David Hockney: A Life

A moving portrait of the most famous English painter alive, narrated in vivid, compelling prose.

Born in Bradford in 1937, David Hockney had to fight to become an artist. After leaving home for the Royal College of Art in London his career flourished, but he continued to struggle with a sense of not belonging, because of his homosexuality, which had yet to be decriminalised, and because of his inclination for a figurative style of art, not sufficiently “contemporary” to be valued. Trips to New York and California—where he would live for many years and paint his iconic swimming pools—introduced him to new scenes and new loves, beginning a journey that would take him through the fraught years of the AIDS epidemic.

Catherine Cusset wrote her book before actually meeting Hockney, drawing inspiration from published biographies and interviews of the artist. Fascinated by Hockney’s work, his uncompromising freedom, and his double life between Europe and the United States, Cusset transformed all the documentary material into a narrative. The result is a portrait that reflects her vision of Hockney, but in which Hockney could recognise himself.

YASS Magazine met Catherine Cusset and here is the outcome of a beautiful discussion.

How did you come up with the idea of this book and why did you choose David Hockney to be the protagonist?

Originally I was commissioned a personal essay on his work for an illustrated book that would come out at the same time as the show at Beaubourg in the summer of 2017. I started reading My Early Years by David Hockney, transcribed from recordings, and I heard his voice through the written words. He made me laugh. The character came to life in my mind, thanks to his very British sense of humour and the choice of anecdotes that revealed his determination against all odds. I felt like writing about him, not just his work. About his life as an artist. I had been commissioned 40 pages and I wrote 160, so it became a novel…

Is the book based on real facts about Hockney’s life? How would you describe it and what shall we expect to read?

It is entirely based on real facts. David Hockney is alive and quite protective of his image, I was not going to invent his life! I based my novel mainly on Hockney’s two autobiographical books and on Christopher Simon Sykes’ biography. I also read every interview of Hockney I could find. Whenever I made him talk inside my novel, I didn’t invent the words but took them out of some interview… Hockney wrote to me that my last paragraph was very true. I wrote: “There was only one certainty: the child, as soon as he could hold a pencil, made a mark. Since the beginning of time, humans have attempted to express in two dimensions their wonder before a three-dimensional world. That would not stop anytime soon.” Of course it is true, since this is Hockney’s thought, which I read in a book or an interview!

So why do I call this a novel? Where is the fiction, the imagination? I suppose, in the way I am fitting everything together, in the rhythm I give the book, in the view of the world I express. It is a fiction because I tried to write a consistent portrait, I took lots of small fragments and I made sense out of them, I built a puzzle, based on my intuition I suppose. I allowed myself to identify with the great Hockney. Most feelings we experience (love, jealousy, nostalgia, sadness, ambition, longing, self-doubt, enthusiasm…) are universal.

How was the experience of getting to know David Hockney?

Discovering him through my research was exciting and inspiring. At the time I was promoting a very personal novel in France, about the life and suicide of my best friend, who died at 39. My friend and Hockney had several things in common: a double life between Europe and the States (as I had as well), an acute artistic sensibility, a great self-derision and sense of humour, and depression… David Hockney, though, was saved by his work, by art, by his capacity to renew himself and never get caught, by his freedom. Writing about him was uplifting. My novel about him is joyful, happy, and was like the reverse side of my novel about my friend. Both novels are very similar because in both cases, I tried to inhabit the mind of the man I was writing about.

How has David Hockney inspired you?

His sense of humour and his freedom have inspired me. I am awed by him. I find it fantastic that he was able to become an art student, an artist, and a gay militant, when he was from Bradford where he had never met an artist or a gay man, for that matter, since homosexuality was still a crime in England, and that he chose figurative painting at a time when every artist worthy of the name was painting abstract. I also admire him for not being the prisoner of his own success: he stopped painting swimming pools and double portraits at the height of his fame, when the collectors were waiting for them and he could have made lots of money. He was bold enough to use technology (the fax, the printer, the iPad) when everyone thought this was crazy and he was wasting his talent. He only followed his desire.

In my novel I give a central role to a sentence I read in Hockney’s autobiography, an advice from his friend Ron Kitaj when he was 22 : “Paint what matters to you.” It seems to me that this should be the motto of every artist or writer, instead of worrying about success. This advice freed Hockney from the fear of not being a “contemporary” painter and allowed him to return to figurative painting at a time when everyone looked down on it.

Have you shared this book with David Hockney? What were his impressions?

I wrote and published the book in France without asking him for permission as I was afraid he would say “no”, even though I felt the book was a homage. So I was very scared when I sent the published novel to his studio in January 2018. He doesn’t read French, but he asked three French persons he trusted to read it and give him reports: his assistant, JP Goncalves de Lima, his translator, Pierre Saint-Jean, and his gallerist in Paris, Jean Frémon. The three reports were positive.

I sent him the book in English when it came out in the States in May 2019 and he read it at once. His reaction was Hockney-like. He wrote: “Dear Catherine, I’m not going to sue you, I’m not very litigious, I don’t like lawyers…” I had a pang. I was so scared, so sad to have disappointed him! But he was making fun of me, because he knew I was scared. In the next paragraph he said it was a very good read, and that I got him even better than his biographer.

Do you think there is enough LGBTQ+ representation in the art scene?

I can’t answer, but I think that the art scene is definitely the place for LGBTQ+ representation, as art is generally questioning convention…

How difficult is for a straight author to write a documentary novel about the life of a homosexual artist who faced several struggles in a homophobic society?

I was scared about that as well. To be a novelist, though, means that you can imagine something you haven’t experienced. I was helped by Hockney’s autobiographical books, but there was not much detail about his sexual life in his twenties… I tried to place myself at the time and to understand how it was for young Hockney when he met two gay classmates at the RCA, who talked openly about their affairs. What a wonderful shock it must have been… I tried hard to imagine that time before Hockney went to the States (where his identity was truly revealed to him in 1961). If I had met Hockney when I wrote my novel I would have questioned him about that time. I couldn’t, so I did with what I had. A sentence here, a painting there… In my novel I write about “The Cha cha chat that was danced in the Early Hours of 24th March, 1961” in which David painted one of his classmates and wrote little sentences in tiny letters: “penetrates deep down…” and so on. David was in love with that classmate, who was heterosexual. I don’t think love and heart pain have any gender. I also experienced unreciprocated love in my youth, so I wrote about it from my point of view, adding an element in the case of David: the fear of social shame (against which he quickly rebelled).

It was also not obvious to write about the aids years. Hockney lost so many friends over one or two decades! But he doesn’t speak about it, almost doesn’t mention it at all, and during that same period he painted his most colourful, most joyful paintings. I tried to put these two facts in relation and to bring meaning.

You have written 13 novels, most of which have been translated to more than 20 languages. Do you feel successful?

This is impossible to answer. I feel successful when I am happy about my writing. Otherwise, no. I always hope that the next novel will be better. I am afraid of my limits.

How has the recent pandemic affected your life?

I left New York for a ten-day vacation in France in early March. I was sick with Covid-19 but didn’t know it yet. My husband and I stayed in our house at the western tip of Brittany and didn’t return to NY. Our 20-year old daughter joined us after her university in the States closed. So what can I say? Whereas people all over the world were dying alone or losing loved ones, or living in cramped quarters with their whole family, or working round the clock at hospitals, we were among the lucky ones : the three of us together, in a beautiful place, surrounded by nature, on the seaside. Isolated and protected. Worried, of course, about our friends in New York and about my old parents in Paris. But it was a quiet time, which allowed me to write. I now wish that some normalcy will come back, that we will be able to travel and to kiss our friends, and that our daughter will have a normal life with people her age. Meanwhile we are living day by day.

What have the comments about your recent book been?

Really good. People loved it, and it made them want to go and look at Hockney’s paintings afterwards. They all found it very uplifting, like a message of hope for artists.

Do you see parts of yourself and your life in this book?

Oh yes! Whenever I wrote about David’s doubts and fears, I was writing about my own doubts and fears. For instance in 1980, when he told his assistant, after working for two years on a large painting, Santa Monica Boulevard: “Please take it out. Destroy it.” I had a similar experience in 2004: I threw away a book on which I had spent two years because I thought that I had written it for the wrong reasons (to write a book, to be published), and I spent a horrible night thinking that I may never write again. In the morning, I had resigned myself to it. If I didn’t have talent, why write, when there were so many writers? I imagined Hockney going through that same process.

Hockney was very creative and successful after the failure of Santa Monica Boulevard, but he couldn’t know it in that moment. This was the moment that I tried to recreate: the moment of doubt, the fear of not being a great artist after all. Hilton Kramer, one of the most important art critics, had written a very mean article about him two years earlier, which David had nailed on the wall of his studio, as if he didn’t care. But of course he cared!  I read Kramer’s article and I imagined Hockney’s thinking process, lending him my own night of insomnia, my own doubts and fears – which are the doubts and fears of any artist or writer.

Everything I write about painting in the novel applies to writing.

What are your future plans?

Writing novels. Most probably move back to Europe.

David Hockney: A Life by Catherine Cusset is out from Arcadia Books on 12th November.

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