‘My paintings are … a cry of anguish while symbolising gratitude in the rustic sunflower’ —V. VAN GOGH
‘It’s obvious that [Van Gogh] could already see a great deal when he was still in the north. But there’s an extra clarity that occurs in the south – where we all see a bit more simply because you don’t have misty horizons and water vapour in the atmosphere. Being in the south of France obviously gave Vincent an enormous joy, which visibly comes out in the paintings. That’s what people feel when they look at them. They are so incredibly direct. I remember in some of his letters, Vincent saying that he was aware he saw more clearly than other people. It was an intense vision’ —D. HOCKNEY
‘When I start painting I get into a good routine. I’m disciplined enough to concentrate for hours. I love it! It’s terrific when I really get painting: squeezing the paint out and using it so it doesn’t even have time to get a skin on it; working in the evenings where I’ll set something up; and then continuing on it first thing in the morning’ —D. HOCKNEY
‘Hockney was quick to choose exactly the right place in his studio to paint the series of flower studies, picking a spot at the far end of the room, at the top of the stairs just outside the bathroom. He saw this was where the northern light came down in just the right way. It was the beginning of an intense period of painting’ —C. S. SYKES
‘When I came out [of the Monet exhibition] I started looking at the bushes on Michigan Avenue with a little more care, because Monet had looked at his surroundings with such attention. He made you see more. Van Gogh does that for you too. He makes you see the world around just a little more intensely. And you enjoy seeing it like that, or I do’ —D. HOCKNEY
With radiant yellow blooms set against a glowing backdrop, Sunflowers in a Yellow Vase witnesses David Hockney’s visionary return to figurative painting at a poignant moment in his life. Among the largest flower paintings produced during the pivotal year of 1996, it captures the artist’s powerful attempt to re-engage with reality as he struggled to come to terms with its cruelty. On the brink of his sixtieth year, Hockney was struck by a deep sense of melancholy following the deaths of a number of close friends. Like Francis Bacon before him, the loss of those who had punctuated his life and work – among them Joe McDonald, Jean Léger, Nathan Kolodner and Ossie Clark – had a transformative impact upon his artistic outlook. His first sunflower paintings had initially served as get-well cards for several of these figures; as time went by, the motif would become a vehicle for catharsis, allowing him to reconnect with the world through paint. The previous year, his spirits had been lifted by Claude Monet’s retrospective at The Art Institute of Chicago, as well as Johannes Vermeer’s at The Hague. Having spent much of the previous decade immersed in photography, Hockney lifted his eyes from the camera lens, vowing to savour the beauty of his surroundings with the studied intensity of his forebears. Stripping away the models and idioms that had informed his earlier practice – Cubism, collage, theatre sets – he redirected the sparkling light of California onto a subject that had once fascinated his hero Vincent Van Gogh. Where the latter’s Sunflowers had functioned as expressive conduits – as a means of escaping the present – Hockney’s allowed him to look reality straight in the eye: to confront it face-on in all its splendour and brutality. Simultaneously tributes to departed friends and homages to the lessons of the past, Sunflowers in a Yellow Vase is above all a bittersweet testament to art’s therapeutic power: to the haptic pleasure of sealing a living form in paint, even in the knowledge of its impermanence.
Since the early 1970s, vases of flowers had punctuated Hockney’s works like recurring visions. In the celebrated double portrait Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71, Tate, London) – depicting Ossie Clark and his wife – they vividly disrupt the flat planes of their interior setting. In My Parents (1970-71, Tate, London) – painted the year before his father’s death – they function as poignant memento mori, luminous against a silent, empty expanse of wall. It was during this particular period of mourning that Hockney first began to explore the work of Van Gogh in earnest, initially through the medium of drawing. Using reddish-brown ink and reed pens similar to those used by Van Gogh in Arles, he sought to imbibe his predecessor’s ability to transmit emotions to paper, most famously capturing his mother the day before her husband’s funeral. Over time, Hockney came to engage more deeply with Van Gogh’s command of paint, marvelling at his study of Provençal light. Having moved from East Yorkshire to Los Angeles, he understood the revelatory effect of bright southern skies upon an artist originally from northern territories. ‘It’s obvious that [Van Gogh] could already see a great deal when he was still in the north’, he explains. But there’s an extra clarity that occurs in the south – where we all see a bit more simply because you don’t have misty horizons and water vapour in the atmosphere. Being in the south of France obviously gave Vincent an enormous joy, which visibly comes out in the paintings. That’s what people feel when they look at them’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, London 2011, pp. 183-84). In Looking at Pictures on a Screen (1977), a reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers appears behind the figure of Henry Geldzahler, testifying to the work’s early impact upon his consciousness. Significantly, Geldzahler’s death just two years before the present work was among those that affected Hockney most deeply as the Dutch master re-entered his psyche in the 1990s.
From the Dutch Golden Age to Pop Art and beyond, flower painting and nature morte have long been vehicles for contemplating the ever-present spectre of death in life. Exhibited for the first time alongside a series of mournful portraits produced during the same period, Hockney’s sunflowers may be understood within this age-old trajectory: as memorials for those he had lost, and celebrations of their existence. At the same time, however, these works fundamentally hijack the motif as a means of revitalising his own practice. In 1995, Hockney had attended the exhibition Claude Monet 1840-1926 in Chicago, and had emerged ecstatic. ‘I came out of that exhibition and it made me look everywhere intensely’, he explained. ‘That little shadow on Michigan Avenue, the light hitting the leaf. I thought: “My God, now I’ve seen that. He’s made me see it”. I came out absolutely thrilled’ (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, David Hockney: A Pilgrim’s Progress, New York 2014, p. 320). During the same year, he was equally entranced by the exhibition Vermeer, Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis in The Hague. ‘[Vermeer] put the paint on so carefully in transparent layers’, he enthused. ‘… Seeing how Vermeer handled the paint, and beyond that how he controlled the light on his subjects, sent me back to the studio with tremendous energy’ (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, David Hockney: A Pilgrim’s Progress, New York 2014, p. 321). Though laced with symbolic overtones, Sunflowers in a Yellow Vase is simultaneously a glowing exaltation of light, space, colour and form, refracted through the lens of art history. Rendered in a saturated palette of rich, modulated tonalities, Hockney’s intricate brushstrokes chart the play of light across the translucent petals, the folds of the fabric and the exquisite curvature of the vase. Monet’s dappled textures, combined with Vermeer’s golden chiaroscuro, combine to create a powerful mise-en-scène, observed with the clear, unflinching gaze of an artist at peace with the world, and at one with his medium.
Energised by the revelations of these two exhibitions, Hockney set to work with a renewed sense of purpose. As Christopher Simon Sykes explains, ‘[He] was quick to choose exactly the right place in his studio to paint the series of flower studies, picking a spot at the far end of the room, at the top of the stairs just outside the bathroom. He saw this was where the northern light came down in just the right way. It was the beginning of an intense period of painting’ (C. S. Sykes, David Hockney: A Pilgrim’s Progress, New York 2014, p. 321). Working quickly over long periods of time, Hockney threw himself into his beloved medium with a new level of granular concentration. ‘When I start painting I get into a good routine’, he asserted. ‘I’m disciplined enough to concentrate for hours. I love it! It’s terrific when I really get painting: squeezing the paint out and using it so it doesn’t even have time to get a skin on it; working in the evenings where I’ll set something up; and then continuing on it first thing in the morning’ (D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, David Hockney: A Pilgrim’s Progress, New York 2014, p. 321). In the radiant depths of Sunflowers in a Yellow Vase, Hockney’s newfound delight is palpable. The sunflower heads quiver with visceral, emotive charge: fleeting records of the joy of painting, illuminated like beacons in a world tinged with darkness.