton/Electric Egg

Hockney wants JP to come to him for a second cigarette. Smoking is why he lives in France: what he sees as a fundamental freedom is now restricted in Britain and the US. The two have only been on this side of the Channel for a few days and they’ve already found rules to rage against. They had dinner with the master of Downing College and were told that smoking is prohibited on the grounds of the University of Cambridge. The exhibition posters that can be seen all over the city use an image cropped to remove the cigarette in his hand. His time, Hockney says, “was the most free time, probably ever. I now realize it’s over, so I’ve locked myself in a nice house in Normandy where I can smoke and do what I want. And there I stay. Shall we have some lunch?”

The museum restaurant is closed on Mondays, so lunch is from Marks & Spencer. Hockney misses French food: he tells me how much he loves it andouillette (tripe sausage). I ask if his hometown of Bradford will be named the next city of culture in the UK. He didn’t know and isn’t thrilled about it. “Well, I haven’t lived in Bradford since the 1950s,” he says. “The only time I go is to see Saltaire.”

He refers to Salts Mill, a Victorian industrial building in the village of Saltaire that was reclaimed by his late friend Jonathan Silver. The art gallery has reliably seen Hockneys and now displays his photographs of the Normandy Spring, arranged in a strip like the Bayeux Tapestry. So Hockney is making a cultural contribution to Bradford and may even have contributed to his bid. “It must be the first exhibition they’ve had directly from the Orangerie in Paris,” says the artist.

While he drinks rhubarb juice, the conversation between him and his friends turns to Normandy and then to Yorkshire, where he and JP plan to visit Hockney’s sister Margaret.

“She’s 87, but she still drives,” he says. “She can park.”

“Because she has a disabled parking card,” adds Birtwell. “They are very useful.”

Margaret Hockney is deaf and can read lips, it turns out. Her brother’s deafness may be one of the reasons why he goes silent during our chatty lunch and starts checking out his latest works on his paint-spattered iPad. “Deafness is a disability that is still not well appreciated,” says JP.

A pick-me-up in times of crisis... Hockney's iPad painting No. 133, created during the pandemic.
A pick-me-up in times of crisis… Hockney’s iPad painting No. 133, created during the pandemic. Photo: © David Hockney

The images on Hockney’s iPad include a photo of a portrait he just took of Harry Styles. During the pandemic, the artist depicted nature – the arrival of spring in Normandy and blooming flowers – in sparkling iPad paintings that provided an inspiring pick-me-up in times of crisis. But in November he returned to portraits and to oil on canvas.

In fact, if we look at his Styles portrait, he says, these works are made purely with paint. There is no drawing, no first sketch. He just creates people in color. The pop star, he adds, was a new challenge, as he prefers to paint friends. “I think if you know a face – you have to know a face a little – I don’t know his face very well. Everyone’s face is a little different.” He pauses to organize his thoughts and finally says, “I’m still not sure what people look like.”

It is a startling comment, full of doubt, from someone who has spent his life trying to capture a likeness, an essence. It helps explain why he’s so often portrayed a friend like Birtwell, as if he’s still trying to get to the truth. It’s also why he’s suspicious of photography: it tells us what people, landscapes or objects look like, as if that were a simple fact. In contrast, the modern artist Hockney most adores is Picasso, whose cubism is a rejection of simple photographic images, a search for how things really are.

The first Picasso he saw was a reproduction of Weeping Woman when he was 12. He puts his hands to his face to impersonate her and holds a handkerchief to her crumpled features. When curator Jane Munro Hockney brings a drawing of Picasso from Fitzwilliam’s shops, he holds it reverently. It is a portrait of dancer Lydia Lopokova, executed in the neoclassical style of the Spaniard. It’s perfect – but Picasso soon started distorting faces again. “He was just attracted to something else,” Hockney says. “He had something else to do.”

Does this also apply to Hockney, who returned from landscapes to freehand portraits in the mid-1980s? “I’m always doing something different,” he says. “Yes. They can discuss the past all they want, but I’ll just start with something else.”

Hockney’s Eye is on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge until August 29. A Year in Normandie is on display at Salts Mill, Saltaire until September 18, and Love Life Drawings is on display at The Holburne Museum, Bath until September 18.

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