David Hockney: a life on film

16th January 2012

Although I have no easy way of checking, there must be hundreds of films – and quite likely thousands – that feature David Hockney. By the end of the week, with the opening of David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy of Arts, there will most likely be a fair few more (the RA’s website has one, above). Far far more than other major artist of the past century, Hockney’s life, work and ideas have been exhaustively chronicled both by television and by numerous independent filmmakers. Coming of age with the box in the corner in the early 1960s, Hockney is a master of the medium – and his persona, his willingness to perform and his relative accessibility mean that scattered across the globe is a glorious archive of audio-visual fragments. I have chosen ten to highlight below, but I want first to make the serious point about how difficult – indeed, let’s say impossible – it is to track down and view this material. Each and every appearance of the artist in print is collated in scholarly bibliographies. But if you want to find out from any central source whether there’s footage, say, of Hockney talking about Domenichino (which there is), or of Hockney buck naked taking a shower (ditto), well… good luck!

There are a million practical reasons as to why even the most basic metadata (such as titles and release dates) for Hockney films has never been properly drawn together – but there is also one big conceptual one. Which is that the art world, the market, museums and scholarship still do not extend to film a fraction of the respect that they offer to words. Yet much of the most vivid, the richest, the most stimulating and the most revealing material with and about Hockney has been captured in emulsion on acetate, in electronic signals recorded on tape, and in digital bits on hard discs. This marginalisation of the moving image is a theme that we’ll undoubtedly return to in the coming weeks, but meanwhile here are just ten – well, in fact, eleven – examples of essential Hockney for the screen:

Monitor – Pop Goes the Easel, BBC Television, broadcast 23 March 1962: Hockney was not one of the four young Pop painters (Derek Boshier, Peter Blake, Pauline Boty, Peter Phillips) profiled in Ken Russell’s exuberant film (depending on who you listen to, he may – or he may not – have turned down the chance to appear) but he is prominent among those twisting the night away at the climactic party. This may well be his first appearance on film and until recently (just as it may be again) it has been exceptionally hard to see it – but at present there’s a rogue copy of the full documentary on YouTube here. Catch it while you can.

Love’s Presentation, 1968: filmmaker James Scott documented Hockney’s creation in 1966 of the ‘Cavafy Etchings’. A new print of this short is included on the BFI’s new dual-format release of A Bigger Splash (see below), and the BFI has posted this generous extract to YouTube (if the video does not load first time, please re-load the page – and it should appear then):

Canvas – Frescoes by Domenichino, BBC1, broadcast 5 August 1969: Hockney enthuses about the examples of Domenichino’s frescoes in London’s National Gallery, paying particular attention to ‘Apollo killing the cyclops’ and exploring certain similarities with own work.

A Bigger Splash, 1974: this is the big one – Jack Hazan’s feature-length portrait that mixes drama and documentation, verité and fantasy to truly extraordinary effect. Thrillingly, BFI Video releases a dual format edition of a sparkling new transfer on 30 January, more details of which are here. I have contributed an essay to the accompanying booklet, and I’ll write more about the film on its publication (but so you’re not kept in suspense, this is where to find the Hockney-in-shower sequence). Meanwhile, here’s a trailer made for the US DVD release by First Run Features.

Blue Peter, BBC1, broadcast 16 December 1974: the dynamic duo of John Noakes and Peter Purves interview the artist and look at an autograph book and a Scouts’ log in which David did some early drawings.

The Lively Arts – Seeing Through Drawing, BBC2, broadcast 11 March 1978: this is a wonderful two-hour film by director Mike Dibb in which Hockney is one of those (along with Ralph Steadman and Jim Dine) who talks about the meaning and magic of drawing.

A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China, 1988: Philip Haas’ film watches Hockney unroll a 72 foot-long seventeenth-century Chinese scroll and listens to him talk in a compelling manner about east and west, perspective and narrative, the artist Wang Hui and, of course, his own work.

Painting with Light – David Hockney, BBC1, broadcast 6 May 1987: always keen to experiment with new technology, Hockney took up the BBC’s invitation to play with the early digital image manipulator known as the Quantel Paintbox (the name alone prompts nostalgia for some of us).

Omnibus – David Hockney: Secret Knowledge, BBC1, broadcast 13 October 2001: the artist’s fascination with the painting techniques of the Old Masters produced both a book and this film (directed by Randall Wright), extracts from which you can find online here.

David Hockney – A Bigger Picture, 2009: Bruno Wollheim’s lovingly-crafted and fascinating independently-produced documentary (picked up by Imagine) is the most substantial recent film with the artist – for more see my earlier post; you can buy the film online here.


Our Art Lives series on DVD includes Hockney at the Tate, a fascinating film in which Melvyn Bragg and the artist visit his major 1988 retrospective; you can buy this film from us here.

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