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Talking pictures with David Hockney

Why the artist, who has collaborated with the art critic Martin Gayford on an important new book, believes it is time we had a comprehensive history of pictures to go with the great many histories of art

‘Pictures are all around us: on laptops, phones, in magazines, newspapers, books... and even — still — hanging on walls,’ write David Hockney and Martin Gayford in the introduction to their new book, A History of Pictures — From the Cave to the Computer Screen (Thames & Hudson). ‘It is through pictures just as much as words that we think, dream and try to comprehend the people and environment around us.’

The problem facing all picture-makers is, however, the same: how to compress three-dimensional people, things and places onto a flat surface? In the new book Hockney, who has produced work in almost every medium, and Gayford, an art critic and author of acclaimed books on Van Gogh, Constable and Michelangelo, juxtapose a rich variety of images ranging from a Disney cartoon to a painting by Velasquez in their exploration of how and why pictures have been made across the millennia. 

Presented as a an informed yet informal conversation, the book sees its co-authors investigate, among many other subjects, what makes a flat surface interesting, how movement can be shown in a flat picture, and how painting, drawing, film and photography are deeply interconnected. Here, we present some extracts.

Video: David Hockney and Martin Gayford in conversation

Any picture is an account of looking at something

David Hockney: Walt Disney was a great American artist. He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. If you ask people about Hollywood films in the 1930s they start mentioning Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable or Greta Garbo, but Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are still there today.

Disney was a bit like Warhol in that he had a factory and didn’t do all the work himself. The art world wouldn’t like that comparison because they hate his schmaltziness, but that doesn’t detract from his achievements with depiction.

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, 1305-06. Fresco. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, 1305-06. Fresco. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

Martin Gayford: Once you begin to look at the history of pictures as a continuum, you notice connections between images that come from very different times and places.

David Hockney: Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto (above), from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.

What makes a mark interesting?

Martin Gayford: In his contemporary biography of Michelangelo, based on the artist’s own recollections, Condivi tells the story of how in 1496 a powerful Cardinal dispatched his agent from Rome to Florence to find the artist who had carved a certain sculpture he had bought. This man, a Roman aristocrat named Jacopo Gallo, came to the artist’s house. Michelangelo had no work there to show Gallo as proof of his abilities, so he ‘took a quill pen and depicted a hand for him with such grace and lightness that he stood there stupefied’.

Michelangelo, Figure Study of a Running Man, c. 1560, chalk and pencil on paper. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

Michelangelo, Figure Study of a Running Man, c. 1560, chalk and pencil on paper. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands

David Hockney: Condivi’s story about Jacopo Gallo and the drawing of the hand is total believable. You would be astonished to see a Michelangelo drawing appear in front of your eyes, especially if you did not know much about him. Michelangelo’s drawings are amazing. I’ve held extraordinary ones at the Teylers Museum in Haarlem. You don’t know how he did some of them.

To see volume you need light and shadows

David Hockney: I’ve always noticed shadows simply because there weren’t many in Bradford... the shadow is just the absence of light. But do we necessarily always see shadows? You don’t have to see them consciously. The fact that people can take a photograph with their own shadow in it without noticing suggests that they are not aware of them. You can ignore shadows when you are drawing, as the ancient Greeks did, for example. I can, if I draw with just a line; you can choose not to put them in.

Martin Gayford: Great photographers are not just aware of shadows; they use them to maximum expressive effect. In the genre known as film noir, strong lighting and its deep shadows created the dramatic atmosphere.

David Hockney, Still Life with TV, 1969. Acrylic on canvas. The David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney

David Hockney, Still Life with TV, 1969. Acrylic on canvas. The David Hockney Foundation. © David Hockney

David Hockney: It’s a kind of joke, but I really mean it when I say Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting. It’s an invention, in that he quickly worked out how to light things dramatically. I've always used shadows a bit, because that’s what you need below a figure to ground it, but mine are more like Giotto’s than Caravaggio’s. I use shadows that you see in ordinary lighting conditions; you don't find ones like Caravaggio’s in nature.

It is interesting that shadows are almost exclusively European. Few have pointed it out. Most art historians, who are Europe-centred, don’t realise that there are virtually no shadows in Chinese art, not Persian or Japanese. They are one of the things that make the major difference between Western art and the art of anywhere else. They are incredibly important. 

We see with memory

Martin Gayford: All pictures are, in one way or another, time machines. That is, they condense the appearance of something — a person, a scene, a sequence — and preserve it. It takes a certain amount of time to make them. And it also takes time to look at then, varying from a second to a lifetime.

Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlésienne, 1888. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Vincent van Gogh, L’Arlésienne, 1888. Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Van Gogh claimed that he painted the first version of L’Arlésienne (November 1888) in one hour. ‘Then I have an Arlésienne at last,’ he wrote to his brother, ‘a figure… knocked off in one hour, background pale lemon — the face grey —the clothing dark dark dark.’ The painting shows signs of rapidity, but he had known the sitter, Madame Ginoux, who had been his landlady and friend, for five months before the sitting. He would have stored up many hours of looking at her, and these, too, went into the painting.

David Hockney: We see with memory, so if I know someone well, I see them differently from the way I might if I’d just met them. And my memory is different from yours; even if we are both standing in the same place, we’re not quite seeing the same thing. Other elements are playing a part, whether you have been in a place before will affect you, and how well you know it.

A painter would steal anything and colour it

David Hockney: After about 1870 European painting looked at Japanese art because it wanted to escape from Renaissance perspectives and the photograph. Van Gogh was one of the first to copy the Japanese way of making pictures. When he went to Arles in the south of France he said he was going because he wanted to see the colours he saw in Japanese art, which came from a strong sun. His use of intense colour in portraits, for example, must have influenced a lot of artists later, such as Matisse and the Expressionists; of course it came to him from the Japanese.

At the beginning of the 19th century all European paintings were done with chiaroscuro. By the end of the century shadows had gone from a lot of painting. There are no shadows in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, not in Gauguin, not Bonnard. There is no comment in art history on this movement away from shadows; perhaps the writers are not conscious of their existence. As I’ve pointed out before, in a way, you can just not see them, as the artists of China and Japan did not. A great deal of modernist painting depended on looking at Japanese prints.

Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888. National Galleries of Scotland

Paul Gauguin, Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel), 1888. National Galleries of Scotland

Martin Gayford: One of the most adventurous European paintings in this period is Paul Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon. It has no vanishing point; the figures do not diminish in size according to how far away they appear to be, or, at least, not consistently. The bull in the top left is closer to us than the kneeling woman behind, but seems far smaller. Gauguin’s space is largely created by a field of intense red, with a tree trunk carving across it. To some extent, he learned how to create such an effect from studying Japanese woodblock prints.