Randall Wright’s new documentary about David Hockney is a subtle portrait of one of the world’s most popular contemporary artists. Beautifully photographed, and with readings from the British artist’s diaries by actor-screenwriter Jack Larson, Hockney features recent and archive interviews with its subject and with prominent figures in the art world, including American pop artist Ed Ruscha and British art dealer John Kasmin.

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This is not the first documentary about Hockney, nor the first film to which he’s contributed. As early as 1966 he was seen at work in his studio preparing his famous ‘Cavafy Etchings’ in James Scott’s short film Love’s Presentation, which included Hockney’s own commentary. In Jack Hazan’s insightful 1973 film A Bigger Splash, Hockney’s contribution was initially reluctant but it’s probably the most famous film about the artist’s career. Wright’s previous documentary for the BBC, David Hockney: Secret Knowledge (2001), explored the origins and secret techniques of oil painting, and its influence on Hockney’s own work. But Wright’s latest differs from these in piecing together a life of the artist via his own archive of photographs and home movies, many showing him at home with his family.

Hockney (2014)

Hockney was raised in Bradford and brought up listening to the radio; he wouldn’t get a television until he was 18. However, he was an admirer of cinema, recalling of his education in American cinema as a teenager: “I was brought up in a Hollywood in Bradford.”

After studying at Bradford School of Art, he quickly turned heads on the British art scene with his paintings of bright light and colour and his focus on issues of sexual identity. He openly explored gay love, and expressed his admiration for the freedoms of American culture after moving to Los Angeles in 1964. Seen driving around Beverly Hills in Wright’s film, Hockney calls the city “a blend of the energy of the United States with the Mediterranean – a wonderful combination”.

A longtime rule breaker, Hockney’s playful approach includes photo collage techniques and the use of everyday objects such as a coloured paper fax. In the 80s, he experimented with faxing images of his paintings around the world – one of these ‘worthless’ Hockneys fetched £11,000 at auction.

Pearblossom Highway, 1986
© David Hockney

In the present-day interviews in the new documentary, Hockney appears in soft, comfortable clothes – his personal style hasn’t changed since the 60s – talking about his interest in wider perspectives and his attempt to see space, rather than focusing on surfaces, within his art. Wright’s film delves into these details and the artist’s mastering of new media techniques and philosophies, his energetic embrace of change. It’s appropriate that Nat King Cole’s ‘L-O-V-E’ features on the soundtrack – at one point Hockney addresses Wright’s camera: “If one can understand love, one can to a certain extent be fearless.”

Derek (2008)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012)

Documentaries about artists can help illuminate creative worlds, especially when filmmakers are granted unique access to their subjects at work and in their homes. Alongside Wright’s portrait of Hockney, other notable examples must include Issac Julien’s 2008 documentary Derek, a tribute to British artist-filmmaker Derek Jarman. Like Wright’s film, Derek itself demonstrates an inspired creative freedom in its compilation of home movies, readings and an archive interview with the great director. Jarman, too, was a passionate proponent of gay liberation, publicly fighting for gay rights. Like Hockney, he witnessed the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic that killed many of his friends, before Jarman himself died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994.

More recently Alison Klayman’s exemplary Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012) is a portrait of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.

Fragments of Kubelka (2012)

Klayman, an American journalist working in China, started filming in 2009 with Ai’s preparation for his Sunflower Seeds installation at the Tate Modern and ends shortly after the artist’s release from an 81-day-long detainment by the Chinese police in Beijing in 2011, when strict bail rules refused him exit from China. It’s a compelling portrait of Ai’s life from his early years as a street artist in New York to his later status as a force for social change, whose incarceration sparked a social media outcry and worldwide protest. Ai’s message, and that of Klayman’s documentary, is: “Never retreat, retweet”.

Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

From the same year as Klayman’s film, Martina Kudláček’s Fragments of Kubelka documents Austrian artist-filmmaker Peter Kubelka, giving an overview of his ecstatic experimental films, as well as revealing his unexpected cooking talents. Active as a filmmaker since the 1950s, Kubelka was also a co-founder of Anthology Film Archives and a major contributor in the establishment of the Austrian Film Museum, as well as a musician and founder of the 1980s ensemble Spatium Musicum. Kudláček, known for previous documentaries on experimental filmmakers Maya Deren and Marie Menken, researched Kubelka’s world for several years, examining historical footage and filming the artist at home surrounded by his collection of anthropological objects.

Last year, Finding Vivian Maier and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer enjoyed international acclaim. Both films are by turns unsettling and delightful, offering eye-opening portraits of women attempting to overcome repressive circumstances via photography and performance art. A nanny, Vivien Maier secretly took over 100,000 stunning photographs on the streets of New York and Chicago in the 1950s, which were then hidden in storage lockers and found decades later, when they prompted comparisons to the images of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Belatedly, Maier became acclaimed as a fine American street photographer.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Meanwhile, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is the story of the Russian political art activist group Pussy Riot, whose three members were detained after performing one of their songs at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.   

Intimate access to artistic creation comes in a different form in Werner Herzog’s wondrous 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), in which the German director was allowed exclusive entry inside France’s Chauvet caves to observe the world’s earliest known paintings.

Manufactured Landscapes (2006)

The film is a stunning rumination on the mystery of humanity’s discovery of creativity some 32,000 years ago, which bears interesting comparison with Manufactured Landscapes, Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 portrait of photographer Edward Burtynsky. Baichwal followed Burtynsky on a trip through China, where the photographer documented industrial wastelands with his trademark large-scale images of factories, mines and dams. Where Herzog’s film celebrated the dawn of humanity’s unique creative genius, at the other end of history Baichwal’s film – via Burtynsky’s awe-inspiring shots – meditates on our pernicious influence on the planet.

Like Wright’s new film, each of these extraordinary documentaries takes advantage of unique access to art and artists to offer valuable insights into the world of creativity, its myriad techniques and endless possibilities.

Hockney was backed with National Lottery money via the BFI Film Fund.