David Hockney is famed for his sudden changes of artistic direction. But even his biggest fans may be surprised by his latest series - 45 oil paintings of his two dachshunds. As they go on show in Britain, he explains to Jon Stock why the death of several

Jon Stock
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:12

HEAVEN, says David Hockney, is his living room seen from a dachshund's point of view. There is no irony in this observation, not a whiff of the dry Yorkshire humour that pervades much of his conversation. He has two dachshunds, Stanley and Boodgie, and he is potty about them. Barking mad would not be an understatement. "They must have been saints in a previous life to come back to this rather pleasing existence," he says. "They live very comfortably, occasionally going to the beach, and have only two interests as far as I can see: food and love, in that order. We see images of hell lots of times. Heaven is much harder to picture."

A dog's life might not be everyone's idea of heaven, but Hockney has made it the subject of his latest exhibition, opening tomorrow at Salts Mill in Saltaire, near his home town, Bradford. It is his biggest show since a Los Angeles retrospective in 1988, and consists of no fewer than 45 oil paintings of Stanley and Boodgie, detailed studies depicting them in various states of repose. Stylistically, they couldn't be more different from anything he has done before, and only someone of Hockney's standing and wealth could indulge in a whim so comprehensively. None of the paintings is for sale - "they are too intimate, too personal"- and he spent over three months painting them. "They are a wonderful subject - two little creatures that you love. I was painting a lot of big [abstract] pictures at the same time, internal worlds. These are the external world because it was the one immediately in front of me. I rather enjoyed that contrast."

The paintings have already been enjoyed by Californians, who adore their resident, dog-mad Englishman. It was Hockney, after all, who helped to define the West Coast's liberated lifestyle in the Sixties with his paintings of naked young men easing themselves into Pacific-blue swimming pools, and his timeless stills of water-sprinkled lawns in Beverly Hills. Today's Californians seem to have taken Stanley and Boodgie in their stride. 30 of the 45 dog paintings have just been shown at the Louver Gallery in LA and the response, according to Kimberley Davis, the gallery director, was ecstatic: "We had over 7,000 people in four days. People were so happy. They were even coming in to see the pictures with their own dogs.''

Whether the portraits will go down so well in Britain remains to be seen. Hockney is arguably the most popular British painter this century but in the dog-eat-dog art world, the overt accessibility of much of his work has always posed problems for critics. He is fundamentally an optimist - deeply unfashionable for a contemporary artist approaching the millennium - and enjoys putting "the pleasure principle'', as he calls it, back into art. At the moment he is wrestling with his favourite topics of space and time, and is planning an enormous walk-in exhibition in Glasgow consisting of rooms within rooms. "You will walk out at the end in ecstasy," he says. There is also a lot of envy flying around. Works from his latest series of abstract work, Some Very Large New Paintings, are on sale in America for up to $1.5 million each (a shortlist of buyers is submitted to Hockney who then approves a purchase) and paintings like Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970/1) are worth considerably more. That picture, perhaps his most famous and formal work, is admired for its naturalism and balanced composition. The dog paintings, I suspect, won't escape criticism. Their technical competence, particularly the later ones in the series, and the sheer cheek of the project, save them from Cruft's sentimentality, but watch out for a rash of "Dog's Dinner" headlines.

IN Hockney's London studio, a quiet, Victorian retreat off Edward's Square, behind High Street, Kensington, the artist seems untroubled by the prospect of hostile reviews. As I arrived, he is sitting at a table sifting through the day's papers, while John Fitzherbert, his young English boyfriend, plays back messages on the answerphone and puts on a wash. Fitzherbert, lantern-jawed and tall, is in his mid-twenties; he wears a sweatshirt with David Hockney written on it. The artist is approaching his 58th birthday and his manner is avuncular, generous, refreshingly down to earth. No celebrity airs and graces, just a lop-sided smile and an offer of a cup of tea. A man has come to mend the fax machine (quite a responsibility, given Hockney's penchant for faxing works of art) and the atmosphere is domestic.

"I can't control the way critics see my paintings," he says, lighting the first of many Capstan cigarettes. "I must see them a bit differently. It doesn't upset me. Any artist should expect that. I am reasonably immune to it. I know perfectly well how it works. When everyone was writing to the Evening Standard to get rid of Brian Sewell, I told them that it was a very mad idea because all you will do is make him famous, which is what they did.You take the media with a pinch of salt."

He has owned his Kensington studio since the Seventies, and stays in the small bedroom upstairs on the rare occasions he is in London. For the last 30 years he has really lived in Los Angeles. He is not an exile, he says; he just prefers the climate. As if to prove it, his hair is still famously fair (it's peroxided, in fact), and he has a healthy walnut tan from a recent driving holiday through Italy in a borrowed BMW soft-top. A diligent dresser, he is wearing a sea-green knitted wool waistcoat, white shirt, black bow tie, brogues and dark pin-striped suit trousers which go half way up his back, making his legs seem longer and his upper torso squashed. A Panama hat sits on the sideboard next to an open packet of Rich Tea biscuits, completing the air of a dapper, if eccentric, colonial. (He also owns a silver-tipped cane).

"I started painting the dogs last November, just before I left to see my mother in Yorkshire. When I came back I painted them all the time in the studio where they have their cushions. I would break off from what I was doing - I always had a separate palette ready - and they were done from life. I usually had 20 minutes or half-an-hour, depending on what position they were in. They are all done quite quickly. It was very intense and I was quite tired by the end. It was the only perceptual painting I have done for a long time, meaning that I was painting something that was absolutely in front of me. It's a rare subject, really."

Hockney has been profoundly deaf for the past 15 years, but thanks to a new pair of sophisticated Swiss hearing aids, operated by a small remote- controlled panel, he can at last hear again. He seems to be in good spirits, pleased with the way the dog paintings have turned out, and he likes talking about them. Stanley is eight and Boodgie is six. Hockney got them both as puppies. "I fell in love with a friend's dachshund and he said 'You're awfully good with dogs, why don't you get one?', so I did.'' Stanley and Boodgie usually sleep in his bed and he is missing them terribly. He began by sketching them, but they weren't the easiest of subjects to capture. Every time he crept off to fetch a sheet of paper, they would get up and trundle after him. "If I get up, they get up. If I go to bed, they go to bed," he says fondly.

TRADITIONALLY the symbol of fidelity, dogs had small, walk-on parts in a number of 18th century portraits; the Victorians also liked to paint them, and Bonnard owned a dachshund which he painted. But no-one in recent times has given dogs star treatment. There is nothing particularly significant about a dachshund except that, as a breed, they are notoriously loyal (interestingly, Andy Warhol also had one). Stanley made his modelling debut on Hockney canvases in 1987 with two appearances, one figurative, one more abstract. A few years later, Hockney made a video for the Chicago Art Institute about dogs in art. Clearly, he is infatuated with man's best friend, but as with so much of his oeuvre, we are left wondering how seriously we are meant to take this new series, which he has called simply Dog Paintings 1 to 45.

HOCKNEY was born into a tight-knit, working class family in Bradford in 1937 and went to the local grammar school as a scholar. He was the fourth of five children and is still very close to them all. Paul is an accountant, Philip is a businessman, John is a designer, and Mary is a herbalist. Two of the brothers live in Australia and one has remained in Bradford. Their mother was the strong central figure, while their father, Kenneth, a clerk in an accountant's office, was something of an eccentric. He wore two watches on his wrist (when asked why, he would reply that one of them was wrong) and was once seen in an armchair in the street waiting for the phone box to ring. He was selling a portable billiard table at the time and had put the number in an advert. At weekends, he would paint up old bikes to make them look new, watched by an entranced David. Kenneth also fired off anti-nuclear protest letters to world leaders like Nasser, Stalin and Mao and, like his son, he was a conscientious objector. In later life he became deaf and he died in 1978. Hockney was utterly devoted to both parents, and he still comes to Britain every three months to see Laura, his 94-year-old mother, in Bridlington, where she is cared for by the artist's sister. "Bridlington is like the Yorkshire of my childhood, unaltered, charming," he says.

Hockney left school at 16 to join Bradford College of Art (where he met another famous Bradford boy, the dancer Lindsay Kemp, then a life-class model) and his form master wrote the following valedictory report: "David has undoubted ability in art, especially in cartoon and sign-writing work. Although fundamentally a serious-minded boy, he has allowed his form mates from his Third Year to make him an almost legendary figure of fun. It is only in his last year that he has shown a serious side - but we have enjoyed his company. Best wishes to him in his new start. He will be glad to be rid of the figure of fun and to establish himself as a sincere and serious person by steady work and merit."

School reports can, of course, be notoriously wayward, but that early analysis of the two sides of Hockney's character - the serious-minded and the fun - was right on the button. The contrasting characteristics were to appear again and again in much of his subsequent work. Take for example, his "fax art'' between 1988 and 1990. What started out as a quirky printing experiment in his small Malibu studio - Hockney was at the time fascinated by the fax machine's range of tones - ended up with him faxing drawings, page by page, to galleries all over the world. In 1989 he faxed Tennis, a vast drawing broken down into 144 separate fax sheets, to Salts Mill where it was reassembled and framed. These excercises could take one-and-half hours and they cost Hockney a fortune in 'phone bills.

Painting his dogs must have initially seemed like a fun idea, too, particularly if one of them was lying comically with all four legs in the air (as captured in Dog Painting 1). But why did he go on to do 45 of them? "He comes from a northern family where the work ethic was very strong," says Jonathan Silver, who is putting on Hockney's exhibition at Salts Mill. "He is very hard working, a prolific painter, and he's not afraid to fail." Such thoroughness allows him to work an idea through, to see if something more lasting is thrown up. And certainly the later dog paintings have a textural gravitas lacking from the earlier, slighter studies in the series. But his obsession in this case was fired by something else, too. Hockney has lost four close friends recently (including the New York curator Henry Geldzahler), through Aids and other illnesses, and the dog paintings were, perhaps, a form of therapy. "It was rather handy for me, in a way," he says. "I had lost friends and painting these innocent, loving creatures was a good experience, an intense pleasure."

NOWHERE is the contrast between his fun and serious sides more evident than in the salacious rumours about Hockney's lifestyle in California. He first went to Los Angeles in 1964, a precocious young graduate from the Royal College of Art. The image many people still have of Hockney today - of a promiscuous decadent who spends all his time picking up boys from gay bars and seducing them by the poolside - was formed by that visit. He did tour the gay bars, but not for long. There was work to be done. In 1976, in David Hockney by David Hockney, an autobiography, he attempted to set the record straight. "Lots of sex is fantasy," he wrote. "The only time I was promiscuous was when I first went to live in Los Angeles. I have never been promiscuous since. I can go a long time without sex. A person came to see me in Paris from The Advocate, a gay newspaper. And I had to say "the trouble is, it doesn't dominate my life, sex, at all."

Few people listened and Hockney is still remembered for that brief period in his life. It doesn't bother him - one suspects he rather enjoys it - and his present, tame domestic arrangements are hilarious by comparison. "I don't mind what they write," he says. "I was well aware that people used to think it was all cooking and boys around the pool. You have to guard your artistic life. I spend all my time painting. Most artists do. Don't they wonder when you do the pictures?"

He laughs a rich and infectious laugh. Thirty years on the West Coast have failed to dilute his Yorkshire accent, although words like "little" and "pretty" have been softened to "liddle" and "preddy".Today, he says he lives quietly with John, who looks after his beautiful garden at his house in Hollywood Hills, and they seldom go out. Instead he gets up at 7.30 every morning, walks vigorously for half an hour on a treadmill, and paints all day in his big studio in the garden. Sometimes he stays in his smaller studio on Malibu beach, but he never goes to bars. "That's just what people like to think," he grins.

His only concession to reckless living is driving fast through the Santa Monica mountains at sunset in his Mercedes, listening to Tristan und Isolde through powerful speakers. "It's always highly choreographed," he explains. "My route takes exactly one-and-a-half hours and I know what speed to go at a particular corner to coincide with the gods ascending into Valhalla, for example. I do it every few months for someone.'' But on most evenings, it seems, the satyr of the Sixties is in bed and reading by 10.30 pm, tucked up with Stanley and Boodgie.

HOCKNEY has had a long involvement with Salts Mill, a huge old textile mill. He loves the place, scribbling messages on the walls and doodling on the doors whenever he is there. But it is in Salts Diner, the mill's restaurant, that the hand of the legendary "figure of fun" is much in evidence. On each table there is a card with a simple line drawing of Boodgie standing on his haunches. It is drawn by Hockney, of course, who has also designed the menu cards, and the same cartoon appears on the bone-china plates, mugs, even the paper napkins. On a table in the corner, the card is drawn slightly differently. Boodgie is smoking a cigarette. In the enormous shop two floors up, the merchandising of Hockney continues. There are "Little Boodgie" T-shirts for pounds 10.99, postcards for 50p, baseball caps for pounds 5.99, and a full set of mugs (pounds 7.95), bowls (pounds 8.95) and plates (pounds 12.95). The original dog's dinner, in fact. The actual paintings might not be for sale, but the forthcoming exhibition, one suspects, is still set to earn Salts Mill a tidy sum. "The merchandise helps to pay the gallery's operational costs," says Jonathan Silver. "I asked David to design the china to coincide with the opening. He likes to make his work available to everyone at low prices." Interestingly, the public are allowed to take their own photos of all the Hockney paintings.

Until 1986, the mill made its profits manufacturing woollen textiles. It is vast sandstone building, put up in 1853 by the Victorian moralist, Titus Salt, by the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The surrounding countryside is idyllic and Salt planned the village of Saltairee, complete with housing for the workers, as a model industrial community of high moral virtue. In 1987, however, the mill fell derelict, a victim of the textiles' slump. Then it was bought by Silver, a local businessman who had made a fortune in the Seventies with a chain of fashionable clothes' shops.

Today, Silver runs the 1853 Gallery, spread over two floors of the mill. He rents out the rest of the one million square feet for light industrial and retail use. Dressed in a scruffy cardigan and sporting stubble and a long ponytail, he is a familiar figure around the village. He drives about in a large Bentley but few begrudge him his wealth. Remarkably, Salts Mill is thriving once more and it currently employs around 1,400 people. In its heyday, in the 1920s, the mill employed 3,000.

If Hockney is mad about dogs, Silver is mad about Hockney, whom he first met 30 years ago. They have been friends ever since. One floor of the 1853 Gallery is dedicated to a permanent and free exhibition of Hockney's work (nothing is for sale), and the other floor houses Hockney exhibitions before they go on tour. It is here, along one 200 ft wall, that Stanley and Boodgie will be shown in all their glory.

From Hockney's point of view, the mill is the perfect venue - a unique space close to his home town paying permanent homage to him - and he and his family have loaned the gallery a number of his paintings. But it has also become a focal point for other local artists. Tony Harrison, a friend of Hockney's, has performed plays there, Opera North has staged a community production of West Side Story, and last Christmas Alan Bennett read from his memoirs. Hockney and Bennett grew up eight miles apart (Bennett is from Leeds) and they are frequently mistaken for each other. Bennett recently drew a self-portrait on a table napkin for a waitress in a restaurant in Italy and signed it David Hockney. Hockney has since returned the compliment by drawing a picture of himself and signing it Alan Bennett.

As Silver shows me around the mill's vast shop, filled to the restored rafters with Hockney posters, calendars and books, the artist himself rings, much to Silver's delight. He is about to go to Glyndebourne to hear Harrison Birtwistle. (Tired with creating opera sets, Hockney has settled on designing this year's programme). Silver passes over the phone and we talk some more, this time about Britain's quarantine laws. Hockney has a number of on-going gripes against society, most of which are articulated with grumpy good humour. He has been obsessed for some time with California's health police - a pro-smoking essay by Auberon Waugh is stuck up on his studio wall in LA - and he writes regularly to politicians arguing for the right to smoke in restaurants. (Funnily, his father used to erect "Smoking Can Kill" signs in the middle of Bradford). Hockney was also dismayed recently to see young people sitting in a beautiful 18th century square in Nancy In France, dressed in grunge. "It was as though they hadn't looked at their surroundings. Very odd," he says, sounding old fogeyish. Whenever he goes out he wears a tie. "Habit," he adds.

His current complaint, however, is against the British government. He is allowed to take his dogs to "rabies-infested Europe", but if he wants to bring them here he has to be separated from them for six months. "I just couldn't do that. Two little creatures who have always slept in your bed? I could take them to Paris, of course. The French love dogs. They are allowed to sit at the table in the restaurant. We could all smoke cigars there."

Another image of heaven, perhaps, but this time it's his own.

! 'DOG PAINTINGS 1 to 45', 1853 Gallery, Salts Mill, Saltaire, near Bradford, 27 June to end September. Daily, 10am to 5pm. Admission free. 01274 531163.

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