I was looking at the pile of books next to my bed, all the ones I want to read. Starting to get mildly panicky about my lack of progress with them. Then the thought, Which one is actually calling to you right now? And immediately I went to Martin Gayford’s recent book with David Hockney, Spring Cannot Be Cancelled, worth buying for the title alone. A few years ago a friend of mine, a fan of Hockney, had raved about his Woldgate paintings and their use of colour. Prior to this, I hadn’t paid Hockney much attention, but somehow my friend’s fizzing enthusiasm had made me take notice, and I read a previous book of interviews with Gayford, A Bigger Message, though I missed the show at the RA.
I’m not quite sure what it is about artists and their effect on poets. I sometimes think there’s a touch of envy there: at least artists can earn large sums from their work, whereas it’s almost impossible for a poet to do the same from their poems. But of course it’s much more than that. The artist does a kind of very intense and prolonged seeing. Prolonged is perhaps an incomplete, half-moon metaphor. Immersive seeing, baptismal seeing. The artist is not the artist when they are painting, they are just the seeing finding its colours. Perhaps the seeing is pure emotion, the kind of wordless complexity poems, even at their best, can scarcely touch. Visual art, at any rate, is for the poet a reminder to ‘see better,’ a way of opening up different ways of seeing.
Linda Gregg would sit for hours in front of the same Rembrandt, weeping. I don’t know whether I have ever wept in front of a painting, but I have certainly felt a wild excitement in front of certain images, something Emily Dickinson-drunken and ungovernable as though the painter had directly touched some inner tender spot in me. Hammershøi had that effect. Lee Miller. Francis Bacon. Rothko and Cornell. Hepworth.
Hockney is a particular touchstone for me because he embodies flow itself and gives it colour. He seems to care very little about his reputation and posterity. He cares much more about making art and making new discoveries. Despite his age, he is not jaded or worn out by it all—perhaps because he doesn’t concern himself much with anything but the flow of art. He writes to Gayford:
I’ve witnessed quite a few changes in the art world and, you know, most artists are going to
be forgotten. That’s their fate. It might be mine too, I don’t know. I’m not forgotten yet. It’s OK
if I am; I’m not sure it’s that important. Most art will disappear.
So calm. It’s not even courageous: he’s simply doing what he’s doing out of the love of it, and he’s so prolific without any anxiety about producing too much work, or diluting his power. With no interest in shoulds or should nots: how liberating to be like that— intent on loving the seen world without apology, even if it means he is not seen as 'edgy' or 'dark' enough.
As such, he strikes me as the ideal artist, solely concerned with what Hopkins called ‘selving:’ ‘each mortal thing does one thing and the same:/ Deals out that being indoors each one dwells/ Selves—goes itself, myself it speaks and spells/ Crying What I do is me, for that I came’ (‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’).
I have booked tickets to see the Spring in Normandy show at the RA in September. Meanwhile, I take heart from his words as well as his images in Gayford’s book. What is it that rises up, that cannot be cancelled in me, in you, in us?