David Hockney walks into the top floor gallery at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, smiling with pride and pleasure. He waves his arms expansively at the walls, which are covered in his paintings. “I did these in the last few months,” he says. “Because I wanted to explore reverse perspective.”
The German painter Matthias Weischer smiles back and the two begin to talk enthusiastically about the way this type of perspective – where the space opens up in front of the painter rather than closing down to a vanishing point – includes the viewer in the picture. There is a generosity to it as a technique. It says, “come into my world”.
That seems both to sum up Hockney’s career, which is being celebrated in this year-long retrospective exhibition, and his relationship with Weischer, whom he first met on the 2005 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative and with whom he has built a lasting friendship, meeting at least twice a year and continuing a richly rewarding conversation about art.
Attitude to life
The two are a study in contrasts. Hockney is immaculate, unmistakable in cream cap and shirt, pressed trousers and a bright mint-green cardigan. Weischer favours the more traditional, slightly scruffy artist look, his unruly hair tumbling around a youthful and inquisitive face. “For the most part I am listening and he is talking,” Weischer says. “There’s always something new he has to tell – and for me it is inspiring to get new ideas. I feel more and more it is not only about art, it is a lesson in an attitude to life.”
For his own part, Hockney, who turned 80 in July, has never wavered in his belief in Weischer, now 44. “When I chose him, I knew that he knew what he was doing,” he says. “He is a very, very, very good painter. I wondered why he wanted me. But we get on very well. We’re both interested in the same things – space and things in space. So I’ve kept friendly with him. He’s a very nice person and one of the really good painters around.” He pauses, his eyes full of life behind the glasses. “I’ve just found he is a kindred spirit really. We’ve done a lot of things.”
They have met in various locations around the world, including in Bridlington, Yorkshire, where Hockney was painting the massive landscapes that went on show at London’s Royal Academy in 2012, and at Hockney’s studio in Los Angeles, where he is based once more. Weischer was one of the subjects of a series of 82 portraits that Hockney produced, using the same vivid blue background and lemon-seated chair.
“That was great,” Weischer remembers. “I really liked his working atmosphere because he was busy, he was happy doing something. I was sitting there and happy to co-operate. It was very relaxed. He worked in the morning and then we had a lunch and then he worked in the afternoon, and in the evening, we watched a film. This is the atmosphere I like for my life, too.”
The two men did not talk while Hockney was painting but would do so in the breaks. “He’d show me something about Picasso or something,” Weischer says, with a laugh. “His talent is his curiosity. You never really find him bored. You put him somewhere and he is happy. He is always communicative and he loves people. He is such a great man.”
That sense of a life fulfilled and yet always moving forward is very much present in the exhibition. Hockney was particularly pleased by the way it was hung in Paris – and with the reception. Having drawn an unprecedented 478,000 visitors during its 16-week run at Tate Britain in London in the first half of 2017, it attracted similarly huge numbers to the French capital from June to October. Next stop is the Metropolitan Museum in New York from November to February where interest is likely to be massive once again.
Hockney tells a story of a woman who pressed a small piece of paper into his hand as she walked past him. On it was written: “Thank you for bringing joy into my life.” He was clearly moved; on the wall of the Paris show, he has painted the words “Love life”, a motto that underlines the life-enhancing vitality of the show.
It is Hockney’s art that preserves his youthful zest. “When I’m painting I feel 30 but when I stop I don’t,” he laughs. It is a wonderful laugh, wheezy and deep, and it punctuates many of his stories. He lives quietly, standing to paint for six hours a day, prizing early nights and early starts more than parties and trips to restaurants. In any case, the deafness that has plagued him for many years makes large gatherings difficult.
But wandering around a quiet gallery, surrounded by friends, he is as sharp and shrewd as ever. He looks around with satisfaction. “I’ve always said I live in the now but putting together this exhibition and the Taschen book (a monumental study of his life’s work), I’ve realised, well, I’ve not been too bad.” He laughs again. “I look at the first oil painting I did – Builders – which has never been exhibited before. It was in the attic when I sold the house in Yorkshire and it’s now been cleaned.
“And I see all the figures in space. I think that I have always been interested in space and the figure in space, and I still am.” This is one of his bonds with Weischer. The paintings that brought the German to prominence were of empty interiors, haunting explorations of space and time. But it is Hockney’s willingness to move forward – “I never really wanted to repeat myself. For 50 years I’ve been doing interesting and different things” – that Weischer finds most inspiring.
“David is always starting new things,” he says. “So it’s not one idea that you base your career on, it’s many ideas. This is great for me because at a certain point before I met him, I felt I had said everything. I found my style, it was popular, I was successful and then you ask, what next? When I met him, I realised it was OK to start again, to go back to studying, to build a new field. There is so much time if you are lucky. For me he is a positive example of someone who is stepping forward all the time.”
In recent years Weischer has produced landscapes and is now starting to work with figures in his paintings, inspired in part by Renaissance painter Fra Angelico. He has started to draw every day, just as Hockney still does. “This is very helpful to me, just to keep on and be inspired. When you draw all the time you never run out of ideas.” But Weischer is keen to point out that their relationship is not one of teacher and pupil. “It is a conversation. Of course, he knows much more than me, but that doesn’t mean he is superior. He takes everyone seriously. He would never say he is the centre of something. He is just a man who shares ideas.”
Towards the end of our time together, we find ourselves sitting near Hockney’s 1977 painting My Parents.
It prompts tender memories of his father, Kenneth. “He would have loved to have been an artist but he had five children by 1940 and not much money, so he couldn’t.” He fulfilled his desire to have an impact in the world by sending letters to political leaders such as Eisenhower and Stalin. “He’d walk down to Bradford to post it so it went quicker. And I used to say I don’t think Stalin would be saying, ‘oh, there’s a letter from Mr Kenneth Hockney’.” The deep laughter begins again.
Full of gratitude
Hockney is full of gratitude to his parents, who showed such belief in their talented, eccentric son, never doubting or discouraging his desire to be an artist. “I always knew, from nine or 10. I always drew. So I left school at 16 and went to art school. I was a scholarship boy and they wanted me to go to Oxford or Cambridge and then be an artist, but I said, ‘No. I do it now. I can’t wait’.”
Weischer listens enviously. “I’d have loved to have done that. But I had to do my exams in school first and so I only started when I was 21. I was always feeling I was losing time. I became an artist because I had to do it somehow.”
The two men wander off, discussing where to have dinner and a Degas copy of Poussin’s Abduction of the Sabine Women that Hockney once took Weischer to see in San Francisco. “Meeting David in person and hearing things from him, is different than reading it in a book,” Weischer says. “Seeing the whole person, who he is, and feeling his freedom, hearing his ideas, it’s really miraculous.” It is a sentiment with which it is hard to disagree.
Photo: David Hockney; Matthias Weischer, artist; Centre Pompidou
© simone perolari