“Who is not struck by the haunting oddness of David Hockney’s Bridlington house, a seaside villa of little charm and no architectural distinction whatsoever? Looking at the pictures, you can almost smell the damp and the must, sense the ghosts of unhappy holidays past. The property used to be a hotel, but not – if appearances are anything to go by, which they are – of the better sort.”
Was I the only one, on reading this excellent article about one National Treasure in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, who heard it in their head spoken by another National Treasure Alan Bennett? (For readers in distant lands who may be unfamiliar with Alan Bennett’s voice, try this youtube clip.)
The Telegraph article discusses “the banality, even the mediocrity,” of suburbia. “The railway arrived in Bridlington in 1846 and not much else exciting happened until Hockney came here eight years ago.” Stephen Bayley, the article’s author, gives other examples. “Camille Pissarro was one of the great Impressionists. He was married in Croydon Register Office in 1871 and did some of his best work in Norwood, a leafy suburb, but certainly not the Tuileries or Argenteuil.”
The article also discusses the role of assistants. “This week’s unhappy news from Bridlington of the death of one of Hockney’s young assistants, Dominic Elliott, has revealed an important truth about artists’ working methods. The idea of the genius struggling in solitude in a cockroached and frozen garret with only a crust of bread and syphilis for company is an historically specific vision no longer, if ever, of relevance. Artists are not solitary. They rely on human support systems, often of a very sophisticated sort.
“Near Hockney’s seaside villa is the industrial building where his pictures are manufactured. A modern Hockney is not an autograph work of craft, but a semi-industrialised product. His monumental Yorkshire landscape film productions are made by a crew driving a Jeep Cherokee fitted with a rig carrying nine video cameras. Besides his entourage including a personal companion and trusted assistant, Hockney has a full-time technical PA with his own staff. He compared his video outings in the Wolds to a mapping campaign by Google Earth.”
I’ve posted about artists and their assistants before, and this BBC report about last Spring’s exhibition of Hockney’s work at the Royal Academy refers to the quote on the posters “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally”, which may or may not have been a dig at Damien Hirst.
The article has a lot of interesting examples of artists and their assistants throughout the ages. “When Julian Opie advertised a studio vacancy in The Guardian, he received 500 eager applications. As definitions of art get ever broader, so the professional scope of the studio assistant enlarges in sympathy. Where once you might have found pigment-mixers, canvas stretchers and canvas primers, today’s artist needs drivers, webmasters, IT assistants, managers, press officers, specialists in hazardous materials and full-body masseuses.”
It concludes with: “But the faded Yorkshire seaside hotel with its collection of old, and this week tragically new, ghosts? It is scarcely Warhol’s Factory, still less Monet’s Giverny. But it does tell us another truth about art. With great artifice, Hockney has explained how the ordinariness of Bridlington is a foil to his pictorial imagination. That’s as may be, but you look at an exuberant and original Hockney picture and you realise that no matter how many secretaries, assistants, Mac-jockeys, Photoshoppers, drivers, cooks, art directors, editors, PRs, dogs, friends, pals, mates and biographers surround him, great art is, no matter what the physical circumstances or collaborative regime, the product of a single, unique imagination.”