‘There might be another life after death’: David Hockney on mortality

In behind-the-scenes footage from an award-winning documentary, the British artist talks about religion, spirituality and what happens when you die


"Hockney Unlocked" is a series of 80 short films produced, directed and edited by Bruno Wollheim. The films are outtakes from Wollheim’s award-winning documentary, "David Hockney: A Bigger Picture", filmed single-handedly over five years with David Hockney. Here, Wollheim writes a commentary on some of the short films informed by a friendship stretching back 30 years.

In this clip from 2006, when David Hockney gave some thought to his own mortality, it caught me a little by surprise. It was not so much the declaration of his vitality and reserves of energy, which were on abundant display over the seven years of his Yorkshire project, but more the specific religious and spiritual reference he makes to the possibility of the hereafter. I was moved but at the same time I was not entirely convinced that David thinks he will ever die.

I was certainly familiar with David’s feeling for the "life force" in us, and especially within him, and the driven need to keep busy. When he moved to his larger studio in Bridlington he pinned on a wall near the entrance the almost Stakhanovite slogan “Inspiration. She does not visit the lazy”.

Hard work as a central principle was never far away for David, but from time to time his northern-English pragmatism would yield to pondering the mysteries of life and existence. In Yorkshire this intensified with his close observation of the seasons as they unfolded and his identification with, and channelling of, the energies he saw present within nature, as keenly felt in the winter months as in the exuberance of spring. His musings on life span, and on life as a profound mystery, came from this almost religious observance of the natural world, something heightened by all those years spent in the perpetual summer of southern California.

His mother Laura was never far from his mind. She had died only seven years earlier, at the age of 99. He was living in the house where she had spent her last years. His father Kenneth had died much younger, at 73. Both his parents were Methodists, Laura by far the more devout of the two. David himself is not particularly religious but has not been unaffected. He quotes Billy Wilder on Christianity: “I have nothing against the pilot, it’s more the ground crew”.  He can be scathing about wretched humanity.

More than anything else David opposes the fear of death with a love of life. Certainly making art is his way of staying vital and alive, just as the art itself provides a testament and his legacy.

When I interviewed David a year later on the eve of the Royal Academy’s Summer Show where he was about to unveil his vast 50-canvas landscape Bigger Trees near Warter (2007) I asked him whether he was thinking about his own legacy. He replied, somewhat elliptically, “Don’t think too much of the morrow—isn’t that a biblical injunction?—my mother would say. On the other hand my mother said 'perhaps you have to be a bit selfish to be an artist'. I know what you’re asking, really, yeah. I don’t see myself as too old. I’m an artist who works. I’m going to go on working, that’s what keeps you going, so you do it. Monet was in his seventies when he began the Nympheas.”

For a while David thought science offered some consolation and a vision. He would quote the astronomer Carl Sagan on the wonders of the Universe, and, in the mid-90s, he made a drawing of a plinth in a desert landscape called Carl Sagan Quote (1995), which carried an inscription from Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot (1994), that read:

Science has far surpassed religion in delivering awe. How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge.

It may well be that David Hockney believes that art can also fill this gap.

• David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is now available online