Today’s blog gets extremely passionate about a writer, a painter and a bush.
‘Mais j’avais beau rester devant les aubépines, à respirer, à porter devant ma pensée qui ne savait pas ce qu’elle devait en faire, à perdre, à retrouver leur invisible et fixe odeur…’
Thus begins one of the most sensational passages in Marcel Proust’s classic 3000-page novel In Search of Lost Time (and the bane of students wrestling to translate its seductive subtleties into English). Young Marcel, narrating, is on a country walk with his family near his aunt’s house in Combray. He’s at an age when he’s just discovering the sensory world – the beauty of nature, its colours, scents and mysterious harmonies – and, entering a lane of flowering hawthorn, he stops, transfixed.
‘A succession of chapels… disappearing beneath the masses of flowers piled up on their altars’, their ‘dazzling bouquets of stamens… radiating outwards like the fine ribs of Gothic window tracery,’ the creamy scent filling the air and making the whole lane seem to ‘bourdonner’ – to buzz, to vibrate. The sensation is overwhelming: Marcel senses a connection, a secret charm which he struggles in vain to identify.
His reverie is interrupted by his grandfather, calling him to come and see an even greater wonder – a pink hawthorn among the white. It is while he is gazing at this spectacle, each tiny bud like a pink marble goblet with blood-red depths, that his perspective changes. Looking through the branches rather than at them, he sees part of the grand park belonging to wealthy family friend, Charles Swann. On one of the gravel pathways, a little girl is watching them.
Marcel takes it all in – the spade she’s holding, the strawberry blond of her hair, the pale pink freckles on her skin and eyes that shine with a brilliant fixity. As he stares, enraptured and imploring, the girl, by a slight movement, a turning aside, a slant of the eyes and a secret smile, communicates the crushing weight of her scorn for Marcel and his family. At the same time, she raises her hand and makes a gesture so ‘indecent’ that the well-brought up Marcel is shocked to the core. The spell is broken by the appearance of a woman, presumably her mother, who calls out ‘Come along, Gilberte! What are you doing?’
The effect is immediate and irreversible – Marcel is in love. Gilberte returns to the house; too late the recipient of Cupid’s fatal arrow thinks of all the stinging retorts that could have kept her attention – ‘You’re ugly, grotesque, repulsive!’ From then on, her name, carried to him on the pure air like a scitillating rainbow, will be a talisman -Gilberte. From then on, the image of the hawthorns will recur, ‘un doux souvenir d’enfance’ – a sweet childhood memory inextricably bound up with seduction and desire, with the contradictory pleasures and pains of l’amour.
I saw quite a few hawthorns in 2012, at London’s Royal Academy. They were part of A Bigger Picture, an exhibition of works by David Hockney, the world’s greatest living painter. 1.3 million people came to see it and, swept like a frail hawthorn petal from room to room by the human tide, I had the impression that at least half of them were there the same day as me. Somehow I managed to dodge the stewards hustling people towards the exit and plunged into the next human tide being let in. Carried round once more, I was better prepared, managing by dint of crafty elbowing to tread water long enough to feel the tantalising ‘buzz’ of those mighty paintings of the Yorkshire countryside – a subject too big to be captured by the camera, Hockney tells us.
And lo! the art gods were merciful and granted me a third opportunity to see them, quite unexpectedly, on a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao later the same year. It was just before closing time, the rooms had emptied, and the four of us on the trip were able to do celebratory star jumps undisturbed.
I had long been a Hockney fan. Shades of the artist – books, posters, prints, postcards, press cuttings – have followed me on my travels over many years and in different countries.
To attempt to put into words the shock of sensations caused by those paintings -electrified, radiant, tearful, jubilant, liberated – I would need to Proustify for another forty pages. Readers who missed the exhibition can share the experience thanks to the excellent DVD (pictured above) with commentaries by the artist. In fact for anyone who wants to know Hockney better there’s a great series of videos on YouTube. (Yes, oft have I made moan about the horrors of social media but in this particular instance it’s like having the password to Ali Baba’s cave.)
Many of the works shown in 2012 had been specially commissioned by the Royal Academy. They’re radically different from earlier ones inspired by the artist’s years in the USA, in particular LA -the electric blue swimming pools and explosive colours of his house and garden, the dizzying swirls and switchbacks of routes and highways. Hockney left season-less California in 2006, returning to the four-seasoned Yorkshire of his birth where he set about painting the cycle of the year as it unfolded around him.
From birth to death and re-birth we see through the eye of the artist the first spring flowers and tree blossom, the unfurling of new leaves, the saturnalian riot of hawthorn hedges, the tall trees and deep forests in their different seasonal attire, the falling leaves of autumn and the felled logs of winter. Hockney famously does a lot of ‘looking’; many people told him they too had begun to ‘look’ after seeing these paintings, noting the individuality of trees and their changes over time. One thing that had attracted him about the RA’s offer was that they had a lot of big rooms to fill – Hockney the ‘space freak’ embraced the challenge with relish, embarking on a series of huge plein air paintings. His Bigger Trees Near Warter (40 by 15 feet, 50 panels) which he later donated to The Tate Gallery was designed to fill the end wall of the biggest room at the RA. Outdoor painting on such a scale involves a lot of organisation (a Jeep with special racks to hold the numerous canvases plus all the painting materials) and readiness to do battle with the elements -one video shows the wuthering winds of Yorkshire trying to make off with the artist’s easel and flat cap.*
At the same time he was creating pictures on a much smaller scale. His interest in new technologies has been well-documented and the discovery of the Brushes app on his iPad allowed him to do rapid drawings using the thumb of one hand (which left the other conveniently free to hold a cigarette). He would fire these off by email to friends, like cheerful postcards.
Hockney is an inspirational personality from many points of view. His passion for art, his erudition and his own artistic sensibilities allow him to communicate a boundless enthusiasm (‘exciting’ is one of his favourite words). Anyone reading his books or listening to him talk cannot fail to be charmed by his curiosity, his fervour, his clarity and his utter lack of pretension in a milieu which can be tediously pretentious. I can’t remember the exact words he used in the audio commentary at the RA, describing what he called ‘action week’ – the period when spring suddenly bursts forth, but I was left with the impression the artist and his team leaped into the Jeep to seize the moment like those intrepid tornado watchers in disaster movies.
The hawthorn paintings received mixed reactions. Ian Jack, reviewing in The Guardian said they looked like ‘evil yellow slugs’ for which he was taken to task by some commentators for not getting out more and actually looking at some hawthorns. For me, the over-the top ebullience and blowsy sensuality of those muscular cancan-dancing hedgerows is captivating. You can almost smell their faintly nauseating yet addictive perfume, like traces of old face-powder in a theatre dressing-room. Hockney said ‘it’s as if a thick white cream had been poured over everything’. ‘Creamy’ was the adjective I used earlier, freely translating Proust’s word ‘onctueux’- unctuous- which is much better, suggesting something fulsome, oleaginous and perhaps a bit off-putting (shades of Uriah Heap?).
Hockney read In Search of Lost Time over a period of 18 months when he was 21. Proust’s ideas about time, perspective and the observer, greatly influenced him as did his theories about the role of art (in its general sense to include literature, painting music etc). Proust talks about ‘the miracle of communication’ whereby we are able to grasp a version of reality different from our own, to see with the eyes of the artist: ‘Only through art can we get outside of ourselves and know what another person sees of this universe which is not the same as ours…Thanks to art, instead of seeing a single world, ours, we see it multiplied …’ For Proust, this is an escape, an antidote to what literary critic Roger Shattuck calls ‘Proust’s complaint’ – the solitary confinement of the human condition. In That’s the way I see it (Chronicle Books 1993) Hockney has an uncannily similar remark. ‘My duty as an artist is to overcome and alleviate the sterility of despair…new ways of seeing mean new ways of feeling.’
The world has now entered ‘the 16th month of 2020’ as a friend aptly put it (thank you JD), and we’ve all to some degree come face to face with Proust’s complaint. Many of us have turned to music, painting, and literature as an antidote to ‘the sterility of despair.’ Hockney spent the spring of 2020 confined in France, in Normandy where he has bought a house. His paintings of la douce Normandie show him in more of an Impressionist than a Californian state of mind with a fairly muted palette, tender greens, patches of mist, apple and pear trees coming into bloom. This is a landscape which famously inspired others, notably one of Hockney’s favourite painters, Monet. The works first went on exhibit in Paris in October 2020 at the Galerie Lelong (where, in 2001, I saw another Hockney exhibition entitled Close and Far) and can be seen here in a virtual visit.
And for those in the UK, great news -the Royal Academy website announces the exhibition is : ‘Due to open 23 May: Opening exactly a year after the works were made during the global pandemic, this exhibition will be a reminder of the constant renewal and wonder of the natural world – and the beauty of spring.’
Here in the Tarn it’s hawthorn time. Stepping outdoors we can experience at first-hand what Hockney called the ‘most exciting thing nature has to offer’ -the arrival of spring. In his latest book, written with Martin Gayford, he says ‘We have lost touch with nature, rather foolishly as we are a part of it, not outside it.’ Looking at the explosion in our garden, in the fields and hedgerows, the surrounding countryside, I’m reminded of one particular iPad painting done by Hockney during the 2020 lockdown – a small clump of four daffodils, grass, and a distant line of bare trees. Those flowers practically jump out of the frame waving their arms.
What are they telling us? Hockney’s title is
‘Do remember they can’t cancel the spring.’
Hockney and Proust have both got into my current work-in-progress, From Nettles to Nightingales. I’ll be back to explore more of their fascinating ideas and work in another blog. Meanwhile for those eager to find out for themselves, I’ve added some useful links to books and on-line sources below. Joyeux printemps 😉
Discussing Proust with me the other day, our French neighbour was pleased that I found him surprisingly ‘easy’ to read. ‘Me too,’ he said, adding, with a gleam in his eye ‘It’s almost as if those intellectuals in Paris who say he’s difficult want to keep him all to themselves.’ For those stalwarts wanting to tackle all 7 volumes in French, you can download a digital version produced by Les Editions Vattolo with an excellent, clearly written introduction – for a mere 99 cents.
The classic English translations of Proust are those by C.K. Scott Moncrieff in the 1920s, and Terence Kilmartin in the 1980s. But I found the 2003 translation of Du Côté de Chez Swann by Lydia Davis in the Penguin Modern Classics series to be an impressive read.
Proust’s Way by Roger Shattuck (2000) is an essential ‘field guide’. One of the chapters, published previously as Proust’s Binoculars got Mr Hockney ‘very excited’.
Spring Cannot Be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy can be purchased here.
VIDEOS AND WEBSITES
*The video mentioned in the blog is the trailer for Bruno Wollheim’s prize-winning film David Hockey: A Bigger Picture which you can rent on Vimeo and read about in this interview. Wollheim followed the painter in Yorkshire for three years, acquiring hours of film which he had to edit down to just one hour for the final version. Recently on YouTube and Facebook he has released a series of fascinating ‘outtakes’ called Hockney Unlocked.
Hockney talks about using the iPad here and his official website is here. One of the biggest collections of his works in the UK is at Salt’s Mill, Saltaire West Yorkshire. Salt’s was the brainchild of Hockney’s close friend Jonathan Silver, who died in 1997. A great place to visit.
On a lovely website, Hockney Trail in Yorkshire, you can see photos of the particular landscapes in the Yorkshire Wolds which inspired the painter along with their locations on an ordnance survey map.
Finally a special thanks to dear friends Elizabeth and Andrew who bought the Hockney print on the wall of my study and the illustrated edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes.