Life of David Hockney – A Novel 

Catherine Cusset translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan

Life of David Hockney – A Novel (Other Press)


What a breezy delight this book is. Piecing together the life of perhaps the greatest living artist, Cusset provides us a perspective that will probably shape our perception of Hockney forever. Hockney admits he saw much of himself in the book.

Catherine Cusset

Hockney received encouragement at an early age, but as he gained attention he also suffered the slings and arrows of stuffy art critics. One such critic coined the term phart, ‘phony art’ to denigrate Hockney’s work. Time would prove the foolishness of the critic.

Through Hockney’s eyes Cussett does a good job of describing the recurrent issue of an artist never feeling finished with a work; Isaacson did a marvelous job describing Da Vinci carting around his Mona Lisa through Europe for years. One example is explored with Hockney’s unsuccessful 18 month stint trying to paint an enormous rendition of driving down Santa Monica Boulevard.

But that failure resulted in the magnificent paintings of other journeys through LA’s roads. Rather than painting from photos, he instead painted from memory. The work was more childlike, and far more engaging for the artist and the viewer.

This would be the perfect book for an enterprising publisher or fan to set up a webpage with links to the paintings being described. Links would avoid any copyright issue and corresponding page numbers would provide specific guidance as to what was being described in the book.

Hockney loved Picasso’s quotation “I’m not painting, I’m exploring.” Cusset places Hockney’s delightful bon mots in exactly the right places.

“I paint what I like when I like, where I like.”

“Paint what matters to you.”

The peripatetic Hockney bounces from his hometown of Bradford in northern England to London to Los Angeles and eventually back to Bradford, with many stops in between. The lovely Hotel Mamounia in Morocco was one such place of respite.

Cusset describes well the swimming pool Hockney emptied so he could paint small waves to heighten the sensation when water was returned to the pool.

The core line in the book leaps from the page: 

“David’s work showed that painting was the most powerful art, the most real, because it contained a memory, emotions, subjectivity, time: life. In that, it helped us overcome death.”

Hockney was never afraid of technology, he observed that the fax machine was the telephone of the deaf (like his father, David’s hearing was diminishing).

The famous grouped Polaroids were a clever subversion by Hockney; he used photography itself to prove painting had not died. The tyranny of perspective is what Hockney has been fighting against for decades, and this battle was won numerous times.

The iPhone and especially the iPad gave Hockney a brand new medium to explore. Cussett illuminates the stir Hockney caused recently when he suggested the masters (from 1434 onward) availed themselves of the camera obscura to obtain the amazing lines of perspective seen in their revered paintings. Not everyone agreed with his hypothesis.

Hockney’s explorations of the most challenging medium of painting – watercolors – were undertaken late in life. He dove into the foliage of his beloved England as inspirational subject matter, and here Cussett’s prose sparkles.

Hockney’s masterwork is a massive tree, which he painted obsessively over much time, rising each morning as Monet did in Giverny to capture the best light.

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.