‘A small note on the posters for David Hockney's forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy contains a sly dig at another superstar artist about to launch a major exhibition. The note reads: "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally."
In an interview with the Radio Times, Hockney confirmed that he had in mind Damien Hirst, whose £50m diamond and platinum skull will be the centrepiece of a Tate Modern exhibition in April, the first solo show of his work in a UK museum. Hockney, who at 74 is creating enormous landscape paintings based on the fields and woods of his native Yorkshire, agreed that he had Hirst in his sights, adding a criticism of art schools.
"It's a little insulting to craftsmen," he said. "I used to point out, at art school you can teach the craft; it's the poetry you can't teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft." He quoted a Chinese proverb that to be a painter "you need the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won't do."
"The other great thing they said – I told this to Lucian Freud – is, 'painting is an old man's art'. I like that."
Like the Hirst exhibition, David Hockney: a Bigger Picture covers decades, though the artist says, firmly: "It's not a retrospective. When they came to me three or four years ago, many of the pieces that are in the exhibition did not exist."
The Hirst show will include pieces made by assistants including the taxidermists who worked on the famous pickled shark – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – and the cow and calf, Mother and Child Divided. Hirst once said he employed assistants to make works such as his scores of spot paintings because "I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it".
The platinum and diamond skull, For the Love of God, became the most expensive modern work sold – albeit to a consortium that included the artist and his White Cube gallery. It was made by the London jeweller Bentley & Skinner, and a proud photograph of it can be seen on the wall in the firm's Piccadilly window.
Despite Hockney's reservations, the practice of artists employing production lines is ancient: as the National Gallery exhibition shows, Leonardo da Vinci used many assistants, some of whom became celebrated artists in their own right. And in the 20th century, artists including Andy Warhol embraced the slick, mass-produced look of multiple copies.
When Hirst has picked up his own paintbrush, the results have not been universally admired. An exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London of paintings inspired by Francis Bacon was hammered by the critics, including the Guardian's Adrian Searle, who called his work "amateurish and adolescent". The pieces will not feature in Hirst's Tate show’.
Good old David Hockney, I say. I don’t necessarily agree with him about the use of assistants: it is a common and long lived practise, but Hirst deserves a kicking in my opinion. Those recent paintings at The Wallace Collection were truly awful, and belonged more to my A level students than the world’s most famous artist. It was depressing to see these alongside Titian, of all people.
A few years ago I was in New York’s Chelsea district with Diane spending the morning looking around many of the little galleries the area is known for. I saw some great painting, where there was a real sense of artists striving to connect with the culture of painting. (I use the word ‘culture’ as something I’d like to discuss further at some point). We then walked into the enormous Gagosian Gallery to be confronted with Hirst’s first, and last I seem to think, forays into photo-realist painting. These were all done by assistants too, and done really badly to be blunt, and featured all of Hirst’s usual trademark imagery of pills, hospital wards, labels, and skulls. (One of the skulls looked remarkably like one I had recently done, which I thought depressingly typical. Mine however, was all my own work and painted entirely from an observation drawing I had made, so there!) Anyway, I found the whole experience depressing in all sorts of ways. It seemed trite and incredibly cynical after all the things I had seen that morning. As if Hirst had decided to put his painting hat on, and thought I’ll have a go at that next. Only he didn’t did he? He couldn’t be truly ‘fucking arsed’. Someone else was paid to do it!
Hockney, on the other hand is an artist who can be totally arsed. His whole career has been one characterised by restless investigation and experimentation, as can be seen by these incredibly ambitious and exciting Yorkshire landscapes. He is an artist who truly has something to say about how we view the world and art. I don’t get that at all from Damien Hirst. It is an art trying to compete with the mass media, like so much contemporary art, and that is why it fails.
I like the Chinese proverb about painting being ‘an old man’s art’. I can all too happily live with that. Here’s my better skull painting too, made by myself, personally...
'Skull', oil on canvas, 90 x 60cms, 2003