Saturday, 10 March 2012
Review of David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy of Arts
David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture
Royal Academy of Arts
21 January – 9 April 2012
“I love looking at the world. I get intense pleasure from my eyes. The enjoyment of landscape is a spatial thrill.” With attitudes like this, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken until his 75th year for David Hockney (born 1937) to be given his first major UK exhibition of landscape works. Nevertheless, the time has now come, and David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy of Arts, places him firmly in the tradition of great British landscape artists, such as Constable and Turner. The idea for the show came about following his phenomenal 50 canvas work, Bigger Trees Near Warter (2007), which was displayed across the end wall of gallery 3 in the 2007 Summer Show, and the current exhibition includes some 150 works, spanning a variety of media, from more traditional paintings, drawings and sketches, to thoroughly modern iPad drawings and multi-camera film works.
Throughout the show, Hockney, like Monet with his waterlilies, examines certain motifs over and over again, starting in room 1 with four paintings, each made up of eight canvases, of Thixendale Trees. Each work depicts the same location, but the scenes move through each quarter, from winter 2007 to autumn 2008, documenting the seasonal changes. These are grand scale works, in vibrant greens, blues, and oranges, capturing the essence of nature and its strange and miraculous beauty. Nevertheless, at this stage, Hockney was still painting largely from memory and a series of drawings.
Certainly, landscape painting has been a preoccupation of Hockney’s for much of his life. Room 2 presents an overview of some of his older works (1956-1998), including the breathtaking A Closer Grand Canyon (1998), comprising 60 canvases, smothered in reds, oranges, yellows, and purples, almost abstract, yet still recognisable for what they depict, with visible brush strokes, dots, dashes, and cross hatching effects, as intense as a burning fire, so that they almost jump off the wall at you. At the other side of the room, we see some of Hockney’s early photocollages, also of the Grand Canyon (e.g. Grand Canyon Looking North, Sept. 1982), which are impressive in their own right, but, at the same time, a little disappointing in comparison to his amazing painted renditions. What is perhaps most interesting, however, is the similar jigsaw-like effect brought about both by the photocollage technique and his use of multiple canvases. It is as if he were deliberately creating frames within the frame, or parerga, in the Derridean sense, with which to break down and attempt to get a hold on the otherwise overwhelming scale of nature in all its sublime.
In room 3, we turn to Hockney’s first Yorkshire landscapes, dating from 1997, when he returned home for six months in order to be near to his close friend, Jonathan Silver, who was terminally ill. During this time, he refamiliarised himself with the landscape of his youth, saying now: “it’s a landscape I know from my childhood, so it has meaning, [although] I never thought of it as a subject until ten years ago.” Although all of these works are painted on just the one canvas each, he still brings about a jigsaw-like effect through the inclusion of field boundaries and winding roads, which carve the paintings into segments. At this stage, although still painting from memory, there is nevertheless evidence of intense observation, and a luminosity of colour akin to fauvism. This continues throughout the show, culminating, perhaps, in the promotional image, Winter Timber (2009), comprising 15 canvases of blue trees, a purple path dotted, as if printed on fabric, with ferns, a pink road, yellowy orange piles of timber, and pink and blue tree stumps. As Hockney quite simply says: “to see colour, you have to look.”
Less vibrant, but still reaching out from the walls, are the watercolours and first oil paintings from observation (2004-5) on display in room 4. These have been given a deliberately dense hang to give a sense of the sheer number of small-scale paintings that Hockney produced during this period. In the words of Marco Livingstone (co-curator of the exhibition), “he’s produced the equivalent of a lifetime’s work over the past seven years.” Wolgate Mist (November 2005) is simply magical, with its masterful evocation of nebulosity, as the clarity of the foreground dissolves as the road disappears on the horizon, and Wheatfield off Woldgate (2006), reminiscent of Van Gogh with its tall green grass, red wheat and flowers, animatedly captures the movement of their waving and bending in the wind.
And so it continues. As we move through the galleries, we see series of a track which Hockney refers to as “the tunnel”; repeated versions of the same scene in Woldgate Woods, playing with the possibilities of light and colour, investigating the geometry of nature, and capturing its growth, verdancy, lushness, and dense foliage; visions of cream hawthorn blossom, which you almost expect to be able to smell as you approach; and finally, ending his study of the cycle of nature, a room looking at trees and totems, or, more plainly, death and decay.
We then move on to Hockney’s most recent works, filling the large space in room 9, all produced in 2011, with the knowledge that they would be exhibited at the Royal Academy. Alongside one large painting hang 51 prints, originating from drawings made on his iPad (some of which are also on display, alongside a selection of sketchbooks, in room 12). Although not all of the same scene, they capture snapshots from different points along the same road, as the artist tracks the arrival of spring. His penchant for the inclusion of tracks and lanes is, he explains, to give the idea of travelling through the landscape oneself, experiencing it subjectively.
And perhaps the ultimate invitation to be there and experience the Yorkshire countryside for oneself is offered with the film work, running on a loop in room 11. Showing on nine screens, building up one image, the eye has to scan the multiple perspectives in order to build the complete image, just as it does in reality. Following one view across the whole year, the film, like the preceding paintings, captures the minutiae of the seasons as they change.
Although the show closes with recent work from Yosemite Valley in room 13, labelled as being “explorations of sublime landscape,” this, to me, is something of an anticlimax after the celebration of the sublime on our own shores. For the exhibition truly is a celebration of British countryside and its changing seasons, its colours, and the visual pleasure it can give, if only you take the time to look. As Hockney says: “I think there’s a lot of blindness,” with people going about their busy lives, without stopping to take notice of the wonders of nature. “Having this exhibition [open] in January,” he continues hopefully, “will make people watch the spring more and have a little more enjoyment.” Let’s hope this wish indeed comes true.