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Smoking with David Hockney

Smoking with David Hockney

In Amsterdam for the opening of an exhibition of his work, the artist indulges in his greatest passion outside painting

In Amsterdam for the opening of an exhibition of his work, the artist indulges in his greatest passion outside painting

Simon Willis | April/May 2019

The Conservatorium Hotel in Amsterdam enforces a strict no-smoking policy. Unless, that is, you are David Hockney. When I meet him in his room one drizzly afternoon in February, he is sitting on the sofa, dressed in a lime-green cardigan, a red-and-white polka-dot neckerchief and a pair of primrose spectacles. On the table in front of him are the half-eaten remains of a smoked-salmon bagel and four packs of Davidoff cigarettes. “They’re very, very smooth, these,” he says in his slow Yorkshire drawl, his voice grimed by 63 years of tobacco. “The best Virginia cigarette you can buy.”

Hockney, who is 81, is jet-lagged. He flew in the previous day from Los Angeles, where he has lived on and off since the 1960s. He’s in Amsterdam for the opening of an exhibition of his own work at the Van Gogh Museum. “JP calls it the Vince and Dave show,” he says, referring to Jean-Pierre, his studio manager and long-standing friend. The museum’s first show dedicated to a contemporary painter is likely to be a crowd-pleaser. More than 1.5m people went to his retrospective in 2017, shown at Tate Britain, the Pompidou Centre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last year, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)”, which he painted in 1972, went for $90.3m at Christie’s in New York – the most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction.

Hockney receives no proceeds from auction sales in America and bats away talk of money. “You know what Oscar Wilde said?” he asks with a note of bitter bemusement: “The only person who likes all kinds of art is an auctioneer. It’s a madness, that.” Right now, with an hour spare before checking the installation, he’s more interested in sharing his greatest passion outside painting. “Here, try one of these,” he says, handing me a Davidoff.

He doesn’t smoke when he’s actually painting – “my hands are occupied” – but does so whenever he steps back to inspect the work in progress, and pretty much any other time too. He consumes a pack a day and avoids anywhere he cannot smoke. Before arriving in Amsterdam, his assistant called ahead and, in exchange for a hefty fee – presumably to cover fumigation – arranged a special dispensation so he could puff away in his room. Hockney takes an idiosyncratic approach to his health: in the 1970s he claimed that eating large quantities of pickled onions helped to keep his arteries clear; he recently said that he owed his longevity to washing his hands and brushing his teeth regularly.

Today he dismisses all concern about his body. “I would point out that among my colleagues, Picasso smoked, lived to be 91; Monet smoked, lived to be 86; Renoir smoked, lived to be 78; Van Gogh smoked a pipe, and he died early, but not from smoking; Cézanne smoked. Lots of painters smoked and I don’t know one who died young. Monet smoked all day!” (After our meeting he sends a message: “I forgot one thing – Hitler was the biggest anti-smoker. Doesn’t that say it all?”)

He berates what he calls the “professional non-smokers” who offend his sense of adventure. Perched on the edge of the sofa, he begins to recite W.H. Auden:

Give me a doctor partridge-plump,
Short in the leg and broad in the rump,
An endomorph with gentle hands
Who’ll never make absurd demands
That I abandon all my vices
Nor pull a long face in a crisis,
But with a twinkle in his eye
Will tell me that I have to die.

Hockney’s cigarette evangelism is an expression of a contrariness that has defined his career as an artist. He took up smoking as an art student in Bradford, the Yorkshire town where he was born in 1937. His father Kenneth, who worked as a clerk, was a militant anti-smoker. In the 1950s Kenneth attended the Aldermaston marches against nuclear weapons – not to protest about the bomb but the evils of tobacco. Hockney points out that he has now outlived his diabetic father by six years: “It was chocolate biscuits that killed him.” (Hockney’s tastes are quite different: last year he ate only caviar for Christmas lunch.)

Hockney ignored his father when he tried to whip the Woodbines from his mouth, just as he paid no attention to orthodoxies in general. As a young painter in the early 1960s he challenged British laws against gay sex with a series of pictures he calls “homosexual propaganda”, depicting men in the shower, in bed and in each other. One showed a couple 69-ing, their penises replaced by squirting tubes of Colgate toothpaste.

Since then he has zigzagged wildly, investigating an extraordinary variety of styles. As Martin Gayford, a British art critic who has collaborated with Hockney on several books and been painted by him, puts it, “he always had the self-confidence to ignore what critics and curators were telling him he ought to be doing.”

He has made both figurative and abstract work, experimented with photography, painted portraits, landscapes, still lifes and combinations of all three in restrained black-and-white and hot colour. Over the past 20 years he has spent much of his time in Bridlington, on the coast of East Yorkshire, painting the landscape he grew up in. A selection of these pictures is being shown in Amsterdam.

Today, with a cigarette hanging permanently from his fingers as he peers owlishly over his big yellow glasses, Hockney talks about his enthusiasms with the stridency of a bar-room regular. They range from the limitations of photography (“the idea that a photograph is the ultimate depiction of reality is absolutely bonkers!”) to the constraints of traditional perspective (“I’ve always known there was something wrong with perspective”).

Eventually Hockney’s assistant arrives to take us to the installation at the museum. Hockney reaches behind the sofa to pick up his walking stick and dons a tweed flat cap, which, together with his neckerchief and loose collar, makes him look like a fashion-conscious farmer. He also brings with him a portable ashtray – a little pouch with red-and-white stripes and a blue flap, made in Japan from some kind of heat-resistant plastic.

Hockney says he has felt an affinity with Van Gogh ever since he first saw his pictures at the Manchester City Art Gallery in 1954. “We went on the bus, from the art school, over the moors. I do remember the colour, because Manchester and Bradford weren’t that colourful.” He says that both he and Van Gogh were “from a dark place, and we had to go somewhere else to see the colour”.

Van Gogh’s haven was Provence; for Hockney it was California, which he first visited in 1963. “I immediately felt the colour and I got it in the work.” It was in California that he painted many of his most famous pictures, including “A Bigger Splash” (1967), with its bright blue swimming pool, banana-yellow diving board and marshmallow-pink house. Smoking has had a peripheral influence even on Hockney’s visual imagination: in the 1970s he told an interviewer that elements of his sets for a production of “The Magic Flute” were inspired by an advert for Kool cigarettes; he hoped someone might look up from the stalls and think, “Golly, menthol green.” Today he admits that the splash of his best-known work is “rather smoky”.

Even when Hockney paints elsewhere he takes the Californian palette with him. The first room of his exhibition includes “May Blossom on the Roman Road” (2009), a giant picture of hawthorns in flower, where the road is a hot pinky-orange and the bushes take on a stiff, almost cactus-like form. In many of his Yorkshire pictures he seems to lay the colours of one landscape over those of another.

Hockney’s period of painting Yorkshire ended in tragedy. We come to a series of charcoal drawings that depict the arrival of spring in 2013. “I almost didn’t finish them,” he says. “Dominic died and we were very down.” This is Dominic Elliott, his 23-year-old assistant who died in March 2013 after drinking drain cleaner at Hockney’s house in Bridlington. Afterwards Hockney fled back to LA, where he has been living ever since. This year he will return to painting the spring, in a house he bought recently near Pont l’Évêque – “where the cheese comes from” – in Normandy. “They have cherry blossom, apple blossom, pear blossom, blackthorn blossom, hawthorn blossom.” He will unfold its arrival on a long panorama, like the Bayeux tapestry, so that viewers will walk through it.

After looking at the rest of the show, Hockney pronounces himself satisfied. “I’m no Van Gogh, really, but it’s okay isn’t it?” One curator asks if he’d be interested in looking at the museum’s collection of Pissarros, but Hockney is feeling his jet lag. “What I’m really interested in is going back to bed,” he replies. But in the hotel lobby, conversation drifts once again to the Davidoffs. Hockney turns to me: “Fancy another?”

Hockney - Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, March 1st - May 26th