Under the Trees, Bigger 2010/11 • Oil on twenty canvases • © David Hockney • Photo: Richard Schmidt

The Great Experimenter

3rd February 2012

The Young Contemporary of the 1960s, David Hockney, is the old hand of the 21st century, keeping alive the traditional graft and craft of ‘real’ painting, in the face of the shallowness of the Conceptualists.
Jack Watkins went to see his new show at the Royal Academy… Was all the fuss justified?

David Hockney, at rising seventy-five, is now the unofficial Grand Old Man of British painting. There are three criteria, aside from personal antiquity, that have to be met to be worthy of such a title, it would seem. Unquestioned skill is the obvious one, and so too is the need to be more than just the darling of the critics, with the artist’s work deemed accessible enough to be enjoyed by the average picture lover. The third requirement is a persona that tickles the public fancy, and Hockney, with his boyishness, big specs and bleached blond – though now white – hair, has long been highly recognisable, even to those who couldn’t name a single one of his works.

In his advanced years, he’s taken on the role of cheeky Yorkshire contrarian, stoutly maintaining a defence of smoking against the health puritans, for instance. He’s often photographed with a cigarette dangling provocatively from his lips, while citing the likes of Picasso and Renoir as fellow daubers who were productive into their old age, notwithstanding a long addiction to the thrill of a good puff.

What he has managed to avoid, though, is total descent from one-time pace-setter to reactionary old fogey, and his new exhibition at the Royal Academy is evidence of a man not merely at the peak of his creative powers, but still keen to work with new formats. David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is very much not a retrospective, gathering together a collection of paintings, sketchbooks and conventional drawings – as well as drawings made on his iPad, and films that he has made involving the use of nine separate cameras of moving images shown across multiple screens.

Of course, Hockney always was the great experimenter. In his Californian period he was one of the first artists to work with acrylic paint, maintaining that its striking, but rather flat colours were well suited to conveying the glaring West Coast light that blazed out of his pictures. In the 1980s, he worked with photographic collages. But while this show explains how, in recent years, Hockney’s facility on iPad has enabled him to dispense with the old sketchbook, at its heart – in its craftsmanship and its emotional inspiration – this is an exhibition which harks back to the deepest traditions of British landscape art.

In 2005, Hockney returned from America to live in his native Yorkshire. Always interested in landscape, he rediscovered the places of his youth and became absorbed by the idea of recording them through the changing seasons, their cycles of growth and their variations of light and colour. Such concerns immediately bring to mind Constable and his Suffolk countryside, and the way Monet made repeated studies of Rouen Cathedral, examining the effect of sunlight on the great west front.

This is art that takes time in the making, requiring long hours of contemplation, and yet the technical skill to get the details down as quickly as possible in often fast changing weather conditions. Some in this show were done en plein air. Hockney says his method was often to drive around the countryside, packing a chair in the back of the car, before arriving at a promising spot where he would stop to sit and smoke, while taking in the details. “I love looking,” he has been reported as saying. “I get intense pleasure from my eyes. I’m not sure television has made people look very hard.”

One of the great pleasures here is his command of the spatial dimension, something he must have learnt amidst the yawning vastnesses of California. Some of his later Californian works, such as the immense A Closer Grand Canyon, from 1998, with its scintillating view across the gorge and the boiling reds and oranges of the rock, reveal obvious parallels with the paintings executed when the artist first began painting in Yorkshire in the late 1990s, while visiting a terminally ill friend. Again there is this penchant for the high vantage point, looking down over the quilted patchwork of fields, the long road, the Gauguinesque bands of colours and distortion of perspective, with the relish of airiness and open space. Of course, in its rolling largeness – and its lack of intimacy when compared to the countryside of the south – Yorkshire is one English county that might equate to the ‘bigness’ of America.

As you move on into the ensuing gallery, however, what follows is something of a revelation. The earlier Yorkshire paintings are perhaps the work of someone observing the place through a car windscreen, moving swiftly through while enjoying the superficial impact, but now you have moved into the land of the intimately observed. Some of these pictures are gorgeous in their simplicity… summer exploding out of the hedgerows, or oaks casting shadows over the edge of a ploughed field, or dots of young leaves breaking through at that transient, anticipatory moment in spring when they have yet to completely unfold to obsure the boughs. And always there is the light, notably in such works as Mud and Puddles, but on almost every occasion the key component.
Next is a series of seven paintings of Woldgate Woods, each consisting of seven canvasses made from the same viewpoint showing the place at various times throughout 2006. One, of the woods in November, with its depth, light and evocation of atmosphere is a work of such beauty it almost demands genuflection.

Not everything in the show works, however. One room is dedicated to Hockney’s paintings of hawthorn blossom, but I’m afraid some bear no resemblance to any hawthorns I’ve ever seen and the skies and general coloration look alien to the English landscape. Trees and Totems, a gallery on, works better, since the dead tree stumps, timber logs and purple tones are clearly works of imagination and stylisation rather than representation and resemblance. There is a flatness in these works, yet they are full of vitality.
Further on, a room full of smaller pictures which originated via iPad drawings, strike one as overkill, like a writer churning out too many potboilers – though they also indicate Hockney’s incredible septuagenarian productivity. They overwhelm in their density and repetition. Less is surely more, but perhaps they serve as an accidental metaphor for the proliferation of images and information overriding selection and discernment that the cyber world can sometimes lead us into.

The show goes out with a bang, though, with monumental depictions of the sublime Yosemite Valley in California – again originating as iPad prints – full of awesome mists, rocks and evergreens. The bigness rather than fine detail demanded by such places seems especially suited to Hockney’s style. They are among many of the pictures in this exhibition that might make you want to step back and exclaim “Wow!”

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture continues at the Royal Academy to 9 April.

See www.royalacademy.org.uk for more information.

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