William Corwin visited David Hockney in his studio in Bridlington, Yorkshire, to discuss the paintings, iPad drawings, and videos that form the core of his show A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy in London (January–April 9, 2012). Starting in the artist’s football-field-size studio, they looked at a series of massive multi-canvas paintings based on Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount,” as well as a series of pastoral landscapes of the Yorkshire wolds and dales. After a lunch of Stilton cheese and tomato soup, Hockney and Corwin retreated to the artist’s attic studio to view the newest endeavor, a series of multi-screen videos that visually challenge contemporary modes of photography and filmmaking, and which allowed Corwin to quiz Hockney on some of the fundamental arguments laid out in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge.
William Corwin (Rail): Why did you start working with Claude’s “Sermon on the Mount?”
David Hockney: I’d always been attracted to the painting because its subject matter isn’t easily seen. A year ago I had a show in New York, and I went into the Frick to ask them about “Sermon on the Mount.” They gave me the image and we cleaned it up on the computer. [The painting suffered damage in a fire in the 18th century, eds.] Then I did a kind of copy of it, followed by various other versions.
Rail: You’ve done six paintings based on the original, each in a different style. Can you walk us through the series?
Hockney: First I did some small versions, in a way all about the space. It’s a very unusual painting by Claude in the sense that he kind of invented the classical landscape, which is quite theatrical. Everything that is close to you is usually on the sides, and in the middle is deep space, and in this painting it’s the other way around: Everything that’s deep space is at the sides and everything in the middle is closer to you. It’s rather like a reverse perspective, which interests me. People asked me, “Why are you doing a religious painting?” And I pointed out, “Well, it wasn’t really a religious subject.” A religious subject is the crucifixion or the annunciation, but this is actually just a sermon telling you how to live really, isn’t it?
And I simply did a few versions rather quickly, and then planned to do a big one: I’m planning to call it “a bigger message.” They’re each deliberately composed in different styles of making pictorial space. When we cleaned “Sermon on the Mount,” we found that the painting followed this kind of spiral movement, which you couldn’t see uncleaned. I picked out things, picking out all the triangles for instance. I was planning to do very big paintings because you’ve got very big rooms at the Royal Academy.
Rail: What’s the Royal Academy show going to be called?
Hockney: I’m calling the exhibition A Bigger Picture. It’s about big things. You can make paintings bigger. We’re also making photographs bigger, videos bigger, all to do with drawing.
Rail: You’ve been taking the separate canvas approach for quite a while. This means you are creating very large images out of smaller ones, and you have these lines in the image. What does that mean to you? Is it purely practical, or is it meant to evoke some “tiled” aspect of image-creating/image-looking?
Hockney: You can ignore the lines, but the advantages to this process are enormous, so the disadvantages you don’t mind. There’s a gain or loss with anything you’re going to do.
Rail: You’ve always been interested in new technology. When did you first decide to start working with the iPad?
Hockney: I got an iPhone, and started playing around with the “brushes” app. I started drawing on it and just sending the drawings out to friends. As they accumulated, I realized, there’s a serious body of work. I mean I did about 350 drawings on an iPhone. When I heard about the iPad being just a bit bigger, I got one very quickly. It’s a new medium, in the sense that you’ve got it instantly. I’ve got it in my pocket here. If I suddenly think, “Oh, I’d draw that,” I pick it up, and I can draw in black and white, in color, all kinds of marks. There’s an enormous range of things you can do, and it’s at your fingertips, literally.
Rail: How do you feel about the materiality of it though? It doesn’t exist, it’s a file in a computer that is then printed out. Do you miss drawing on paper? The smell of the oil pastels?
Hockney: You miss a few things—you miss surface resistance, for instance. But you gain something, and the gain is unbelievable speed, you’ve suddenly got all your equipment just here. I don’t have to get up and get a glass of water for the water colors, I don’t even have to open a box of pencils, and that speed is something you can begin to use. And it’s got implications, of course, all kinds of mad implications.
Rail: Does this relate at all to your work with copy machines and faxes? Why were you so fascinated by the fax machine? The quality of the reproduction is so poor.
Hockney: You just assume it’s a printer and it is, but it’s a bit crude, so you don’t expect something fine. I began drawing on it and I realized that if you wanted to do a kind of wash drawing on a fax machine, you didn’t really make a wash drawing, because it couldn’t “read” it. What I did was use opaque grays, gouache, then it read them as gray, and made them look like washes. You simply draw so the fax machine can read it quite clearly, and then whoever gets it at the other end, it will print out quite well, because it’s just using the crude printing of the fax machine. It’s like the difference between, if you’re doing an etching, you might use fine lines, if you’re doing a linocut, you’re going to have to use bold lines simply because the medium calls for it. It’s just like that. I sent exhibitions via fax.
Rail: I know you did something here in Yorkshire, in Saltaire, at the 1853 Gallery.
Hockney: We sent a whole exhibition to South America, to Brazil, and they even asked me what to do with them afterwards, and I told them to fax them back to me. Then the curator realized, what were they, anyway? You don’t know. They were art, probably, I think.
Rail: When did you first start working with photography?
Hockney: In the 1960s, I remember buying a Pentax, but I’ve always said this: I go hot and cold with photography. I’m interested in images. If you’re interested in images, you’re interested in however they’re made, so naturally photography’s an interest. But I always thought there were severe limitations to photography, very severe really, more than people thought. Some things you simply can’t photograph. There are things unphotographable, actually.
Rail: Like what?
Hockney: At the beginning of the second war in Iraq, I did a version of Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea.” It was painted in 1951, and supposedly it was based on some story of some massacre in Korea. At the time it was quite dismissed because people said it was illustrational, it wasn’t like “Guernica.” The painting’s of soldiers in a kind of medieval, chivalric look, armor and things. They’ve got big guns, and they’re shooting women and children. The smallest child is picking flowers, oblivious to it, the women look terrified, and so on. I painted a version of this, and then on a separate panel beneath it, I painted a photographer to point out that there couldn’t be a photograph like this. Because the photographer would have had to be on the side of the soldiers, therefore, you will never see a photograph like this; it’s unphotographable. People who commit things like that usually don’t like photographers. I pointed out, in the painting, probably, Picasso could have been referring not just to Korea, 1951, but to all the photographs that had dominated Europe in that five-year period, photographs of the death camps. Remember, they were photographed after the event. They didn’t depict the appalling events, they were the photographs of survivors, whereas Picasso depicted action.
When someone blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma, I remember turning the TV on and there was somebody there with a microphone and cameras who wasn’t allowed in, but somebody came out and said to the cameraman, “It’s not like television in there.” Meaning, you couldn’t really show what it was like in there. I picked up on the remark, and the television people didn’t. They weren’t able to show you the horror because there’s a glamorization involved in photography.
In fact, when Charles M. Falco and I made projections during our research for Secret Knowledge, it dawned on me that a severed head in three dimensions is a very disturbing thing. But in two dimensions, on a projection, it’s not only not that disturbing, it’s actually rather beautiful because it becomes a flat image—that in itself is a bit disturbing.
They’re trying to put terrible images on cigarettes in the U.K. They’re a bit naïve about images—it’s not so easy to make a terrible image actually. It’s much easier to make them pleasant. The absolutely terrible images I can think of that have an unbelievably strong effect on you, the marvelous Rembrandt where they’re gouging out Samson’s eyes, for example; because they’re gouging eyes, you’re using your eyes to get this and you feel that thing about the eyes, and that’s incredibly strong. Whereas on the cigarette packet, they put these two lungs, but seeing as I’ve never seen a lung, I thought the one dried up on the left was the bad one, and the one with all the blood was the alright one. It turns out it should be the other way around.
Rail: Tell me about your new videos.
Hockney: They’re nine separate films, and you see them on nine separate screens, but they make up one picture. It’s what I would call a drawing, because you’ve got all these edges within the picture that are diluting the outer edge, because you’ve actually put edges inside. You’ve got to make things flow from one camera to the other without repeating things, which isn’t so easy, actually.
Rail: I think based on what you wrote in Secret Knowledge, where you argue that a mode of seeing—perspective—has been forced onto Western art through the use of optical tools, these new videos have a lot more to do with the way you think people actually see, as opposed to the way people see in a perspective drawing, because each of these images are nine screens—nine vanishing points.
Hockney: Everything is in focus, as it is for us, but if you concentrate on say, the bottom left-hand corner, or screen, at that moment, the top right-hand corner is your peripheral vision. It’s not out of focus, but it is peripheral. And that’s what happens in reality, isn’t it? It is a form of drawing, because you’re using nine cameras. The process is, in its way, critical of one camera, now, simply because you can make a better picture if you’re using nine, and nine are small enough to put together.
Rail: Let’s talk a bit about the subject matter: Let’s talk about Yorkshire, where you returned, after years of living in L.A., and where you’ve worked for the past 10 years. Was your decision to come back very sudden?
Hockney: It wasn’t sudden, I came and I stayed a bit. And especially when I stayed a winter, because I hadn’t stayed a winter, I thought, it’s rather more beautiful than I remembered, and then I just thought, well it’s a good subject, and once you get a good subject together, you say, “Well go with it,” at my age especially. So that’s why I’m here.
Rail: This particular set of videos is going to be exhibited at your show at the Royal Academy? And how many others?
Hockney: We’re just working it out. We’ll have 18 screens in the studio. We might put two pieces next to each other, which we’re thinking of, and we’ll slow them down a bit, so it’s almost like walking speed.
Rail: You’re a painter, primarily, and you can sit and look at a painting for an hour, or you can experience it in a relatively brief span of time, but are these videos meant to be experienced as paintings, or is this meant to be a meditative experience?
Hockney: I’m well aware of the fact that you bring your time to painting, but video brings its time to you.
Rail: How do you feel about that?
Hockney: Well it can’t be altered. But this kind of video is a bit different from the single camera because it’s actually giving you a great deal more to look at and it’s not choosing views for you. In Avatar, for instance, the camera moved too quickly: You never saw what shape a leaf was, you never saw the textures of the bark of a tree, it didn’t let you linger over anything. They were telling you what to look at, which irritates me. We’re not doing that—you’ve got an enormous lot to look at.
Rail: This brings up a very interesting point that you make in Secret Knowledge about the relationship between cameras and painting. I think a lot of people hear about your book or read parts of it and get the point that maybe the camera obscura was this great thing introduced to painting that made painting so much more realistic. They miss the switcheroo you pull at the end of the book, where you reveal that maybe you think cameras weren’t such a great introduction to painting after all!
Hockney: Yeah, you have to read it. I realized that even a lot of people who had reviewed it hadn’t even read it, I could tell. What I’m saying was that there’s a more interesting continuum in pictures. It makes what’s going on today a great deal more interesting; you begin to see where it comes from. I joked that Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting. He did! It’s far closer to Hollywood than you think! And that makes Caravaggio more interesting, not less. Art history never asks questions about how things were made, and it’s never known how to deal with photography. Ever. Somebody said to me, “What you’re doing is destroying the immaculate conception theory of photography, that it came from nowhere in 1839.” Well, it didn’t. It came out of painting. My argument is it’s actually going back to it. Because of what Photoshop and digitalization can do, we’re going back, putting the hand back in the camera. It was there before the chemicals.
Rail: What motivated you to spend a couple of years of your life pursuing this research, the history of the camera obscura, the camera lucida?
Hockney: You don’t assume you’re going to spend years doing anything, but you do. It was a deeply interesting subject for me. It leads you to see, well, history isn’t quite what they say it is. At first a lot of people doubted me, but a lot of people came around to see it’s a totally plausible suggestion. The technology was there, there’s no doubt the lenses were good enough. If the technology is there, think of the Italians, how good they are with pictures. Are you telling me they wouldn’t experiment with this? It’s very doubtful they didn’t. In fact, it’s not me who’s making a mad assertion: Conventional art history is telling us something that’s hard to believe! I’m pretty certain I’m right. And it makes a lot of things a hell of a lot more interesting today, because you can relate to things—you can relate to what collage is.
Rail: One of the things that caused a bit of a controversy with Secret Knowledge was the use of the word “secret.” And this whole “conspiracy.” People began to wonder, “Why isn’t there more information,” which you then disprove and provide documentary evidence in the last quarter of your book.
Hockney: It wasn’t my title, that. My original title was Lost Knowledge, and Thames and Hudson changed it. I simply went along with it. Knowledge has been lost in the past and it will be lost in the future; this was simply lost knowledge. We did point out that secrecy was a part of many things: If Caravaggio was using a camera, cameras make images and those images are considered magic, and magic is heresy.
Rail: You talk about one Cardinal Del Monte, who very likely gave lenses to Caravaggio.
Hockney: He was the man who put the telescope together for Galileo. Are you telling me they didn’t know they’d make a picture? Of course they did. But he wouldn’t write it down, because remember in 1604 they’re burning people at the stake for things like that! Well, if they were burning people at the stake in Bridlington, we wouldn’t mention cameras either. You act accordingly.
Rail: Do you think artists themselves felt nervous about exposing these tools that helped them draw?
Hockney: Probably not. Long before photography it was the painter that made the image that stays. Actually, I was a bit appalled at the art historians, even Susan Sontag, when she said this was like finding out the great lovers of the world were on Viagra. It reveals a terrible ignorance to think, “Ah, that made it easy,” Well, it didn’t.
Rail: Was the “invention” of photography, in the 1830s, a liberating event for painting?
Hockney: Yes, it changed it within 30 years. I think people have forgotten that a great deal of early Modernism was anti-photographic.
Rail: Do you paint in order to reproduce the way we see?
Hockney: It’s all about how we see the world. I do think the world is beautiful.
Rail: Are you convinced of that?
Hockney: Looking, looking at it, is a beautiful thing. I love images, and I’m deeply interested in how they are made, and here I’m saying if you can draw with video cameras, you can get better pictures.
Rail: Was that the aim of it, to get better pictures?
Hockney: More vivid, a more vivid picture? Isn’t that something people would go for, something more vivid?
Rail: But you like to paint Cubism occasionally?
Hockney: Well, because it’s more vivid! That’s what Cubism was about: making a more vivid picture. It was about reality, wasn’t it? Making it stronger. Cubism was the first attack on perspective in 400 years. And perspective is a law of optics, it’s not an invention of Brunelleschi. Because that’s what the camera will produce. If the camera produced it later, there has to be a relationship between that and Brunelleschi. Otherwise, you’re saying he figured out how to look at the world with one eye, from one point—well, we human beings don’t do that. But the camera does, it’s forced to.
Rail: Do you think this methodology is only applicable to landscape?
Hockney: Probably, in the sense that trees are so complicated they don’t really follow the laws of perspective whereas buildings do. Remember, Brunelleschi was an architect, not a narrative painter. There’s no reason a narrative painter would stop time. Time flows for a narrative painter, but the architect stops time to look at the building, doesn’t he? Perhaps that’s why we were trapped a little bit. This is taking us out, giving us a chance to break away from it. And you’d need it in this form, because you’ve always got the cinema or television, which is now the big purveyor of the perspective picture. That’s it, that’s where it’s coming from, and if you’re criticizing the perspective picture as not that human, and you can then make something else using the same equipment, that seems worthwhile.
Rail: You seem suspicious of shadows!
Hockney: Shadows are interesting. As I point out in the book, I was surprised that art historians weren’t always aware that shadows only occurred in European art, and only occurred from a certain date. They do not occur in Chinese painting, Japanese painting, Persian painting, Indian painting. They’re all sophisticated depictions of the world, so why does it appear in European art, and why does it appear at a certain time? We do know the camera needed light and shade, needed dramatic lighting. Therefore isn’t that a relationship? Yes it is. You can’t prove I’m wrong, nor can you absolutely prove I’m right, but you can look at it, listen to the evidence and then you think, “Well of course they would use this, that’s what they would do.” And then you therefore see that it’s dominated us for a lot longer than photography.
Rail: In your writing about camera obscura, you talk about landscape and how it doesn’t work so well. Do you feel there is something lost with the density or the lack of density?
Hockney: It seemed to me landscape was a spatial thrill, and the camera couldn’t get that. But nine cameras can begin to get it a lot better. In the end I’m sort of saying photography came out of painting, and that’s where it’s going back. No one realized photography might have a lifespan. Certainly chemical photography did, it’s now over! So we’re in another era because of that.
Rail: Do you think that iPads are something that should be used in art schools now? Are they a new medium?
Hockney: I think it’s a fantastic medium, but it’s up to the artists. You need all kinds of artists. I was always critical when they gave up teaching drawing. I said, “Drawing is teaching you to look,” and that’s always needed. They’re saying, in a way, that with photographs now, you don’t need to draw.
This interview was also broadcast on Art International Radio in an abridged version. Special thanks to Ken Silver and Anna Preston Gelderd.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.