Portrait of an Artist: On Catherine Cusset’s “Life of David Hockney: A Novel”

By Geoff NicholsonMay 14, 2019

Portrait of an Artist: On Catherine Cusset’s “Life of David Hockney: A Novel”

Life of David Hockney by Catherine Cusset

THE FIRST SERIOUS job I ever had was working for a London-based dealer in literary first editions and authors’ manuscripts, operating from a rather swanky showroom and shop in Covent Garden. One of the directors was George Lawson, a vastly amusing and dapper Scotsman who at the time was dating Wayne Sleep, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. David Hockney was one of their friends, and he regularly came into the shop. He was working on a double portrait of George and Wayne, and one of the wags in the company said it ought to be a diptych, so that they could each take half when they inevitably split up.

Hockney was already an art star in Britain, although he wasn’t the National Treasure he’s since become. He was twinkly and friendly, and although I was too overawed ever to have much conversation with him, I heard plenty of stories about him. The best, which came directly from George Lawson, was that Hockney held an annual art-burning party. He didn’t want there to be any second-rate Hockneys on the market, and so once a year he gathered together all artworks he’d made in the past 12 months that didn’t measure up to his high standards and burned them in the fireplace. George claimed to have attended one of these parties. Given the mists of forgetfulness I can no longer remember where the party took place — perhaps in Hockney’s apartment, perhaps in that of his gallerist, John Kasmin. I can’t even swear it actually happened, but it sounded plausible, and I had no reason whatsoever to think George was making it up.

I didn’t necessarily expect any of this to make its way into Catherine Cusset’s Life of David Hockney, but I was surprised nevertheless to find Wayne Sleep and George Lawson dismissively described as “a dancer and a seller of old books.” They were, and are, rather more interesting than that.

Cusset’s book, first published in French in 2018, describes itself as a novel. In general, it seems to me that if an author calls her work a “novel” then that’s what it is; but things are complicated because in the prologue Cusset writes of the book’s contents: “All facts are true but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue. I used intuition and deduction rather than actual invention.” It feels like she’s tying herself in knots here. Is she really making distinctions between imagination, intuition, and invention? Don’t all novels always involve all three? Things are not made any clearer by the publisher’s note — “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously” — or by a review from La Presse, used in the publicity materials for the American edition, which describes the book as “a work halfway between a novel and biography.” You can pick your own way around those contradictions. However it does appear that this whole nonfiction novel business is rather hot in France right now. Emmanuel Carrère claimed that his book Limonov was a novel rather than a biography because he hadn’t bothered to check facts. And my favorite recent bleeding together of fact and fiction occurs in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory, in which an author who entirely resembles Houellebecq is murdered, and yet the novel continues to unfold.

The details of Hockney’s life are well known and easily accessible. He wrote a kind of autobiography as early as 1976, when he was approaching 40, and since then he’s published a few dozen books, many with an autobiographical element. He’s given a lot of very amusing and engaging interviews that have appeared in print and on screen, and some of them are collected in books — one by Martin Gayford, the other by Lawrence Weschler. Christopher Simon Sykes has written a two-volume biography of Hockney. There are films about him, and later this year his brother John (whom I suspect has not agonized overmuch about notions of intuition and imagination versus invention) will be publishing a memoir titled The Hockneys: Never Worry What the Neighbours Think, about their family life in Bradford, in the north of England.

We all know about Hockney’s gayness, hardly scandalous or surprising today, though it’s worth remembering, as Cusset points out, that at the time he painted We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961), inspired by Walt Whitman, or Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964), probably inspired by Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazines, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in England. For that matter, which Cusset doesn’t point out, it was equally illegal in every state in the United States, except for Illinois. Still, matters of illegality don’t appear to have held back Hockney’s art much, if at all.

From extant sources we know about Hockney’s love of smoking, his deafness, his stroke, his pet beagle, his embrace of new technology that allowed him to make art with iPhones and iPads. And he was all over the tabloids in 2013 when Dominic Elliott, one of his assistants, killed himself in Hockney’s house in Bridlington, a seaside town in Yorkshire, by drinking drain cleaner, after what the Daily Mail described as a “24-hour drink and drugs binge.” Cusset says of this episode, “The dark, morbid, moralistic world had won.” Well, only up to a point.

Cusset may have struggled more with what to leave out of her book than with what to put in. Her “Select Bibliography” looks a bit thin, containing only 20 items, and her book runs to just 175 pages. Even so, nothing important seems to have been left out, and reading Hockney’s life story in this form, I was struck by just how improbable much of it seems.

The ’60s were a time of great social change and upheaval in England, when a working-class lad with talent and charisma could do very well for himself, but even so it was not every ambitious working-class lad from Bradford who went to the Royal College of Art, won a gold medal, began a life-long love affair with the United States, ending up with houses in Malibu and the Hollywood Hills, was decorated twice by the Queen of England, and had a painting set a record auction price for a work by a living artist — that was Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which sold for $90.3 million at Christie’s in 2018. In a different kind of novel, we might think all this strains credibility, but that’s obviously not a problem here.

In general, Cusset writes well and clearly, plays it fairly straight, and tells the story of Hockney’s life with economy and style. The book’s a good read and at times a compelling one, although there were one or two places where it all got a bit overwrought for my tastes, as when “David deflowered him, but Peter asked only for that, his entire body trembling with desire. The act of love was on both sides a complete gift, entirely sweet, performed in gratitude and joy.” I guess you had to be there, although obviously the author wasn’t.

The Peter in question is evidently Peter Schlesinger, one of the figures in the Portrait of an Artist painting, but his surname is never used in the book, and I can only guess that there might be legal reasons for that. He and Hockney clearly had a difficult relationship, partly documented in the film A Bigger Splash. In Cusset’s account, that relationship sometimes slips into bathos, as when she writes,

“It’s never the right time!” shouted Peter, slamming the door.

When David returned from Bradford two days later with a chocolate egg, Peter was still brooding.

This reluctance to name names is evident throughout the book. Gregory Evans, who, Hockney said, in an interview in the Guardian in 2015, might be the love of his life, never gets his surname mentioned either. A character named Ron — recognizable as R. B. Kitaj — first appears on page 12, but he is only given a surname on page 49. I find this all very strange, and I honestly don’t know what the author’s up to, but she seems to be up to something. (Incidentally, it was said, by George Lawson, that Kitaj always carried a few thousand pounds in a money belt hidden under his shirt “in case something turned up.”)

There are times when the book seems at odds with the milieu in which it’s set. When Hockney’s mother put out a meal at the family home in Bradford, was the table really “covered with brioches”? Has anybody in the history of the city has ever used the term “eastern London”? It would be like saying “western Hollywood.” And Hockney did not paint a “can of Typhoo Tea” — it’s absolutely obvious (well, to some) that Hockney’s Typhoo tea paintings depict cardboard packets.

Things don’t get much more surefooted when the action moves to Los Angeles. Is this a reasonable description of the city: “[T]he ease of life there: no social classes, no labels, no traditions, complications, elitism”? Personally I have noticed the occasional bit of complication and elitism in Los Angeles.

Or how about this description of Hockney’s homeward commute?

Since he had moved to the Hollywood Hills he drove twice a day between Montcalm Avenue and West Hollywood […] At the end of the day, after leaving the expressways of Santa Monica and Hollywood behind, he would climb the steep canyon roads bordered by luxurious and fragrant vegetation.

“Leaving the expressways?” You might think, Okay, well, possibly it should be freeways rather than expressways — but even then, that was one hell of a circuitous route Hockney was using.

Of course, some of these errors may well be the fault of the translator, Teresa Lavender Fagan, or indeed the book’s editors, and if so they should fess up, but either way it’s Cusset’s name on the front of the book. And one episode seemed so casually sloppy I was left wondering if it was a postmodern strategy. Hockney’s father died in 1979, and David invited his mother to stay with him in Los Angeles. Cusset writes about

all the screenwriters, artists, and famous actors she met without being able to place them at Christopher and Don’s weekly parties in their old Spanish-style house on Adelaide Drive — Dennis Hopper, Billy Wilder, Tony Richardson, Igor Stravinsky, George Cukor, Jack Nicholson, and others.

Since Stravinsky died in 1971 this must have been quite a party.

Cusset is clearly a great admirer of Hockney and at times she seems to be besotted with him, always seeing the best in the man and defending him against unimpressed art critics. Hilton Kramer’s review of an early solo exhibition is “harsh. Backstabbing […] He must have something against the English.” Other critics are just too dumb to understand what Hockney’s up to, and she’s absolutely thrilled when he gets a good review.

She writes in her prologue, “When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character in a novel. We had in common a double life between Europe and the United States. His freedom fascinated me.” It is, of course, perfectly common for authors to fall in love with their characters, but equally, readers are not obliged to feel the same way.

For what it’s worth, I ended up liking Hockney the man rather less at the end of the book than I had at the beginning. In this telling, he seems rather selfish. Friends come and go from his life, lovers are discarded, people around him die all the time, of natural causes, of AIDS, by suicide, in one instance after the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms, in the case of Ossie Clark it’s murder; and Hockney just keeps on working, traveling the world, and having exhibitions. This is not to say that he was unfeeling, and obviously work is a great antidote to misery, yet there does seem to be a detachment and an iciness in Hockney’s heart that allows him to plug along. Cusset quotes a letter — I assume it’s a real one — from Ann (Upton no doubt, but again no surname appears in the text) to Hockney that says, “In essence you’re an island, David. Your mechanism is self-winding.” That sounds absolutely right to me.

The overall effect of Cusset’s book was to send me back to the art, especially the landscape paintings of California and Yorkshire, two poles of my own existence, and it also seems to me that Hockney’s photo collages look better and better all the time. His Pearblossom Highway (1986), constructed from hundreds of photographs of road, landscape, and sky, strikes me as one of the most surprising and truly great depictions of the California desert.

And as a result of this immersion in the life and work of David Hockney, another memory has risen up. George Lawson came into the shop one day brandishing a very rough sketch of himself. It was by Hockney, but I think it’s safe to say it wasn’t his very best work, which was not surprising, given the circumstances. It had been drawn after artist and model had taken a substantial amount of drink. George had been lying on his back on the floor, and Hockney was lying on top of him as he did the drawing. George said he thought it might be one of a series. I wonder if that bit of minor Hockney-ana still exists or whether it met its end at one of his art-burning parties.


Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His latest novel is The Miranda.

LARB Contributor

Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo. His latest, The Miranda, is published in October.


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