Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu May 26, 2016 6:29 am 
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A fascinating but incomplete portrait of the artist

The many delights of Randall Wright's BBC film Hockney, a nearly two-hour documentary on David Hockney, do not quite offset its shortcomings as a portrait of the famous and exceptionally prolific English artist's career. Wright has interviews with people who have known the man intimately including family members. He incorporates home movies that blend seamlessly into the paintings themselves. The outlines of the artist's creative passions, his rethinking of photography, his persistent exploration of the art of seeing, are delineated. His love of southern California, the tragedy of AIDS, his centrality to the new openness about being a gay artist that developed during the Sixties and Seventies are there. For the fan, many of the bases are touched.

What Wright is unconcerned with is how Hockney became so successful and famous, what the critics think of his work, where he fits into art history, and how anyone hitherto unfamiliar with his work should view it and evaluate it. And these are important things. Still, this is an interesting and richly documented film.

We hear from Celia Birtwell, a close friend whose portrait with her husband is one of Hockney's most famous, and she describes the making of the painting. We learn about the artists's first great love, UCLA student Peter Schlesinger, and see him cuddling with his closest friend, Henry Geldzhaler in terrible sadness when he and Peter broke up. It's mentioned that Hockney has been subject to occasional depression; aren't we all? (Any further intimate relationships are left unmentioned.) Raymond Foye describes Hockney's all-important friendship with Henry, irreplaceable when Henry passed on. John Kasmin speaks, a key friend and one of his first major dealers. But their is no chronology of important exhibitions.

This is another reminder (there have been other recent ones) that the AIDS crisis was a tragedy for cultural New York. Hockney, in a recent interview, remarks that the city would still have its now lost bohemia if the gay population, and two thirds of his friends, had not been wiped out by the disease.

Hockney's more recent explorations of image-making using new and retro technology, from fax machines to HD video and Poloroid cameras to iPad paintings, are reviewed toward the end of the film; we learn that he even transmitted a large painting by fax for an exhibition in South America that he did not visit. His theories, perhaps unproven, about the role of the camera obscura in seventeenth-century painting are not mentioned. but Wright explored this subject separately in detail in a 2003 film.

Every intimate detail isn't included, but one gets a strong sense of the artist's sociability, his wide circle of friends, and the warmth and good humor of his own family, particularly his close relationships with his parents; he talks about being with his mother, a strong woman who lived to be ninety-nine, during the last hours of her life. Clearly Wright had good access to the artist and to those close to him who were available.

Initially the film seems casual, rather rambling. It jumps from a remarkable early film of the young Hockney at a school dance to a video of him walking toward the round shower he shared with Peter Schlesinger stripping off his clothes. But one has the feeling eventually that the life and work if not quite all, are nearly all, there. It's just too bad there is no serious art historical study or critical assessment. Does what makes Hockney's work so various, plentiful, and pleasing also ultimately limit its importance? What will art history say about him? And where does he fit in the art world and how did he acquire his place in it? These crucial questions we'd like answered. Like Hockney's work, this film is irresistibly enjoyable, yet leaves us hungry for something more, something deeper.

Hockney's earliest paintings seem uninteresting, but Wright points out their important gay content. I have always enjoyed his later work; it is irresistibly pleasing, and his fluency and charm in an unending variety of media are awesome. The man has extraordinary gifts and has ready access to them. But a recent very large show of his work, up to the minute, aptly entitled "A Bigger Exhibition," conveyed the sense that more indeed sometimes is less - that for all the fluency and charm, for all the extraordinary energy (the tireless work a stay against confusion), the admirable explorations of the art of seeing and the nature of the visible world, he has never gotten quite deep enough to provide us with a profound experience. And while rich and accomplished in its own right, this film too leaves us hungry. Still, Wright's Hockney is something to chew on.

Randall Wright is an English filmmaker who has made many documentaries about English art figures, including Lucien Freud: A Painted Life; and he made one about John Le Carré's career in British intelligence, The Secret Centre.

Hockney, 112 mins., A Film Movement release, debuted at London 9 October 2014, and was included in some half dozen other festivals. US theatrical release began when it showed 22 to 28 April 2016 at the new Metrograph Theater in New York. It has a wider US theatrical release by Landmark starting 27 May.

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