It always seemed an auspicious appearance – what exactly was aging English hipster artist David Hockney doing at the Frankfurt Book Fair in the first place?
There are certainly edgier places for the 79-year-old icon to launch his new book – a whopping 200cm, 35kg retrospective, appropriately titled A Bigger Book, which comes complete with its own stand, and a $2,000 (Dh7,346) price tag – than the world's largest trade fair for books. It felt easy to view this appearance in the financial heart of mainland Europe, a city bobbling with bankers, through a cynical prism.
The deal clearly served both parties well – one felt a tangible impatience among the hundreds of journalists gathered for the fair’s October 18 press launch, sitting restlessly through a half-hour of earnest speeches from the fair’s director, and the president of the German Publishers & Booksellers Association.
When Hockney’s great unveil came, dozens of photographers sprinted to the front to snap a living legend, a survivor who rose to fame in the 1960s pop art boom and continues to sell work for multi-million sums.
A flamboyant Andy Warhol associate, Hockney dressed the part, looking almost mischievous in a white flat cap, bright green woolen cardigan and scarlet neck tie. For this was a day in which English eccentricity defiantly trumped continental reserve.
“I’m going to talk about drawing on a iPad,” announced Hockney. And he did, exclusively, for 25 minutes straight. Anyone hoping from some insights into his six-decade career as painter, draughtsman, printmaker, stage designer and photographer – or even a timely plug for his “Sumo-sized” book, published in limited edition by Taschen next month – would be left disappointed by this rambling presentation. Focused entirely on work created since Hockney’s sudden switch in 2009 to using the Brushes iPad and iPhone application, his message at times felt like little more than a gigantic Apple advert.
“The iPad has marvellous things about it,” Hockney continued, offering a lengthy, but rarely insightful, discourse on the pros and cons of drawing virtually. “I can wake up in the the morning and straight away start drawing.
“I don’t need to go and get a glass of water, a brush or a pencil sharpener – everything is there in my finger tips.”
As well as offering an antidote to the toil of finding a pencil or mixing paints – the weight surely dragging at every painter’s back – the iPad’s jewels include the “enormous range” of colours available, and the limitless page size (“you can go on drawing forever because you never run out of surface”).
The only cons, as he sees it, are that these colours don’t always come out of the printer in the same hue he sees them on the screen. This is the closest he gets to addressing the issue of authenticity in virtual painting.
“I like to draw, I always liked to draw, and a computer doesn’t stop you drawing,” he says sagely.
“People don’t draw as much now – but who would have thought that the telephone would bring back drawing?”
Throughout, sped-up recreations of his images being sketched on Brushes play in the background, an hour’s work painted in front of our eyes in mere minutes. We watch an assortment of landscapes and still life’s shape; sunrises, flowers and inanimate objects – candlesticks, glasses, mugs, plug sockets, a loaded ashtray – and even a sketch of an iPhone charging. “I find things that are shiny good to draw,” Hockney offers.
While it was fascinating to see Hockney’s finger-work move from idle genesis to full fruition, it was also telling to observe last minute virtual additions and subtractions which would surely be impossible on paper. Watching one sketch slowly unfold, Hockney admits he is not yet sure if the playback is finished.
“There are only two or three of these in the book – I’m not sure, maybe four,” adds Hockney, one of just two oblique references to his ostensible reason for being in Frankfurt in the first place, neatly framing the oblique left-turn of his subject matter. The other reference was less subtle – the final projection was a sketch of the book itself. Subliminal marketing at its best.
“That’s my little talk about the i-Pad,” he said abruptly, closing the talk, perhaps, with a hint of self-awareness.
Fair director Juergen Boos rushes in to translate. “That was a talk about storytelling – there were so many stories behind everything you showed us,” he swoops in swooningly. “I really admire your work – thank you so much for being here.
Check the Arts&Life book page for regular updates from the Frankfurt Bookfair.