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  • Writer's pictureMark Howitt

The Price of Perfection



The Sopranos: Season 1 Episode 3

“Not this again.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re always writing about old TV shows.”

“Only tangentially. In any case The Sopranos is new to me.”

“It started in 1999. Don’t you watch anything made since the turn of the century?”

“I watched The Gold, that was only released a few months ago …”

“… it’s about a 40-year-old bank heist.”

“Can I get back to The Sopranos?”

“Sure.”

Tony Soprano (played by the late James Gandolfini) is in bed with his mistress Irina (Oksana Lada) but about to leave to attend to some ‘business’. The camera pauses on the wall where a painting hangs, a swimming pool under a cloudless blue sky, the water disturbed by a splash of an unseen diver. “What’s that painting mean to you?” Tony asks. Irina shrugs “Nothing. It just reminds me of David Hockey.”

“You mean David Hockney.”

“She says David Hockey, but yes, the painting is A Bigger Splash by David Hockney, so she probably means him.”

“Does the painting mean anything to you?”

“In itself no. But it got me thinking. It’s sometimes said that you can’t put a price on perfection.”

“And I suppose you’re going to tell me that you can.”

“Yep, £1,295 (unframed).”

***

One of the most uplifting books of recent years is Spring Cannot Be Cancelled by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. I recommend it to anyone looking for a diversion from the humdrum, the day-to-day. It lets you get into the mind of someone who loves what he does and is utterly content with life.


Hockney, now 85, was born in Bradford, has been painting in every medium since the early 1960s and is one of the most influential British artists of the last sixty years. He lived in Hollywood when living in Hollywood was worth writing home about, has never been to a gym, still smokes, still paints. He is the guv'nor. Gayford is no slouch either, art critic for The Spectator, knows a thing or two about the history of the subject, his earlier collaboration with Hockney, A Bigger Message is worth a read too. In that book Hockney returns to his theory that Johannes Vermeer used a camera obscura as one of his tools of trade and, in the same vein, puts forward a persuasive argument that Caravaggio invented modern film lighting. An evening in their company – Hockney & Gayford, not Vermeer & Caravaggio – would be a delight.

Throughout his career Hockney has had studios in Los Angeles, Paris, London and, since 2005, Bridlington in Yorkshire. But Spring Cannot Be Cancelled tells how in 2019 he was travelling through Normandy, saw a farmhouse – La Grande Cour – thought it would be an ideal location for painting the arrival of spring, bought it, had it converted into a studio and moved in early 2020. Then the Covid pandemic came along, lockdown and all that, but it made no difference to Hockney, in fact he viewed it as a benefit, he’d found ‘a real paradise’, he didn’t need to go anywhere, and he just painted every day.

And the results are glorious, showing the Normandy countryside emerge from winter and, as Hockney says ‘go into the summer a bit’. The vast majority of the – literally – hundreds of paintings that Hockney created that spring were done in and around the four acres of La Grande Cour. And amazingly most were created on Hockney’s iPad, which he started experimenting with in 2010. The series of images of single trees – cherry, pear, apple – are things of beauty, hard to believe that they have not been painted in watercolours. His paintings of lilies, the pond and the moonlit gardens are reminiscent of Claude Monet who himself spent 40 years in Normandy at Giverny.

In recent years Hockney has gradually become a bit of a national treasure, a label that I’m sure he’d hate. As a result it seems to be the done thing to say, "Oh I love all of David Hockney's stuff", and let's be honest here, whether it's Vermeer, Caravaggio or Hockney, it is only stuff, stuff to hang on your wall (to hide the nasty stain that’s lying there). In any case, surely no one is going to say they hate the art of an 85-year-old smoker from Bradford.

But in truth, with one exception, his output up until early this century - when he moved back to Yorkshire - I can take or leave, the likes of A Bigger Splash (1967), Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-1), Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). Probably just as well, the first two are in the Tate and the third sold at auction five years ago for $90 million. But in the last 20 years or so he has pushed the boundaries further than before: his work with multiple cameras to produce single images on a gigantic scale e.g. Bigger Trees Near Warter (2007) are extraordinary and his paintings of the woods at Thixendale and the Woldgate are gorgeous.

This is a man come full circle and comfortable with it.

***


“Go on …”


I was seven at the time of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the first Olympics I was aware of. We may or may not have had a colour TV at that point but in any case, what memories I have of the Games themselves are in black & white.


So my big takeaway wasn’t the sporting achievements of Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz or Lasse Virén but the signage, a series of pictograms representing each sport, designed by Otl Aicher which I lovingly replicated in crayon. What I didn’t know then – at least I’m fairly sure I didn’t know then – was that Aicher also commissioned 28 artists to created posters representing the Olympische Spiele München.


One of these is by David Hockney. Rendered almost as a mosaic and in only six colours, it shows a diver about to enter the water, nothing more complicated than that. There’s an eerie innocence about it, a precursor to what was to happen that September when any innocence remaining in the Olympic dream was blown away forever. It’s beautiful.

I’ve been obsessed by the image for years. The poster was produced in two limited runs. The first of 200, signed by Hockney go for anything up to £20,000. If I had twenty grand to spare, I’d be in the market for one.


But the second run of 4,000, printed on heavy duty 200 gsm with Hockney’s printed signature, well, here’s the thing, I’ve just bought one for £1,295, it looks like it’s been in a drawer for the last 50 years, never been on anyone’s wall. It’s perfection measuring 64 x 102 cms.


Of course, there’s no point in investing in a piece of art if you’re not prepared to display it sympathetically and the cost of doing so in this instance has far exceeded the cost of the poster itself. Framing was only £200, but if you’re painting walls white it has to be Little Green Loft White (light reflectance value 92) and, as I discovered, oak flooring isn’t cheap these days.


With perfection comes responsibility.



Further reading

Hockney, David and Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011)

Hockney, David and Martin Gayford, Spring Cannot Be Cancelled (London: Thames & Hudson, 2021)

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