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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 25

A friend recently blogged her reaction to a short YouTube video of famed British artist David Hockney answering reader questions. The topic was inspiration. What raced through my mind was “I know Hockney. He went to China a long time ago.”’


David Hockney on Inspiration, Looking Forward, and China

“Inspiration. She never visits the lazy.”

This was then 72-year-old David Hockney’s response to a question posed by a reader during a TateShots on Twitter 2009 video.

This nugget of wisdom gave Christine Merser pause and that pause led to her “The Voice Inside My Head” blog post on inspiration: “Sometimes my pauses can be mistaken for laziness. I can pause all afternoon, and if it happens to be in front of Turner Home Movie’s thirty-thousandth showing of Pretty Woman, all the better. I’m a short distance runner. I go at high speed and then crash for whatever time, and then start up at high speed again. I struggle with the term lazy, as it’s something I really have always considered as an adjective that does in fact describe me.” Her post goes on to tackle inspiration, the seeking thereof, and the not infrequent inability to quite capture the same (at least in a particular moment).

So far this has nothing to do with China. But wait. Somehow most things in my life have a way of coming around to China. It’s my version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

Stimulated (I will not use the word, inspired) by Christine’s post, I went into my living room and pulled my copy of China Diary from the overflowing shelves. This 1982 book by Stephen Spender (the words) and, you guessed it, David Hockney (the paintings and photographs) documents their 1981 visit to a recently re-opened China. It was one of the earlier books I collected on China back when I was in high school.

The publisher blurb of the book reads that “Stephen Spender and David Hockney's illustrated diary of the trip they took together to China takes in not just the famous sites - the Great Wall, the Temple of the jade Buddha, the magical landscape of Kweilin but the unexpected incidents of everyday Chinese life. And both discuss their meetings with contemporary Chinese poets and painters. Hockney's photographs, drawings and watercolours are a unique revelation of China, while Spender discourses in rich prose. Together they provide a glimpse of this ever-mysterious land.”

In an epilogue of extracts from a conversation between the two men shortly after the trip, they ponder experiences, emotions, motivations, memories, and presentation.

(Hockney) “…the trip the three of us made was an extremely pleasant and thrilling three weeks, to me, anyway; and it was an experience that you would never forget. Suddenly, this vast country that hardly existed before, except in your imagination, was there. You go there with one idea, to write about it, and I to draw it. I soon realized that it wasn’t too easy because of time. We had a very organized day; our only free time was meals, our only time alone was usually dinner.” (Page 189)

Hockney: “Often artists choose to go to places because they think it will interest them, or they know it will interest them….I had no notion at all about China. What I have to do now is to sit back and think quietly….We went through a giant country that we knew very little about. So we can’t make pronouncements on it….” (Pages 189 and 191)

Spender: “Each of us has a separate personality. I think about China in my own way. I forget about you, and you as David Hockney think about it and illustrate it and have a picture in your mind which is unique to you, your sort of unique vision which is beyond me.” (Page 191)

They intersected with a number of Chinese people during their journey--guides, drivers, artists, and other locals. These were the faces and relaters of China’s past and present.

(Hockney) “our mood kept changing; when we’d become convinced at one moment that it [China] was a police state, the next day, we’d look around suspiciously for evidence and find it. The day after, the sun would shine on the lovely mountains of Kweilin [Guilin] and you’d forget about it and you’d enjoy the nature and the trees. That was a vivid part of the experience of being there.” (Pages 196-197)

Finally, in sharing their views of China’s politics and governance, concepts of heroism, and life since the 1949 revolution, Hockney opines,

It’s not normal for ordinary people to want a big adventure. Most people would be happy just with the quiet ‘adventure’ of life, and to them all life is an adventure in that sense, but they want it quietly; other people do not, they want it heroically, they join up in armies, they are prepared to face violence in life….But it’s no good dismissing the idea of adventure as though it were a sin. The whole history of the world is made up of people who set out on adventures and did things.” (Pages 198 and 200)

The two discuss important questions. About what China was and is and may become. About how we should look at and understand (or not) China. I clicked on the video link in Christine’s blog post and watched Hockney answer half a dozen more reader questions.

I was struck by, and will end here, with his answer to a question about regrets:

I don’t brood about past work too much. I am much too keen on what I’m going to do next week.


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