by Julie Lunn.
I’m currently reading Spring Cannot be Cancelled: David Hockney in Normandy by David Hockney and Martin Gayford.[i] It’s a wonderful, joyful, uplifting book; a biographical text about David Hockney’s recent work during lockdown. In 2018 Hockney visited France and decided that he would create work on the arrival of Spring in Normandy in 2019. This was delayed until Spring 2020, however, in preparation, he visited Normandy, bought an old Normandy farmhouse in four acres of ground, and set up a studio within it. During lockdown, he spent the time iPad painting 116 pictures of the gardens in which his house is set, particularly focussing on the trees and their changing appearance as Spring emerged and progressed. And all this when he had recently turned 80.
There are numerous quotes of Hockney’s in the book, and one which struck me talks about how important it is to notice. Hockney refers to the colour of the roads in his native Yorkshire,
When I was first in Yorkshire, I was driving along with a friend and I said, ‘What colour is the road?’ He said, ‘I see what you mean. When you really look at it, it’s a violet grey or a pink grey.’ I said, ‘Yes, it is, but you have to really look. Most people don’t, so they just see grey tarmac in front of them with green stuff at the side, but not that many different greens.’ (p166)
You have to really look. You have to notice, though most people don’t really look, and don’t notice. The dustjacket says Hockney ‘is utterly absorbed by his 4 acres of northern France and by the themes that have fascinated him for decades: light, colour, space, perception, water, trees. He has much to teach us, not only about how to see… But about how to live.’ There’s something about the complete absorption of Hockney in his art and in nature, in stillness and in noticing, in focusing on the trees, the sunrise, the beauty of nature, which is so deeply appealing.
I wonder whether the lockdowns have enabled us to slow down a little and notice more – as George Bailey talked about last week in his very helpful piece about watching, noticing birds.
Simone Weil’s words have long been significant for me: ‘The capacity to give one’s attention…is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it.’[ii] Her words are challenging and true. In ministry such attention is essential – the giving of attention to another in pastoral care, in spiritual accompaniment, in supervision. Yet such dedicated attention is also essential in the life of every Christian – attending – to the other, to the world, to ourselves. Noticing, seeing, discerning the subtle shift in hues, the nuanced tone-shift in a conversation, the movements of our own hearts and thoughts and desires.
Spiritual authors, John Wesley included, remind us of the need to attend to ourselves and our inner life. Thomas à Kempis, for example, emphasises the need for the ‘recollection’ of ourselves: ‘If you cannot recollect yourself continuously, do so once a day at least in the morning or in the evening. In the morning make a resolution and in the evening examine yourself on what you have said this day, what you have done and thought…’ [iii] Pay attention each moment, each day, he is saying, to what you say, do, think.
But watchful attentiveness is also to be given to others and to the world which is God’s creation; an exterior insightful attention which notices, gives time to, discerns. The sort of attention Jesus gave when he asked ‘Do you want to be made well?’ (John 5:6b); or when he said, ‘Zacchaeus … I must stay at your house today’ (Luke 19.5); or, ‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near’ (Matthew 24.32).
There is an exhibition of Hockney’s 116 iPad paintings currently at the RA. Unfortunately tickets are sold out. The introduction to the exhibition says, ‘In the midst of a pandemic, David Hockney RA captured the unfolding of spring on his iPad, creating 116 new and optimistic works in praise of the natural world.’[iv] His detailed attention gives praise to the natural world. Our intentional, comprehensive attention gives praise to God – the Creator of the world, each other and ourselves.
[i] New York: Thames and Hudson, 2021.
[ii] Simone Weil, Waiting on God (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), p. 53.
[iii] A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ Thrift books p15