The Documentary ‘Hockney’ Examines the Life and Art of the Painter David Hockney

David Hockney’s very first memory is of his mother’s screams as bombs were dropped during the Blitz of WWII. Born in 1937, brought up with food rationing (which lasted until he was sixteen), raised in austerity but never feeling poor, his origin tale is rooted in working class hardship. But the most important lesson he took from it was one that defied his class background. “One of the things my father told me,” he tells the camera in the documentary Hockney, “was to never worry what the neighbors think. Well, that’s aristocratic [in sentiment], not working class. And I took that lesson actually.”

David Hockney. Portrait of an Artist ( Pool with Two Figures) 1972. Courtesy the artist.

David Hockney. “Portrait of an Artist ( Pool with Two Figures)”, 1972. Courtesy the artist.

Directed by Randall Wright, the film is a loose, freewheeling exercise that travels amiably across its subject’s lifeline, jumping back and forth from the present, in which he’s a globally celebrated painter, to various formative moments and episodes in his life against the backdrop of larger social changes. So we’re given exuberant images and footage of London of the Swinging ‘60s; his first trip to New York; Los Angeles, itself a character in his life and work. An old commercial for Clairol hair dye is rolled out as an old friend tells how Hockney, who turns 79 later this year, came to dye his hair its signature blond.  And his queer sexuality is depicted matter-of-factly, in both his life and work.

David Hockney in a still from the film.

David Hockney in a still from the film.

Stitched largely from the artist’s own archives of photos and home movies, supplemented with footage from past TV interviews, and fleshed out with interviews of friends and family, the documentary isn’t intellectually rigorous or academically minded, but it is engrossing, buoyed by the charm of Hockney and his cohorts. Against the stream of gorgeous paintings, the film achieves an intimate feel that still avoids going too deeply. It comes close a few times; one friend jovially reads a grocery list of Hockney’s “flaws” that another friend had composed partly in jest, and concludes with, “Yes, that’s David.”

“Why are you popular?” one interviewer asks the artist in an old interview clip. “Well, I’m not that sure,” he chuckles in reply. “I’m interested in ways of looking, and trying to think of it in simple ways. If you can communicate that, of course people will respond. Everybody does look. It’s just a question of how hard they’re willing to look.” It’s an answer that can be traced to a trait inherited from Hockney’s father, who he describes as “puritanical but empathetic toward others.”

My Parents, 1977. Courtesy David Hockney.

David Hockney, “My Parents”, 1977. Courtesy of the artist.

A story he shares of being mocked by some fellow students (and the class model) in a figure drawing class at art school lit a fire in him to show them all up – which he’s undoubtedly done. It’s a tale that, in some form or variation, can be told by almost any and every creative throughout history, but also reveals something of the chilled rage that can lie at the root of creativity.

The film moves at a stately pace, with the camera holding on establishing shots or lingering over footage or photos of geographical spots (New York side streets; the East Yorkshire neighborhood where he grew up) significant to whatever segment of Hockney’s narrative is being examined at that moment. This creates a contemplative mood but also allows the viewer to muse on the art being shown, to not only extract meaning from the work but to give serious consideration to the man behind it.

David Hockney at the Royal Academy, 2012. Photo by Stephen Simpson/Rex.

David Hockney at the Royal Academy, 2012. Photo by Stephen Simpson/Rex.

Top photo by Wendy Ide.