Film Imitates Art Imitating Life

The documentary Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts will show one time only at the Tryon Theatre. One of its most iconic images is David Hockney Painting Winter Timber in Bridlington, July 2009. Photo by Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima.

Tryon film fans and art lovers are marking a red-letter day at the end of July. The historic Tryon Theatre, closed for months for renovations, is open again with a striking marquee, comfy new chairs, a clubby balcony, higher-tech sound, and a big new screen. To celebrate, the venue will hold its grand re-opening with an audience-grabber art film — as a fundraising event for its next-door neighbor, Upstairs Artspace.

Exhibition on Screen is a British company that makes amazing exhibition-based art films. Their subjects are filmed around shows in various countries, usually featuring immortal artists such as Michelangelo and Rembrandt; this is the group’s first film showcasing a contemporary artist.

As its unwieldy name suggests, the movie, titled Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts, A Bigger Picture 2012, & 82 Portraits and One Still-Life 2016, has two definite parts. But they’re beautifully woven together by the visions of the artist. First, we see Hockney, after years of living in the U.S., paint his native landscape in Yorkshire, England, for a 2012 exhibit at the Royal Academy in London. There are more than 150 paintings, most of them of trees or “tree tunnels.” Then, Hockney is back in his sun-drenched home in Los Angeles, where he paints portraits of dozens of people he knows, for an exhibit four years later, in 2016.

“David Hockney is Britain’s most popular contemporary artist,” says the film’s host, Tim Marlow, art historian and Director of Historic Programmes at Royal Academy of Arts, London. “And he’s held in equal esteem throughout the globe.” Born in 1937 in Bradford, Yorkshire, Hockney felt constrained by his dramatic though gloomy environment. He became fascinated with the bright daylight and sharp shadows that he saw in Hollywood films, so after graduating from the Bradford College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, he hightailed it to Southern California in 1964.

It was a world ready for him — Pop Art, cannabis, wild parties, swimming pools, and lots of openly gay beautiful men. He dyed his hair snow blonde (think Andy Warhol), became a fashion icon, gathered many exciting friends, and painted. In a world that idolized abstract art, Hockney was almost a throwback — he was a representational artist, putting a new twist on landscapes and portraits. His edgy subjects, vibrant colors, and intense observation of contemporary life soon made him famous and rich.

Now reaching his ninth decade, minus the wild hair, and, alas, most of his hearing, Hockney is still, as Marlow says, “full of energy, curiosity, and the desire to see the world afresh.” An extraordinary effect of this powerful film is that it makes the audience feel the same way. To say the man is an inspiration is an understatement.

Hockney reveals his reverence for masters, such as Rembrandt and Van Gogh, and the famous 19th-century British landscape artists Turner and Constable, as well as Chinese scrolls, both ancient and animated — references that make you want to investigate these other artistic expressions yourself. The camera watches Hockney intensely as he paints; then it swirls grandly, like a brush, around the exhibits themselves — allowing the viewer to better see how the individual works relate to one another.

“To depict action in nature,” says Hockney, “is to show spring and fall … winter is static.” Before he agrees to do the exhibit, he insisted on painting four stages of spring in Yorkshire, to prove its gradual arrival after winter. “Most people don’t notice the changes in spring,” Hockney says, “but when you do, you can really see them.”

About the intimacy of portraiture, he remarks, “People are the most interesting things we see, aren’t they?” Against a blue or green background, Hockney’s subjects, ages 11 to 92, sit in a chair, looking at him, for the better part of three days. First, he makes a quick charcoal drawing, about 45 minutes, then paints. The subjects range from the children of friends to his car washer and refrigerator repairman to famous art critics and fashion designers. “It’s incredibly democratic,” says Edith Devaney, senior curator, Royal Academy of Arts, who oversaw both exhibits and was herself a portrait subject.

“Everyone sits differently, holds hands differently, wears different clothes and shoes,” Hockney points out. “Each portrait is of an individual.” Yet the impact of the 82 figures becomes, as Hockney says, “all one piece of art.” And the film shows that.

At the end, Hockney looks at the camera and grins. “Portraiture, landscape and still-lifes — what else is there?” And over a million visitors to Hockney’s two exhibits in London, and all the viewers of the film worldwide, would definitely agree.

Exhibition on Screen: David Hockney at the Royal Academy of Arts
Short Take: Fascinating behind-the-scenes exploration of David Hockney’s creative process.
Director: Britain’s Phil Grabsky (Cezanne: Portraits of a Life, 2018) Color, 2017, 78 minutes.
When: Sunday, July 29

A 6pm reception at Upstairs Artspace (49 South Trade St.,, 828-859-2828) is followed by the 7pm screening of the movie at the newly renovated Tryon Theatre (45 South Trade St.,, 828-859-6811).

The $35 ticket benefits the gallery, which is celebrating its 40th birthday with three new exhibits: Four Women/Four Journeys, Thoughtful Forms: Stone, Wood, Clay, Steel, and Holland Van Gores: Polychrome Turnings. (See “Things to Do” in this month’s issue for more information.)

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