Bruno Wollheim’s ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’ is an intimate and inspiring documentary of a mesmerising artist at work…
“Hockney has inspired me more than any other artist has, and probably ever will.” So I wrote in my second year of art college and it still holds true. Hockney’s relentless creativity and curiosity with the great mystery of life has been an enduring inspiration.
Bruno Wollheim’s ‘A Bigger Picture‘ follows Hockney’s return to the Yorkshire landscape of his childhood as he approaches seventy. Filmed over three years it captures the immediacy of Hockney painting outside for the first time culminating with the largest picture ever made outdoors.
I really enjoyed rewatching the film and Bruno Wollheim’s recollections revealed a slightly bigger picture than my first viewing. The rental is the only way the free videos are supported and more of the archive can be made available.
First, thank you for your appreciation! If I may, I’ll answer this digressively, because the making of the film and what has happened to it subsequently has been so unusual. Making documentaries is a strange, uncertain and enveloping experience. Once they are finished it’s rare that you gain any insight at all into their reception. TV criticism is a pretty unsatisfactory index, and the few letters you’d receive from the public are mostly complaints about the music or queries about its provenance. ‘David Hockney: A Bigger Picture’ is an anomaly – I was asked to screen it across Europe and the USA so got a lot of reaction, and also a lot of feedback from people who’d bought the DVD.
David Hockney – A Bigger Picture
Nominated for an Emmy in 2010 and one of the most inspiring art documentaries I’ve seen. Available to stream online at Vimeo on Demand.
What it means to me is so bound up with the singularity of the experience of making it: the extended being there with David and his household; that beautiful part of Yorkshire and how my familiarity with the landscape grew in parallel and inseparably with DH’s painting of it; I don’t expect to make another film in that way. The film is also singular in terms of the access, catching a great artist at the peak of his powers, its highly cinematic aspect (painting a landscape outside, exposed to the elements), and the way I had to do it single-handedly.
Only after finishing the film did I realise that in recording Hockney’s activity over a period of time another element was to come into play. I was to become part of the myth-making, and a witness to its mechanisms. My film was the first to construct a story of this Yorkshire episode. Soon it became absorbed and part of a greater narrative – surviving mercifully intact, even after the great success of Hockney’s Royal Academy exhibition in 2012, to which he attached the name of the film! I view with some ambivalence the way the packaging of the story has given a false inevitability and finality to the Yorkshire enterprise, reminding me of the ending of ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’, when it is the legend that gets printed.
The historiographic process confirmed one thing: film is not treated seriously in art circles either as a formal medium or as a medium of record. The art world has always privileged the written word and anyway has bigger fish to fry. As Hockney himself maintained after the bruising reception of his book ‘Secret Knowledge’, it is not really interested in how art gets made, just the product. The immaculate conception rules OK.
Matisse would say about the public’s appreciation of the painter’s life:
“They want to enjoy the artist’s products – as one might enjoy the milk of a cow – but they can’t put up with the inconvenience, the mud and the flies.”
The dust has never quite settled, nor did David’s work which continued to evolve and surprise. The questions I ask – does the film continue to be relevant and fresh, or what is its real subject? – are the ones I’m probably the least qualified to judge.
On each viewing I’ve come away with something new and different from the film. At that level I remain pleased with it: there are enough layers for unexpected elements to spring to the surface. I’m certainly proud I finished it, that it has a coherence and integrity, and does justice to the subject.
I’d love to think I’ve captured something of the universality and mystery of the creative enterprise, let’s say a portrait of an artist as an older man. The film was a journey into the unknown, scary and thrilling. I hope the film still preserves something of this, and of the mud and the flies.
Documentary truth is a strange beast. I see the film now as an artefact not wholly of my making. I also see it as a truthful construction, but then I would argue a good documentary is as fictional and artful as memory.
I liked Hockney’s refreshing directness, his plain-spoken, down-to-earth nuts-and-bolts Yorkshire practicality and pragmatism. Films on art often have an over-romanticised engagement with Art and artists that ignores the material imperatives. So too in general the public and art-historical imagination, they incline towards hagiography and mystification. Working with Hockney held out the prospect of something more interesting.
My first dealings with Hockney were back in 1988 when I got over to LA to discuss a film on Picasso. I had come up with an idea of making a television series about living artists choosing their favourite dead artist. The film was to be based around a series of 35 paintings of an Artist and Model which Picasso had painted in March 1965 over 10 days. I hoped Hockney’s elucidation of the artistic process would shed an interesting light on both artists. The film was shelved when David developed health problems and couldn’t travel to France.
High up on my list of reasons is his charm, intelligence, his passion for the visual, and the sheer excitement he has in communicating his work. There is also the enigma, a sense that there was much more to the work and to Hockney himself than meets the eye. That the familiarity, the publicity, the 60 years of continuous public gaze, had made their subject not more knowable, but less.
Mostly it was the fear of messing up technically. My training consisted of two three-day courses to learn how to operate the camera, having never been behind the camera, professionally at least. Though I have trust in my eye. Doing it all myself was David’s pre-condition. On the one hand it meant I could be quicker on my feet and more flexible, whether in responding to an invitation to come up, which was often for the next day, or in planning that day’s filming. On the other hand, it left command and control much more in David’s hands, in practical and psychological terms.
Probably the hardest challenge was keeping a proper perspective on a constantly evolving situation, without another set of eyes or a sounding board, and even more so when early on in the filming I had to abandon my plan to keep some proper independent distance and became embedded in the household, the only way to keep track of events. I felt that almost every scene I shot had to be won, and this had consequences in the edit, in the difficulty of divorcing the material from the experience of capturing it and trying to judge the true value of what I had “in the can”.
A steady supply of Valium would have been useful. I had done one other evolving film project called “Portrait’ with my brilliant editor and collaborator Chris Swayne, about the making of an official portrait by Tom Phillips for The National Portrait Gallery of its outgoing Director Charles Saumarez-Smith. But at only 50 hours of footage and essentially describing a series of portrait sittings over 9 months, it was altogether a more easily manageable proposition. For a start a linear narrative was a given. The 120-plus hours of video for ‘A Bigger Picture’ were too much to hold in one’s head, and additionally there were so many different possible stories and approaches to that material. We were drowning in all the films it could be.
The editing proper took over nine months, not counting the reviewing of the rushes and the many days I’d spend with the editor during the two years of principal shooting. At the time a student had raised a million dollars by selling pixels at $1 a shot on his website – and I remember idly considering selling off the rushes piecemeal and inviting the public to make their own. On a serious note, by August 2007 we’d sifted the footage down to an initial assembly of ten DVDs amounting to well over 15 hours; a month later we gave David three DVDs of material to look at on his journey down through Europe. He’d wanted to see something of what I’d filmed over the last two years and possibly discuss the shape of the film.
When I met him in Rome, I ended up being his guide to the city and hardly talking about the film. Four months later up in Bridlington I showed him a two-hour rough cut that stuck quite closely to the thesis he had been keen to propound from the outset, the primacy of the painted mark over the photograph. It had something of the didacticism of ‘Secret Knowledge’, the film of the book. To my relief, he made it clear it was my film, adding that he believed entertainment to be the minimum requirement. Now we were more liberated.
The film would be about process and show step by step how and what was being done, and the thinking behind it. We went back to a more or less chronological narrative, which in turn meant we had to jettison a lot of good synch interview sequences because they showed paintings in the background that in the film timeline had not yet been made. As much as possible we would use the interviews with David in his car, to create the feel of a road movie.
The most difficult decision was including myself in the film. Looking back, we had no choice. The intimacy and angle of the camera’s presence was a given, so too my off-mike questions. I had captured a conversation. By remaining an invisible presence I would be a distraction. I would have to write a first-person narrative and then, once the editing was at an advanced stage, we decided to use a mirror for the wrap-up interview with Hockney.
There is a place for film-makers at front and centre – take the many wonderful docs of Nick Broomfield or Werner Herzog – but in art documentaries there is a risk of competing for attention with the subject or worse, of looking to cuddle up (like the ghastly ‘In Bed With Madonna’). This is not so much about honesty – after all, film has so many devices, illusions and conventions that honesty can be little more than another fiction – but about a cardinal rule, not to put the viewers at a disadvantage, not to present a more privileged position of knowledge to which they are denied entry. In what was anyway quite a convoluted story, I didn’t want the unanswered question – who is that fly on the wall?
The structure of the film started falling into place, and best of all a back and forth dialogue between David and I. The film had a lot of work to do in placing Hockney back in Yorkshire and describing his motives for doing so. The almost Platonic dialectic we injected into the narrative could work as an interrogation of Photography versus Painting, and it also brought into play the gap between words and actions, and between appearance and reality. It could also undercut the inbuilt problem of artist docs, the solipsism of artistic creation, and create some space to inject an independence and scepticism of outlook within the film.
There was one final gremlin in the edit. At the very last minute the BBC Imagine team decided they would like the film to run shorter than the one hour, since the film was going out in the late evening. We had a day to lop off about seven minutes (all thankfully restored in the DVD and VoD version).
I still have some doubts or questions about how time works in the film. The construction of the story inhabits one time signature, watching Hockney paint is more like real time. I sometimes wonder if the story I’ve presented wouldn’t have been better if I’d been French and less bound by British television convention – to have let the story unfold in the present with all the possible mess and irresolution.
Certainly I’d like the chance to make another longer feature-length film from the material, one that is more in the moment, more experimental, more about the act of questioning – the central impetus of Hockney’s art. David are you listening?!
The Hockney Gallery in Bradford’s Cartwright Hall was starting up in 2017 and wanted a video. In trawling through my archive, I rediscovered all the really interesting and entertaining material that couldn’t find a place in the finished Imagine BBC documentary or the Extras I’d selected for the DVD. David’s 80th birthday was coming up and what would be more appropriately mad than make 80 short “films” to mark the occasion. But I hadn’t bargained for the amount of work involved.
By the time I’d created a website and produced over three hours of content, I’d run out of energy to tell people of its existence! When David was making these images in Normandy to help people through Lockdown this year, it seemed the perfect moment to have another go, make people aware of the original film, and provide some interesting new things to see and think about when all the arts were closing down.
Following David’s brush while he was painting was never predictable. There would be sudden switches of direction and focus from one area of the canvas to another. You could see that description, the selection of mark and the graphic weighting of the total field were at work together. There was always a decorative element, but also a tough energy in the mark. What I found most impressive and uncanny was the certainty of the drawing in space.
When he was painting on as many as six panels at once, the bare bones of the composition were so perfect and magical, like a Fauvist Matisse, I would find myself wanting him to stop. Sometimes I would wonder about the character of the Hockney line. Just occasionally the line seemed mannered and self-conscious. How innate is it, how conscious? My conclusion was it was somewhere in between, like a signature, something at first consciously developed but then an automatic reflex or a muscle memory.
What also needs pointing out is quite how extraordinary Hockney was in letting himself be filmed over such a sustained period of time. What incredible self-confidence. It is such a rare thing to see. When famous artists make painting demonstrations for the camera – Picasso with Clouzot, Jackson Pollock with Namuth, spring to mind – invariably the paintings are trashed and never see the light of day. For most artists, both the questions and answers they are trying to find lie in the work, through the work, through working. Most artists are afraid to reveal this process. In this way Hockney stands out as an artist open to making and experimenting out in the open – and risk failing in public. There seems to be no fear.
I remember seeing David on a BBC series, Painting With Light. Each programme featured a different artist creating work on what was then cutting edge software, The Quantel Paint Box. That was back in 1987. DH loves the challenge of new technology, always has. So 30 years later he works on a much more sophisticated version. Of course the Ipad had immense practical advantages: it was light and portable, it offered a huge variety of mark-making – and having already done a stream of images on his iPhone, using the same Brushes software, the iPad was manna from heaven, and on both he could work in low light. Then he discovered he could “replay” the genesis of each drawing… plus the images could be blown up big without any great deterioration in the quality of the image. Everything made sense.
I’m saying in a way that the technology did not so much impact the landscapes as somehow more exactly correlate with what he was already doing. I see some of those big landscapes he was doing in the 80s, like the Grand Canyon series, as emerging out of his stage designs. In Yorkshire, the impetus on the landscapes was not so much the technology but the hand, and working with watercolour in particular. The marks and layering, mastering how to draw with paint, unlocked all the subsequent developments.
Certainly David never stands still. He also actively likes the battle with a medium and its limitations. One of my favourite phases of his art were the paper pools, a medium that was probably the most tyrannical of any of the many he’s taken on, involving the moulding of coloured paper pulp into one-off images. The iPad has been the source of an incredible volume of great images and as vivid as so many of them are, my only doubt is that the medium offers too little resistance. I expect to be proved wrong.
Consider how he moved from the lit up glass screen of the iPad to stained glass….!
I think I’ve approached the making of films as a kind of advanced problem-solving. I’ve realised that it seldom works to impose a framework or style. More the issue is to find a documentary grammar and form that rhymes with the theme and the subject matter. Sometimes though an approach presents itself. So for instance in my David Hockney: Double Portrait, the double interviews suggested a quite formal film around body language. In Portrait the witnessing of two men in a small room and the repetition of the sittings suggested a British comedy of manners and the employment of Alan Bennett to read the voice-over.
David Hockney – A Double Portrait
Directed by Bruno Wollheim this 2003 documentary from Coluga Pictures charts Hockney’s return to the theme of the double portrait.
Undoubtedly a whole number of film-makers and films have had an enormous impact on my taste and on my appreciation of what is possible in film. To name them is to risk covering oneself in false feathers, to use a German expression. I love all of Kieslowski’s work, a lot of Andrei Tarkovsky, Federico Fellini, most Fred Wiseman, I loved Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch, admired David Hinton’s Bacon film, ditto Joanna Kiernan’s Janz film (yet to be properly released), Robert Hughes’ Shock of The New, I’m fascinated by the films of Errol Morris and his use of the unreliable witness, more recently I loved Never Look Away by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Erice’s Quince Tree Sun sticks in my mind.
Try and do as much as you can hands on, find someone you respect to work with, try and think the film through, respect the viewer’s intelligence, respect your subject, your contributors and your collaborators (if you can’t, walk away), try to avoid presenters, be aware and learn the grammar of television and hold it at arm’s length as if it smells to high heaven.
I’d love to think so, because I find the recent work in Normandy so fresh and interesting. I can’t quite see us doing another evolving observational documentary, but I would be really interested to film David about his reflections on those Yorkshire years and the developments since – in a sense bring A Bigger Picture up into the 21st century and re-edit the footage to make it new and different. See my earlier answer.
© Bruno Wollheim. All Rights Reserved.
Thanks again to Bruno for being so generous with his time and help with supplying images, videos and the discounts for MoMa readers.
An indirect thanks to Mr Hockney too for the decades of inspiration!