All you need is love – and a cheese sandwich

Discerning palette: One of Hockney’s vibrant paintings of the Normandy countryside. © David Hockney

Are food and love the only real things in life? At the age of 82, Britain’s greatest living painter, David Hockney, has written a moving letter telling the world his deepest convictions.

The BBC journalist Will Gompertz could not believe his luck: he had just been handed an exclusive story to make rivals green with envy.

Britain’s greatest living artist, David Hockney, had written him a letter summing up his philosophy of life, accompanied by nine iPad paintings that he was sharing for the first time. Coming amid the gloom of the pandemic, it was a scoop to lift the heart.

Hockney is in lockdown in France, with two assistants and his dog Ruby. His paintings, which he hopes will give people “a respite from the news”, show flowers emerging and trees bursting into blossom. One is called Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring.

Reflecting on the pandemic, he writes: “We have lost touch with nature rather foolishly as we are a part of it, not outside it. This will in time be over and then what? What have we learned? I am 83 years old, I will die. The cause of death is birth.

“The only real things in life are food and love in that order […] the source of art is love.”

Other people across the ages have attached enormous significance to food, and not just as something to keep us alive. The essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote: “The art of dining well is no slight art, the pleasure not a slight pleasure; neither the greatest captains nor the greatest philosophers have disdained the use or science of eating well.”

The poet Virgil described a poor old man with beehives and a kitchen garden as being as happy as a king. The artist Vincent van Gogh, writing about his painting of equally poor people, The Potato Pickers, emphasised the importance of “a meal honestly earned” – the fact that his subjects “have dug the earth with the self-same hands they are putting into the dish”.

As for love, the writer Khalil Gilbran argued that “life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit”, while the philosopher Socrates declared: “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life, and that word is love.”

The psychologist Sigmund Freud reached a slightly different conclusion to Hockney, arguing that only love and work matter. And the poet Hilaire Belloc thought that nothing was “worth the wear of living/But laughter and the love of friends”.

Are food and love the only things in life that really matter?

Vital ingredients

Some say that Hockney is right. Food is the essential thing that keeps us alive, and connects us to the natural world; love is what makes life worth living. Many of our happiest experiences are when the two come together: meals are not only the main focus of family life, but occasions for meeting our friends and celebrating important events, such as weddings.

Others argue that it is ridiculous to make so much fuss about food. Yes, it is essential to our survival, but so are water and shelter. A lot of people do not particularly care about what they eat. Those who are very religious would say that faith is far more important, since it gives meaning and purpose to a life than can otherwise often feel painfully pointless: full of “the unbearable lightness of being” as the writer Milan Kundera once put it.

You Decide

  1. What is the most delicious food you have ever tasted?
  2. Is painting a better way of portraying the natural world than a photograph?

Activities

  1. Do your own painting of a spring scene in a style similar to David Hockney’s.
  2. Choose a recipe, requiring only ingredients that you have at home, for a dish you love but have never cooked yourself, and then make it for your family.

Some People Say...

“You come to love not by finding the perfect person, but by seeing an imperfect person perfectly.”

Sam Keen, American philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Food has inspired many writers and artists. The key moment in one of the greatest novels ever written, Remembrance of Things Past by the French author Marcel Proust, comes when the narrator dips a small cake called a madeleine into a cup of tea – and is carried back to his childhood by the taste. Bowls of fruit have inspired still-life paintings by artists from Caravaggio to Cézanne. And love has probably inspired more poetry than anything else, including Shakespeare’s sonnets.
What do we not know?
Whether the artists of the future will follow tradition and paint on canvas, or whether they will rely on digital technology. Hockney has always embraced new media, from Polaroid photographs to the iPad, while insisting that photography cannot replace painting. As Will Gompertz puts it: “His pictures are a record of how he, uniquely, is experiencing the reality of his subject and the space in which it exists. The one-eyed mechanical camera flattens out all this individual nuance.”

Word Watch

Scoop
Here, means a story or piece of news discovered and published by one newspaper before all the others.
Respite
A rest or break from.
83 years old
Hockney is wrong about his age. He isn’t 83 until July this year!
Michel de Montaigne
A French writer (1533-1592) who is credited with inventing the essay as a type of writing.
Virgil
A Roman poet (70-19BC) best known for The Aeneid, an epic about a Trojan hero.
Vincent van Gogh
A Dutch painter (1853-1890) whose most famous picture is Sunflowers.
Khalil Gilbran
A Lebanese-American writer (1883-1931) remembered mainly for his book The Prophet.
Socrates
An Athenian thinker (c470-399BC) regarded as one of the founders of Western philosophy.
Sigmund Freud
An Austrian neurologist (1856-1939) who invented psychoanalysis.
Hilaire Belloc
An Anglo-French writer (1870-1953) best-known for his comic poems, such as Jim, Who Ran Away From His Nurse, and Was Eaten By a Lion.

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