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October 14 2011

A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford – review

The artist talks about trees and landscape

This book is a celebration of trees and bigger trees and some of the biggest landscape paintings in art history. It is about much more than that, but trees are at its massive, strongly beating, very English heart, and David Hockney's discovery of them is an invitation to us all to look better, see better, enjoy more.

The beautifully illustrated (and very fairly priced) volume takes the form of conversations with Hockney's art historian friend Martin Gayford (they are designated on the page as DH and MG). MG prompts DH to talk about his move from California to Bridlington, his preparation for his forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, his views on the differences between painting and photography, and his ongoing love affair with new digital techniques.

Hockney loves trees, he loves gadgets, and he loves to paint. The combination of these enthusiasms is producing, in his 70s, some huge works on an epic scale of mind-changing colour and glory, as well as some miniatures drawn on his iPad. These domestic sketches – the view from his bedroom window with a street light, his bedroom curtains, a bowl of flowers, a cactus, an ashtray – appear as if by magic nearly every morning in the inboxes of his friends. This man is blessed with great gifts, and he shares them with great generosity. He says he has found a new lease of life. "I would never have expected to be painting with such ambitions at this age. I seem to have more energy that I did a decade ago, when I was 60." His work rejuvenates him, it rejuvenates us all. DH is very inclusive.

Trees are long-lived, they become old friends and then they outlive us. DH claims "they are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see. No two trees are the same, like us." MG includes in his commentary Constable's description of the "young lady" ash tree on Hampstead Heath, together with a reproduction of Constable's 1821 Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, with its extraordinary details of bark, and he also quotes from Colin Tudge's The Secret Life of Trees, a book both he and Hockney admire. Trees are "like human figures in the landscape, vegetable giants, some elegant, some heroic, some sinister ... but they are also remarkable feats of natural engineering, capable of holding up a tonne of leaves in summer against the forces of gravity and wind". This observation draws Hockney on to speak of the spatial thrill of trees and their capturing of light – a winter tree helps you to sense space, a summer tree in leaf is a container of light – and also to the theme of the changing of the seasons and the changing light of every day.

Hockney has learned to watch the seasons acutely since he moved back to his native Yorkshire. He knows when to catch the hawthorn in bloom, and gets up early with his nine-camera team to film leaves turning colour in the autumn and bare trees decked with snow. He films and paints the same deeply familiar tunnel of trees and bushes and notes how the position of the sun changes through the year – a natural phenomenon he'd never noticed in California. (Maybe it doesn't happen in California: Bridlington is, as he often points out, quite a long way north.)

MG, on a 2010 outing to Glyndebourne with DH to see a revival of the 1975 production of The Rake's Progress with Hockney's original sets, remarks as they sit in the grand and formal Sussex gardens on a perfect summer day that the landscape is a "huge natural theatre that is being lit by the sun and the weather in an infinity of varying ways". DH assents, but is soon drawn back to the subject of his humble tunnel on a misty morning: "You get a marvellous range of greens, more detail in the cow parsley. If it had been a sunny day, it would have been a little flatter ... a morning like that is a great rarity." More detail in the cow parsley: that's so English, that's so good.

The landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds is modest, unspectacular, unfrequented, and despite his long absence Hockney says he is now learning to know it as thoroughly as Constable knew East Bergholt and Dedham – he has gone back to his roots. But he hasn't gone to Earth. He is remains deeply interested in the work of his predecessors, and full of lateral thoughts about them. His response to one of the fathers and masters of the outdoor landscape, Claude Lorrain, is fascinatingly quirky: he is full of respect for Claude's trees and the delicacy of his foliage ("It probably isn't that natural, but it looks it") but at the same time he is determined to apply revolutionary photographic Photoshop techniques to "restore" and recreate one of Claude's larger and lesser known paintings, The Sermon on the Mount from the Frick Gallery. Although I have had the good fortune of a an early view of his vast and colourful version, then in his huge rented warehouse on a Bridlington industrial estate, and entitled (like this volume) A Bigger Message, I was too over-excited and over-awed to take in what was happening there. I understood in my ancestral bones the Yorkshire trees and the shady tunnel, but this strange vision in vivid reds and green and blues was like nothing I had ever seen before. "It's not oil paint," as he explains to Gayford, but what is it? It is a virtual Claude, revealing, as the Frick version did not, "the lame and the blind in a pit".

The weird combination of ancient landscape and new gadgetry is exhilarating. Hockney will try anything. He speaks with the greatest admiration of Van Gogh's human vision, his fine draughtsmanship, the speed and energy of his brush strokes, his northerner's joy in the clarity and light of the south (similar to Hockney's own youthful delight in California), his ability to transform the dullest subject, his love of the nondescript, his letters with their little sketches like drawings of drawings – "Van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling ... a rundown bathroom or a frayed carpet." Van Gogh distrusted photography, would never pose for a photographer, but his fellow artist DH claims confidently in one of his frequent texts to MG, he would have gone for the iPad. "Van Gogh would have loved it. He could have written his letters on it as well ... Picasso would have gone mad with this."

And so Hockney goes on sketching in his old-fashioned, comfy, hi-tech seaside home. He draws the washing-up in the sink, his own bare foot with its slipper by its side, his cloth cap, just as they happen to catch his eye. And in the warehouse on the estate, the bigger trees and the bigger message grow and grow.

Margaret Drabble's The Millstone is published by Penguin. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 05 2011

Portraits of the artists

Unlike many of her famous subjects, Ida Kar, a once sensational bohemian photographer, has slipped into obscurity. Margaret Drabble previews a forthcoming exhibition

Ida Kar was an Armenian, a bohemian and a fiercely distinguished artist who made history. Her exhibition at the Whitechapel in 1960 has been described as the first one-person photography show to be held in a major London gallery. It made her name, but her fame has been slowly slipping away over the decades. It should now be revived thanks to a new look at her work at the National Portrait Gallery, full of striking images of familiar and unfamiliar faces. Some of her subjects, like herself, have drifted away towards neglect and obscurity, but others – Ionesco, Braque, Sartre, Shostakovich, Bertrand Russell, TS Eliot, Andre Breton, Doris Lessing, Bridget Riley, Ivon Hitchens – have held the frontline. She knew how to get hold of the famous and the about-to-be famous. She was a hustler, and, as Jasia Reichardt commented in her shrewd but feeling review of the Whitechapel show, her career was marked by a mixture of "perseverance, blundering, despair, hope and frustration".

Born Ida Karamian in 1908 to Armenian parents in Russia, she served her apprenticeship and found both friends and a metier in modernist Paris in the late 1920s. In the 30s she rejoined her family in Egypt, where she married an Egyptian photographer with whom she set up a studio. She married her second husband, the artist and writer Victor Musgrave, in Cairo during the war, and the couple came to England in 1945, to austerity and Soho and the Colony Room club, to a land of coffee bars and struggling writers in bedsits. London became her home terrain, which she conquered by camera and from which she set off on excursions to other settings and other countries – to the St Ives of Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, to a Stalin-haunted Moscow, to an ethnically dressed Armenia, back to Paris and some of her most famous sitters, and on to Cuba in 1964. This was a hardworking freelance life with no institutional support and little comfort, at times awkwardly poised between art, photojournalism and celebrity portraiture. (At one point she was reduced to accepting a commission to photograph zoo animals, a move that did not serve her well.) She felt strongly that photography was undervalued as a form and treated without respect, and she was right: David Sylvester, discussing her Whitechapel exhibition on The Critics on the Third Programme, denied that photography could ever be "a true art".

This debate about status seems quaint now, but the issues then were strongly contested and had financial implications – photographers were ineligible for Arts Council grants. Kar sunk a good deal of her own limited resources into the Whitechapel, and, according to her biographer Val Williams (Virago, 1989), they were never recouped. She had been inspired by the impact of the 1956 South Bank The Family of Man from the American Museum of Modern Art, with its massive blown-up images hung on tubular poles, and she wanted her own work to operate on a similarly grand scale. She told the Whitechapel's director, Bryan Robertson: "We are going to make this show the most exciting photographic event since The Family of Man." And she had her wish. It was a sensation.

The Family of Man was my first encounter with photography as art, and as a schoolgirl I was overwhelmingly impressed by it. I treasure my tattered catalogue, a memento of youth and hope and the international spirit, which has survived with me for more than half a century. I suspect that Edward Steichen's huge and lyrically captioned montage has since been deconstructed as politically incorrect, but it remains an impressive collection, featuring work by Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Robert Capa, Wayne Miller and many well-known artists. Unsurprisingly, only a very small number of these are women, though Eve Arnold, Dorothy Lange, Margaret Bourke-White and a handful of others are well represented.

As a woman, Kar had to fight her way, and her struggle to be taken seriously made her at times difficult, temperamental and autocratic. She was no feminist. Politically she was of the old-fashioned left, a sympathiser of Moscow, East Germany and Cuba, and she was certainly not in the vanguard of the rising feminism of the late 50s and early 60s. When asked by Queen magazine why she photographed so few women, she replied: "I photograph famous people, and famous people are mostly men. Beauties leave me cold." And if one looks carefully at the portraits of the women who did receive the accolade of her solicitations, she really does not do some of them very well. Sylvia Syms, Maggie Smith, Penelope Mortimer and Shelagh Delaney come across as coy or sultry, and even Elisabeth Frink looks whimsical and slightly ridiculous. The ambiguous Iris Murdoch fights back against Kar's female stereotyping, and succeeds in looking intense, lonely, beautiful and desperate, even though she is leaning on a cosy candlewick bedspread staring at a heap of manuscripts. Barbara Hepworth doesn't look ridiculous, but she does look as though she is struggling out of a large metal lobster pot. Marie Laurencin, with pearls, is old enough to look supremely dignified. Olivia Manning (who admired Kar's work and must, I feel, have known her in her wartime Cairo party-going years) looks real, but she had a face that, to her own annoyance, defied conventional beautification.

Most interesting is the case of Doris Lessing. According to Williams, Lessing thought that she had been made to look "too glamorous". And indeed she does look uncharacteristically seductive, in at least one standard studio-style Kar close-up, with her dark curly hair, dark eyes and sensuous mouth. But in another portrait we see her looking intensely herself, her buoyant, pretty, youthful self ("very sexy", Manning used to say crossly) as she sits behind a table full of hyacinths that we know she has grown from bulb, for they are all shapes and sizes, not florist-bought.

It seems unlikely that Kar had read Lessing. She was not a reader. She had certainly not read TS Eliot, and, to her then assistant and collaborator John Kasmin's embarrassment, hardly knew who he was. Eliot was famous, and he was a man, and she turned him, as she did Somerset Maugham and Bertrand Russell, into a leathery old lizard. She persuaded Ionesco and Sartre to pose amid tottering piles of books, like characters trapped in a Borgesian library. Both look rather self-conscious.

Some of her portraits of writers are revealing (there is an intensely poignant Joyce Cary, not on show) but on the whole she was better with painters and sculptors, and made fine use of studio interiors and backdrop canvases – such cluttered studios as those portrayed by Cary in his novel The Horse's Mouth. We see paintbrushes and palettes, easels and ironwork, African masks and unfinished busts, mantelpieces covered with objets d'art. André Breton and his wife, Elisa, are happily splendid in their bric-a-brac; Sandra Blow looks as though she is about to make a cake rather than a work of art; Graham Sutherland and his wife, Kathleen, are delicately poised near a chaste jug of iced water and a bottle of Rose's lime juice; Ivon Hitchens (who was to become a good friend of Kar's) looks cornered with bottles of turpentine, a paraffin lamp and some figure drawings. Kar's masterpiece is a magnificent Augustus John, at home in 1959 at Friern Court, with a backdrop of paintings, including a Gwen John, and some of his own late essays in sculpture, a form he took up to give himself something new to explore. Noble, fierce and ageing, he glowers at the camera. Manning wrote to Kar that this portrait was "so wonderful and so terrible – an old man looking straight into the eyes of death".

Perhaps surprisingly, in view of her childless marriages and rackety life, Kar seems to have been fond of children, and produced some lively family groups, in which all participants seem happily and messily engaged. Bernard Kops with wife and son, John Bratby with wife and son, Paul Millichip with wife and two children, Stephen Spender with Matthew and Lizzie Spender – they all look relaxed in front of the camera. Her friend and supporter in hard times, the photographer Mark Gerson, said she was good at making her subjects chat and tell her stories. Sometimes, he said, they regretted their confidences, but by then it was too late.

Photography is an art, but it can be a cruel art. One of her most desolately revealing portraits shows Cecil Beaton, the grand master, standing stiffly posed among the urns and lilies in his spacious conservatory in Wiltshire; formal, ill at ease, wearing a hat. He did not wholly approve, and wrote to her: "I suppose it is an interesting slant – a development. It was stupid of me not to put the hat on with more of a dash. I would appreciate a little retouching."

How sad that is! How, as the years pass, we may wish to be mercifully retouched! I recall an uncomfortable episode that took place, improbably, at a Jane Austen Society meeting at which I was speaking. The event was being covered by a fashionable young Polish photographer who said he wished to capture "the spirit of the occasion". As this involved the audience rather than me, I didn't pay much attention to what he was doing, until I saw that he was directing his camera remorselessly at an elderly woman in the front row. She was conspicuous, heavily made up, with elaborately coiffed white hair, and wearing an ostentatious summer hat. She was a little grotesque, a raddled caricature of a fading beauty. Was the camera making her unhappy? I thought not. She even seemed pleased to be the focus of its lens, and said afterwards that she was accustomed to being photographed, as she had been one of the favourite subjects of Cecil Beaton. I discovered later that she was his sister.

Those who live by the camera shall die by the camera, and be resurrected by it. Ida Kar (who also liked to wear a hat) is back on view at the National Portrait Gallery, outfacing mutability and the unimaginable touch of time.

Ida Kar is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2 from 10 March to 30 June. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 09 2010

Margaret Drabble on Van Gogh

In the latest instalment of our writers on artists series, the novelist pays tribute to Van Gogh's famous 1889 Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear

December 05 2009

My hero, Vincent van Gogh

When I was a child, I knew that Van Gogh was the greatest painter who had ever lived. For years he blinded me to other artists. I have learned to admire Botticelli and Caravaggio and Ivon Hitchens, but in old age I am faithful to my earliest love. What Van Gogh did is, for me, what painting is. The eye sees, the hand obeys, the spirit flows into brush strokes, the world is recreated and revealed. As a child, I knew nothing of his long apprenticeship or his madness or his failures in the market place. Nobody told me. I saw nothing mad or tragic in his vision of the natural world. I saw intensity and a world of glory.

We had prints of his work at home, one of them of the drawbridge at Langlois, which enthralled me. As a schoolgirl I bought postcards and posters, of irises and cypresses and starry nights and a yellow chair. They brought me immeasurable joy. I believed he looked into the heart of creation, with the eye of God, and what the Hubble telescope has seen confirms my belief. The glory exalted and blinded him. That is enough to make him heroic. He knew the mysteries of the cosmos.

But he was, I discovered, more than a visionary. He was a hard-working, good-hearted man, who endured illness and public neglect with stoic patience, and showed a tender gratitude to those who cared for him. I have been reading the handsomely illustrated six-volume edition of his letters, which displays his wide reading, his warm and generous admiration for his fellow artists, his forlorn but unquestioning dedication to his work. The bravery with which he attempted to handle his mania in the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole is infinitely touching. He took pleasure in copying the work of Millet, Delacroix, Courbet, Rembrandt, and writes to his brother Theo that copying "teaches, and above all, consoles". This is the humility of greatness. The paintings of this period are astounding in their originality, but the copies are also wonderful. He is, with Shakespeare, beyond praise. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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