Gilbey on Film: The truth about David Hockney

What's the connection between the artist and TOWIE?

David Hockney may have been a greater presence in your life recently than members of your own family. Anyone would think he were the subject of a new show at the Royal Academy or something. But ask yourself this question: what is the connection between Hockney and The Only Way is Essex?

I'm no good at suspense so I'll go ahead and tell you the answer: A Bigger Splash. Jack Hazan's 1974 film about the artist and his friends looks at first like a documentary. Everyone we see appears as themselves, in situations representative of the early-1970s London art scene. But as Hazan explains in an interview included on the BFI's new DVD/Blu-Ray edition of A Bigger Splash, the film contains "very little that's observation. It's not fly-on-the-wall." The late fashion designer Ossie Clark, one of the subjects of Hockney's painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (clue: he's not Percy)described it as "truer than the truth." This will not be a radical concept for viewers of TOWIE.

Like Rude Boy, the film about the Clash which Hazan co-directed with his partner David Mingay, A Bigger Splash is a staged work. It was shaped by Hazan over the three years he spent tagging along with Hockney. The director suggested to his subjects situations and conversations for them to play out, or brazenly manipulated the footage he shot -- notably the scene of the artist destroying an unwanted canvas, an unexceptional occurrence in the life of a painter that is transformed here (through the use of Patrick Gowers's deliberately Herrman-esque score) into a sign of psychological turmoil. The picture bills its participants like actors in the opening titles, and even has a "written by" credit shared by Hazan and Mingay. It's not like we can see we've been hoodwinked.

Hazan had begun shooting material when Mingay spotted in Hockney's life the tension between the artist and his former lover and muse, Peter Schlesinger, who had recently left him. Schlesinger, initially grudging until his palm was crossed with silver, became the film's mutely radiant star. He sleepwalks prettily through dreams of Hazan's devising.

Any ambiguity about process is especially pertinent to a movie concerning the genesis of a work of art. Hockney's painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is pieced together before our eyes, from the original photographic studies of the swimming boy to the temporary use of the painter's assistant Mo McDermott (a bedraggled soul for whom Hazan's camera becomes a kind of confidante) as the poolside observer; McDermott is eventually replaced by a study of Schlesinger, painted in Kensington Gardens and then decanted into the canvas. The painting is only one of the elements in the film which is subject to transformation. A studio is built, a gallery is broken apart; relationships are shown in various state of disrepair, accompanied by McDermott's mournful refrain: "When love goes wrong, more than two people suffer."

Through it all runs a curiosity, and at times queasiness, about looking and being looked at. It was the fraught relationship between the figures in Hockney's paintings which first sparked in Hazan the idea of making A Bigger Splash, and it's a friction that survives in the finished film. In Hockney's work, people gaze into the distance, or defiantly out of the canvas at us, but never quite seem to connect with one another. To this complex dynamic Hazan adds another layer by showing the subjects inspecting their own portraits. This, in turn, is varnished by our voyeurism as viewers.

The film's interest in the relationship between the corporeal form and its painted equivalent leads inevitably to the question of how we are changed by being looked at. The boy Tadzio in Death in Venice (Thomas Mann's novella, rather than Visconti's film), adapts his behaviour noticeably when he becomes aware of Von Aschenbach's gaze; his admirer's attention alone is enough to change and even spoil him. A Bigger Splash exhibits some of that same ambivalence. The models are suspended within the canvas like medical specimens. Hazan films Schlesinger standing naked outside a Los Angeles house, hands pressed against the glass, while the two figures inside eat dinner and ignore him. Finally he gives up and dives into their pool -- he has no choice but to retreat back into the watery prison which Hockney's paintbrush has built for him.

Now, I will have to come clean here and admit that I have never seen The Only Way is Essex (or, for that matter, its US parent The Hills). But I am rather minded to give it a whirl after seeing A Bigger Splash and admiring the frisson between the factual and the fabricated. I wonder if the cultural traffic will also run in the other direction, with TOWIE fans helping Hazan's film to make a splash in the DVD charts.

"A Bigger Splash" (BFI) is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 30 January

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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