It’s a bit of a stretch but it is an intriguing thought — Vincent Van Gogh using an iPhone. Obviously time and technology are against such a fanciful notion, but as David Hockney mused: “I love the little sketches in Van Gogh’s letters which seem like drawings of drawings. They are condensed versions of the big pictures he was painting at the time, so that Theo (Van Gogh’s younger brother) and the other people he was writing to could understand what he was doing. These days he’d be sending them on his iPhone. When you look at them, they contain everything.”
Hockney’s unstinting admiration for Van Gogh is demonstrated in an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, Hockney–Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature (until May 26) which illustrates the influence that the troubled Dutch genius has had on Hockney and how their work shares many characteristics. The 81-year-old Hockney is himself an enthusiastic user of the iPhone as a device to create drawings and as he told his biographer Martin Gayford: “I think van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling.
“Photographs of those fields around Arles that he painted wouldn’t interest us much. It’s a rather boring, flat landscape. Vincent makes us see a great deal more than the camera could. With a lot of his work most people who actually saw the subject would think it was incredibly uninteresting. If you’d locked van Gogh in the dullest motel room in America for a week, with some paints and canvases, he’d have come out with astonishing paintings and drawings of a rundown bathroom or a frayed carton. Somehow he’d be able to make something of it.”
Observing such kindred style and a shared spirit of adventure it’s worth recalling the great difference in their backgrounds. Although they shared similar early years — Hockney grew up in industrial Bradford and van Gogh in the coal-mining communities of Brabant in the Netherlands — the Englishman’s talent was recognised early. He attended the Royal College of Art in London, where he met artists such as R.B. Kitaj, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield and followed the lead of the fashionable American art movements of his day such as Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.
He moved to the bright lights of California in the Sixties and instantly made a splash with his paintings of sunlit pools, fast cars and fit young men. Van Gogh, as we know, suffered for his art. His artistic career was not his first calling, instead he became a lay preacher and until well into his twenties he remained celibate and a loner, living in poverty. No one detected any great artistic talent, not even when he decided at the age of 27 to take to drawing.
“I will take up my pencil I will go on with my drawing,” he announced. “From that moment on everything has seemed transformed for me, the faces etched by grinding hard work, weather, humble thatched cottages and the bleak flat fenlands.”
It was as though he shared the alienation of the world portrayed in his works, especially as he compounded that disaffection with a succession of fruitless love affairs.
He explained his sense of disaffection in a letter to friend and fellow artists Emile Bernard when he described one lover, a prostitute named Sien, as a “a creature outcast from society like you and me who are artists.”
He longed to move on from the gloom of the Netherlands and headed south to Paris in 1884 only to find the winters too chilly and the art world too competitive. He hated “that bloody filthy Paris wine and the filthy fat of the steaks... dear God, I had come to a state in which my own blood was no longer working at all, but literally not at all, as they say.”
He kept heading south until he reached Arles in the the south of France in 1888 and after four weeks wrote to Theo to announce that “down here it (his blood) got moving again.”
In the two years up to his death in 1890 the shared qualities of the work by the two artists can be clearly seen with the comparison of Hockney’s later work depicting the wolds and wilds of Yorkshire with van Gogh’s images of Provence. Hockney had never considered England as a worthwhile subject, steadfastly preferring the sunnier climes of Egypt, Morocco, China and Japan but roundabout his 60th birthday in 1997, Yorkshire reclaimed him and he returned to his Bridlington home.
It is easy to perceive the two artists’ fascination with nature, their use of strong colours and bold strokes and their experimentation with perspective. Van Gogh even used a square wooden frame with horizontal and vertical wires which formed a grid to give him a precise sense of perspective.
Just as it is impossible to imagine Provence without van Gogh’s blazing colours, Hockney has laid claim to Yorkshire with his own visual record with landscapes which follow the four seasons with the constant changes of light and space demonstrating his love of nature.
There is an obvious similarity with van Gogh’s landscapes such as The Harvest (1888), Field with Irises near Arles (1888) and The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital (‘Leaf-Fall’) (1889) with the tall straight trees, open fields and light playing on the shadows. Big skies and distant horizons. Wheatfield with Partridge (1887) has a similar swirl of grass buffeted by the wind to Hockney’s Wheatfield off Woldgate (2006), although electricity pylons replace the partridge in the Yorkshireman’s version.
The exhibition also focuses on the sketches made by the two men — van Gogh’s work in pen and ink such as Landscape with Pine Trees (1889) and Thistles by the Roadside Pine Trees (1888) and Hockney’s pieces on iPhone.
Hockney is full of praise for van Gogh’s sketches, particularly the early work like the meticulous drawing of of a barn made when he was 11 in 1864 given to his austere father and from 1883 the view from his lodgings over a carpenter’s yard.
As he told Martin Gayford: “Those early drawings of the peasants are incredibly good, technically. You really feel volume, get a sense of the body and the texture of the fabric of the clothes they are wearing — and yet they transcend that, because the empathy is so strong. But technically they are as good as any drawing you’ll ever see.”
As for Hockney his pen and ink collection of flowers and grasses from 2004 could almost have been drawn by van Gogh, but it was the discovery of the iPhone which gave him a new freedom. “I could draw everywhere, even in bed. In the summer, in Bridlington, for example, the sun comes up about 4.30am and shines straight through the window onto my face. I started drawing this on my iPhone.”
“Somebody once said my work has a graphic clarity and I suppose it does. But if that’s true, van Gogh’s work has a double graphic clarity. Every drawing he did is very clear. And they’re always finished. I saw his drawings show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2005, and was amazed by his graphic touch. Everything is put in there, every bit of grass, every different texture. And through his colour he created space.”
Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.