‘Van Gogh, to Me, Is a Contemporary Artist’: David Hockney on What It’s Like to Show Alongside Your Idol

The 81-year-old artist laughed off getting stuck in an elevator at the opening of the unprecedented exhibition.

David Hockney in front of his painting The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 at Centre Pompidou in 2017. Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images.

He has been the subject of a celebrated retrospective that toured the Metropolitan Museum of Art, received an Order of Merit from the Queen, and created the most expensive work by a living artist ever to sell at auction. One would think that at this stage in his career, few accolades could excite David Hockney.

But as it turns out, no matter how famous you are, showing your work alongside that of your idol is bound to be pretty special. In Amsterdam on Wednesday, the artist celebrated the opening of his first major exhibition in the Netherlands, which presents Hockney’s diverse Yorkshire landscapes at the Van Gogh Museum alongside paintings by the Dutch master. The show, titled “The Joy of Nature,” is on view through May 26.

The unprecedented exhibition came about after Hockney responded to an invitation from the museum a little over a year ago. “I was very flattered,” the 81-year-old said. The Bradford-born artist has never been shy about the Dutch master’s importance to his work. “I’m deeply influenced by Van Gogh—it’s very visible in the show.”

The buzz of the day was not dampened by an unexpected hiccup, when Hockney got stuck in an elevator with a group of clamoring journalists as he went out for a smoke at his hotel. (Firefighters were called in to liberate the artist.) 

After the opening, Hockney will depart for Northern France, where he has rented a house and plans to paint the arrival of spring. With the Brexit deadline looming, the longtime Los Angeles resident quashed suggestions that he might return to Britain to paint. “France is more smoker-friendly than England,” he said, smiling. “I take that into consideration.”


Two Contemporary Artists

Hockney’s landscapes, many of which are monumental in scale, fit harmoniously alongside Van Gogh’s smaller canvases. With their searing intensity, works by the Dutch painter, including The Harvest (1888), Undergrowth (1889), and The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital (Leaf Fall) (1889), are not dwarfed by Hockney’s 32-foot-wide The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), on loan from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

“Van Gogh, to me, is a contemporary artist—any artist that speaks to you is a contemporary artist,” Hockney said. The British painter first encountered Van Gogh’s work in Manchester in 1954, when he was 16 years old and had just started at art school in Bradford. “It was the color I remembered, because I’d never seen paintings like that before,” Hockney recalled. “At the art school everybody just painted grey pictures.”

The two artists are now united by their use of a bright palette. “At first, I probably thought he’d exaggerated some color, but now I don’t think so,” Hockney said. After 30 years living in Los Angeles, he is intimately familiar with the intensity of the landscape’s palette. “I think it’s there, but you just have to look hard,” he said. “Color is a very fugitive thing—it’s fugitive in life like it is in pictures.” 

Vincent van Gogh, The Harvest (1888). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation).

Hockney created the landscapes in the show during a nine-year period when he took a break from his adopted home in Los Angeles and returned to his native Yorkshire to visit his ailing mother. His friend Jonathan Silver, who was terminally ill, encouraged him to capture the local countryside. Hockney had suggested curators include his 1997 work, The Road to York Through Sledmere, an homage to journeys made from Bridlington to the village of Saltaire to visit his dying friend.

Hockney has a theory about why people like Van Gogh’s work so much: “They can see how they’re done, all the brush strokes are visible.” This kind of transparent approach is reflected in Hockney’s own vivid lines, which are particularly striking in the 20 iPad drawings, created on the Brushes app, included in the show. 

Hockney is indifferent about the commercial popularity of his own work, however. Last year, the artist dethroned Jeff Koons as the world’s most expensive living artist when his painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972), sold for $90 million at auction. 

“The auction prices on my work have nothing to do with me. I ignore it,” the artist affirmed, adding, “I think people have forgotten Oscar Wilde’s comment: The only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer.”

David Hockney, Woldgate Vista, 27 July 2005. ©David Hockney, photo by Richard Schmidt.

A Love of Nature

The artists also share a penchant for experimenting with perspective and a fascination with nature. Like Van Gogh, Hockney executed many of his landscapes en plein air. Where examinations of Van Gogh’s canvases have turned up sand from a small French fishing village (and even a rogue grasshopper), you can spot a blade of grass painted into Hockney’s depiction of the Woldgate Woods and flecks of rain on one of his small watercolors.

He is headed to Normandy this weekend to capture the arrival of spring, a season he describes as bringing on “nature’s erection.” “We’ve got a house there, it’s surrounded by trees,” the artist explained. “It’s going to be marvelous for me because I’ve got a new location to draw.” 

The artist has been painting for 60 years and his prolific production is not slowing down. Next, he wants to create a long work like the Bayeux Tapestry—a work he describes as “a moving picture, but you do the moving.” Although the artist is no stranger to technology—his iPad works, photographic paintings, and videos included in the show evince just a small portion of his experimentation with tech—he said making a movie wouldn’t be right in this instance, as the arrival of spring is too slow.

That won’t stop Hockney from watching it himself, however. “I can’t think of anything better in life than watching the spring happen in Normandy in 2019,” the artist sighed. “What better thing could I do?” 

“Hockney — Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature” runs March 1 through May 26, 2019 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. See more pictures of the exhibition below.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

Installation shot courtesy Van Gogh Museum. Photo by Jan-Kees Steenman.

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