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British artist David Hockney, 74, photographed in Toronto on Oct. 20, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
British artist David Hockney, 74, photographed in Toronto on Oct. 20, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Visual Arts

An unrepentant David Hockney Add to ...

You have to hold on when David Hockney holds forth. One of the world’s most famous artists for almost a half-century, he’s also a great zig-zagging steamroller of talk. Ask him a question, and you’re more likely to get several answers instead of one, and most of them tangential to the original query.

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This was the case late last week when Hockney made a rare visit to Toronto to speak at the Royal Ontario Museum which is hosting an exhibition of some of the drawings he’s been doing over the last three years, using the Brushes application on his iPhone and iPad. Called Fresh Flowers (Fleurs fraîches), it’s the British-born artist’s first substantial Canadian showcase in more than two decades.

The day after his talk Hockney was comfortably ensconced in a hotel room where, as reporters passed in and out, he was permitted to indulge his most enduring habit, smoking. Joining him – in both the smoking and, occasionally, the conversation – was long-time pal and Fresh Flowers curator Charlie Scheips.

At 74, hard of hearing, his once-famous blond thatch now a spray of grey, Hockney remains an unrepentant, pretty much non-stop consumer of tobacco. Not simply a consumer, mind you, but a strenuous advocate in the cause of nicotine – “delicious” – while increasingly vexed at the anti-smoking “zealotry” that has steadily pushed his pleasure to society’s margins in the last quarter-century.

“We’re living in too morbid an age,” he volunteered in his Yorkshire accent between puffs on a succession of filter-tipped Camel Lights (“David smokes every kind of cigarette,” Scheips observed), “growing grotesquely morbid. I’m fed up with it as a smoker, utterly fed up with what’s been going on about it. What was I saying just a minute ago? ‘Birth, copulation, death/When you get down to brass tacks, that’s all the facts.’ [to paraphrase]T.S. Eliot. And no matter what the medical profession tells you, that’s what happens.” Prohibiting and proscribing smoking represent “a miserable and dreary view of life,” he opined, “and I don’t want it imposed on me. Look at Picasso. He smoked. Dead at [91]and he only filled 12 museums worth of art! Look at Monet. He died at 86 and there’s no photograph of him in his older age without a cigarette!”

Hockney, of course, has been a long-time contrarian, in life and art, possessed of what one friend calls “a lifelong penchant for swimming upstream.” In the late 1950s, after graduating from Bradford School of Art, he registered as a conscientious objector to avoid serving in the British military when the U.K. still had national service and was assigned to work in a hospital for almost two years. One of five children, he was open about his homosexuality early on and included gay themes in his work well before the U.K. decriminalized homosexuality in 1967. Besides his cigarettes, Hockney likes his meat and is areligious – in contradistinction to his much-loved mom who was devoutly Christian and a vegetarian.

As an artist, Hockney is known for his seemingly unflagging prolificacy as, variously, painter, photographer, printmaker, set designer, collagist, poster artist. (Asked one time how he would describe his work, Hockney replied: “Well, I guess you’d have to say Hockneyesque.”) As his iPad and iPhone drawings attest, he’s also something of a tech geek – a facet that will be highlighted even further at London’s Royal Academy of Arts early next year as part of a solo show called A Bigger Picture. He plans to display on huge multiple screens a series of short videos or “moving photo-collages,” shot using as many as 18 high-definition cameras. “I think it’s what we need as a tonic for our age.”

Ten years ago Hockney’s fascination with the tools and processes of art-making raised the hackles of many art historians when he co-authored a book, Secret Knowledge, with the controversial claim that Caravaggio, Ingres and other masters achieved their earth-shaking effects by using refracting instruments like the camera obscura and camera lucida to project images onto paper or canvas.

Hockney hasn’t recanted his views. If anything, he believes more firmly in their rightness and recently saw the renowned Caravaggio expert Clovis Whitfield enter the fray on his side.

“I know it’s disturbing to art historians who’ve not ever questioned how the picture is ever made,” Hockney observed. “But I’m an artist and an artist is going to question how a picture is made . . . I’m perfectly willing to take [the naysayers]on, just like I am the medical profession and the anti-smokers. I’m not afraid of them, not afraid at all.”

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