David Hockney

Originally published on Maine Crime Writers blog, April 19, 2012

In 1975 at the end of a long post-college tour of Europe, I came around a corner in the Tate (now Tate London) and was stopped in my tracks by a painting. It grabbed my attention so aggressively; I literally rocked back onto my heels. It had been a long, art-filled trip, yet I remember this painting and my reaction to it as if it were yesterday. The painting was David Hockney’s double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy.

Sixteen years later, on my husband’s and my fifteen-year-delayed-honeymoon, or first real, no kids trip (take your pick), I was eager to show him the painting that had taken my breath away. But its room in the Tate was closed for repairs. I was brokenhearted and cranky for the rest of the day.

So, when I realized that our trip to London this year to visit our grad student daughter would coincide with the tail-end of an exhibit of Hockney’s Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy, I was all over it. The exhibit was so popular, our tickets were for 10:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

I’d seen some of the early Yorkshire landscapes before. In fact, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston had an exhibit of them in 1998 and owns one. But nothing prepared me for what I saw at the Royal Academy.

Back in England after decades in Los Angeles, Hockney is fascinated by the changing seasons in his native Yorkshire. The pictures are big and bold and amazing. I’m so sorry these images don’t do them justice.

One room is filled entirely with paintings Hockney did on an iPad. Hockney has always been fascinated by the technology artists have used through history to solve challenges. He points out that to the cave painters who used sticks and fingers, a brush would represent technology. The problem he is solving with the iPad is one of time, light and change. He wanted to do a study of the same spot in the woods from its winter awakening through full spring. But in northern Europe, time was against this. The light changed every hour and coming back at the same time everyday was not a solution because the scene itself changed every few days. Drawing rapidly on the iPad solved this problem, and when printed, created an incredible group of canvases.

Staring that these beautiful pictures, I kept thinking, this man is seventy-five years old. I have writer friends who throw up their hands when Facebook adds a feature.

How do the David Hockney’s happen? How does it all come in one person? The hand, the eye, the intellect, the drive, the curiosity, the risk-taking, the imagination? It seems impossible, but thank God, it does happen.

I used my reaction to Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy in my novel The Death of an Ambitious Woman. The victim’s husband is a sculptor, and here is the passage from the scene when the protagonist, Acting Police Chief Ruth Murphy, sees his enormous sculptures for the first time.

“But it wasn’t the architecture that seized Ruth’s attention. Rising from the floor, in some cases almost to the ceiling, were five pieces of sculpture. Ruth wasn’t much for modern art, but her response was immediate, visceral. She felt as if she’d been punched in the chest. The twisted hulks were abstract, but were, unmistakably, dinosaurs. Their frozen postures were so real; the immense beasts seemed about to break free and resume lives interrupted long ago. Each piece displayed an intense emotion. Ruth clearly understood their rage, terror, hunger, even the strutting self-satisfaction of the crested duckbill. The vitality of the sculptures was stunning, especially as Stephen Kendall had portrayed it, shot through with decay. The dinosaur’s gleaming outer skin melted away in spots, revealing torn canvas, jumbled wires, and quick glimpses of jutting metal frames. Even as the beasts ruled the earth, rot was in them, on them, the specter of extinction already present.”

At the end of the scene, the husband’s art dealer says to Ruth, “You know, I envy you today. You only get to see them for the first time, once.”

Because isn’t that what we all want from art? To be stopped in our tracks? To leap to our feet after a performance as if an unseen force has grabbed us by the collar? To close a book and cry because it’s over and we’ll never again live in its world the same way? To know, that your life has been forever changed.

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