David Hockney: A Life by Catherine Cusset – Review

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By Sandra Callard

David Hockney: A Life, is a heavily condensed biography of less than two hundred pages, following the life of Yorkshire-born painter David Hockney from his birth in Bradford in 1937 to the present day. Written by French author Catherine Cusset and translated into English by Teresa Lavender Fagan it tells Hockney’s story with a charming naivety that is occasionally found in translation, although this occasionally adds a pleasing veneer of antiquity to the language

Hockney was one of five children born to working parents of slender means, and he drew easily and prolifically almost from birth, using the edges of newspapers when no drawing paper was available. His talent was recognised very early on by his parents and teachers and he appears to have received help and advice from various educational sources. By the age of fourteen his teachers were advising him to apply for Bradford College of Art. By the age of eighteen his pictures had been accepted at Leeds Art Gallery and his painting of his father had been sold.

david hockney a life book review coverHis career moved upwards rapidly, always with the support and pride of his parents, and he was soon at the Royal College of Art in London. His painting went from strength to strength and his accolades increased and it seems like he was an established and respected painter very quickly. He was selling paintings steadily and his financial affairs solidified nicely. He certainly did not qualify for the oft used sobriquet of the ‘starving artist in a garret’. The story proceeds with speed and appears to have all the salient details of Hockney’s life in its whistle stop narrative.

“Easy and interesting read”

Essentially, Hockney appears to be an unusually nice man from a loving family who happens to be an artistic genius whose talents have spread to designing stage sets for operas and combining photography with his painting. He tried every new technology and adapted it to use in his artwork. He travelled incessantly, loved America where he had a home, and soaked up different cultures avidly, and it seems rather strange that he did, in fact, settle for many years in the very ordinary town of Bridlington on the east coast of Yorkshire.

His sexual awakening seems to have been at the age of twelve when a man accosted him in a cinema. The book journeys through the dangerous years of the arrival of AIDS, and the fear and sadness of losing many friends and lovers to the disease. He also lost numerous friends through drugs and suicide, and eventually realised how lucky he was to have survived his chosen life. The book is pretty much divided equally between the differing aspects and various successes of his art, and the joys and failures of the gay part of his life. It occasionally seems very marginal as to which subject was the most important to him.

Overall this is a small book with a proliferation of interesting facts, paramount of which is the huge amount of artistic work that Hockney has achieved, his high standing in the art world and his attractive personality. It is an easy and interesting read, whether you are an art fan or not, and the fact that at the age of 82 he is still painting is a tribute in itself to the longevity and artistic genius of the man.

‘David Hockney: A Life’ by Catherine Cusset is published by Arcadia Books, £9.99 paperback


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