“DO NOT TOUCH,” the signs admonish, reminding us that art museums are not petting zoos. They ask that we keep a respectful distance from the objects of our fascination. But still we seek to draw near, to step a little closer — not only to art, but also to the often-veiled lives of its creators. Luckily, bookstores and movie theaters have no such restrictions, and viewers intent on contemplating the dramas of the artistic life can always turn to biography.
In an age when so many visual artists are mixing mediums, biographers, too, are blurring boundaries. On June 21, “A Bigger Splash,” an entertaining pseudo-documentary on David Hockney made in 1973, will be released in a restored version that takes high definition to the higher yet altitude of 4K.
At the same time, Catherine Cusset’s short and stylish “Life of David Hockney: A Novel,” which came out in France last year, has now been published in English by Other Press.
The book’s title is a droll provocation, as well as a vexing self-contradiction. How can a book about an artist be both a biography and a novel at the same time? Ms. Cusset, a French novelist, had never met the artist when she sat down to muse on his interior life, and she made no attempt to contact Mr. Hockney, who will turn 82 on July 9, and remains one of our most celebrated artists.
In reality, Ms. Cusset’s text is less subversive than her title. The book, which is lucidly written, adheres closely to the outlines of Mr. Hockney’s life. It tracks him from his boyhood in Yorkshire, England, with its sunless moors stretching in every direction, to his eager emigration, in 1964, to the squinty-bright landscape of Southern California. Inspired by the climate and views, he painted pool scenes whose sparkling planes of turquoise conjure a paradise untouched by time or decay.
Ms. Cusset’s tone is mostly laudatory. She sees Mr. Hockney as an iconoclast who has been forthright about his inclinations, depicting homoerotic scenes at a time when gay sex was still a criminal offense in England. She admires his steely work ethic and believes, behind his facade of good cheer and mismatched socks, his discipline is nearly fanatical. She is moved by his devotion to his churchgoing mother, whom he invites to London, puts up at the Savoy and takes shopping for a dress at Harrods.
As Ms. Cusset observes, “He was happy he could bring her such joy, his beloved mother whose daily life wasn’t easy, living with a silent husband who was more stubborn than a child, who did not regularly follow his diabetes treatment and ended up at the hospital once a month to be put on intravenous drip, indifferent to the concern he caused his wife.”
Ms. Cusset, of course, is hardly the first writer to fictionalize the life of an artist. It has now been exactly a century since the British novelist M. Somerset Maugham published his “The Moon and Sixpence,” which is probably the best-known book ever written about a painter. Its protagonist, Charles Strickland, is modeled on Paul Gauguin, the artist-stockbroker who had what we nowadays call “issues.” He abandoned his wife and children, moving into a squalid attic in Paris and living in penury before fleeing to Tahiti in the name of art with an uppercase “A.”
In the novel, Strickland is depicted as profoundly flawed. “He never said a clever thing,” Maugham writes, “but he had a vein of brutal sarcasm which was not ineffective, and he always said exactly what he thought.” The book was radical in recognizing that artistic talent can be accompanied by a disturbing level of selfishness. Granted, the novel can seem dated in presenting the artistic life as a starkly binary choice between deranged genius and bourgeois contentment. It fails to notice that second-rate artists can be tormented, too.
Still, who can deny that novels about artists have certain advantages over straight biographies? While biographies routinely run to 700-plus fact-laden pages, a novel is more likely to be shapely in length. It will not waste your time with a dreary slog through a graveyard, which is how biographies traditionally begin, dutifully resurrecting long- forgotten ancestors whose relevance is not always clear. Moreover, a novel can offer an illusion of intimacy and lead you to dreamily think, “Here I am with Gauguin as he paces anxiously in his studio and wonders if that shade of orange is sufficiently bright.”
On the other hand, some of us turn to books less for escape than for critical analysis. And if you are reading for information, fictional biographies are obviously an inadequate form. As the biographer Robert A. Caro, speaking recently to writers and their supporters at a PEN American event, reminded us, “The more facts you come up with, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.”
The key word there is “closer,” because a biography, by definition, can never completely close in on every aspect of a life. It’s humbling when one tries to write a biography — when one confronts the gaping discrepancy between the ticking minutes of a lived life and the random piles of letters and articles, of airline tickets and other scraps of paper, that survive as documentation. A biography is a collection of puzzle pieces that do not fit, and the gaps can be as interesting as the connections. If you don’t like gaps, skip biography and read fiction.
Or create your own fiction. Ms. Cusset’s hybrid approach echoes that of the film “A Bigger Splash.” It, too, mashes up fact and fiction, intercutting documentary footage of the artist milling about his London studio with staged pool scenes that feel a little too eager to shock. Arriving just in time for the observation of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, “A Bigger Splash” will open this month at the Metrograph, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, before rolling out to theaters across the country.
The British director Jack Hazan followed Mr. Hockney and his gaggle of bohemian friends in the early 1970s. Mr. Hockney, by his own acknowledgment, was at a painful juncture in his life. His partner, Peter Schlesinger, a young California artist who had posed for many of his paintings, had left him after five years, ending a romance that coincided with one of Mr. Hockney’s most artistically fecund periods. In the aftermath, Mr. Hockney had trouble working.
But then, after six months, he had a breakthrough. In 1972, he completed “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” a 10-foot-wide pool scene that is known colloquially as his “Peter Painting” and can fairly be called a masterwork. By a nice coincidence, Mr. Hazan, the filmmaker, was around to document its long evolution. There is wonderful footage of Mr. Hockney in his studio, opera blaring on the stereo, his half-finished canvas casually leaning against a wall as he quickly paints, in short brushstrokes, the shaggy hair and jacket lapels of a standing male figure.
The painting sold at Christie’s last November for $90.3 million, then the largest sum ever paid at auction for a work by a living artist. The price tag, however ludicrous, brought welcome attention to the painting, which had been overshadowed by “A Bigger Splash,” an earlier pool painting from 1967, from which the current film takes its title.
“Portrait of an Artist” is the more interesting of the two paintings, giving us, in lieu of a totemic splash of pool water frozen in midair, a sweeping tableau shot through with complex emotion. Set at a backyard pool, with a mountainous landscape unspooling in the distance, the painting is a two-figure composition. One of the figures is swimming underwater, gliding, unreachable. A second figure, modeled after Mr. Schlesinger, fully clothed in a salmon-colored sports jacket, slacks and loafers, stands at the end of the pool, looking down at the swimmer as if waiting for him to finish his laps and come up for air. The scene is like a religious annunciation in reverse; you suspect the clothed man has come to say he is leaving. It is hard to think of another painting that combines so much blue-hued radiance with so much aching silence.
Mr. Hockney initially denounced the film as rudely invasive, and offered the filmmaker money to destroy it. But he later revised his opinion, saying his friends had persuaded him of the film’s creative worth. He has also been accepting of Ms. Cusset’s new book. She reports, in the prologue to the new edition, that she first met Mr. Hockney last spring, after sending him the French version of her published novel. He affably invited her to lunch.
Mr. Hockney, of all artists, might be sympathetic to biography because it plays such a key role in his own work. Although he came of age during the heyday of abstract painting, with its quest for higher truths, he favored an approach that was transparently down-to-earth and diaristic. Over the years, he has painted charismatic and often touching portraits of his friends, his parents and even his pet dachshunds.
This in itself turned out to be prophetic. Many of his contemporaries held biography in contempt, arguing in earnest that art remains unshaped by the ebb and flow of everyday experience. “Art comes out of art,” as Lee Krasner liked to say, in the hope, perhaps, that her churning gestural abstractions would be appreciated on their own terms and not disappear into anecdotes about her marriage to Jackson Pollock.
These days, however, when so much contemporary art is conceived as a direct expression of identity — whether racial, sexual or ethnic — the autobiographical roots of art have never been more clear. It does not diminish any work of art to say that the particularities of an artist’s lived experience are mixed in there somewhere, and it can be illuminating to try and understand them — even in fictional form.
Deborah Solomon, a critic and biographer, is writing a (nonfictional) biography of Jasper Johns.
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