“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather,” so said Victorian art critic John Ruskin over a 150 years ago and it’s a sentiment mirrored today by arguably the greatest living British artist – David Hockney.
After the huge success of Bigger Trees Near Water (a ginormous landscape painting that covered 50 canvases) at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition back in 2007 – principle curators Edith Devaney and Marco Livingstone approached Hockney for a possible exhibition in 2011 which he said he’d only do if he were able to capture four seasons over four years. The result is David Hockney: A Bigger Picture – the most ambitious project in the Academy’s 244 year history combining the scale and grandeur of Anish Kapoor’s 2009 collection with the intimacy and vividness from The Real Van Gogh exhibition in 2010. Advance booking is highly recommended as Academy President Christopher Le Brun stated recently their box office computers have crashed several times due to exceptional demands not seen since the Van Gogh exhibition.
Hockney, 74, and the curators stressed that while there are items from his earlier years, which include the magnificently orange Grand Canyon and Cubism inspire Pearblossom Highway, the exhibition isn’t a retrospective as the main galleries hold more than 150 paintings, over 90 percent of which were created when he returned from Los Angeles in 2004. At the time, landscape painting was considered a dead art form, buried deep with Turner’s Richmond Yorkshire and Constable’s Hay Wain; the natural scenery somehow fails to impress our digitalised and modern perspective. And yet Hockney challenges this by saying our perception and declining interest in the English landscape may have changed, however the natural beauty of the landscape still remains inspiring and as engaging as ever. He argues further that colour can certainly be found in the countryside – you only need to look for it.
The exhibition begins with his earlier work from the 1950s which looked grey, dull, almost serious and disciplined. Hockney later moved to the United States, enticed by the glamour and vibrancy of Hollywood that allowed his eye to develop colour and matter into his subject. Inspired by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Van Gogh – Hockney now presents the English countryside with playful lines, distorts perspective with mesmerising curves, imaginatively paints lonely tree barks blue, the autumn leaves purple and the soft, evening sky pink.
Hockney’s Yorkshire spans thirteen galleries, with the first three introducing you to the artist in question; a brief reminder for his admirers and a taster for newcomers to appreciate a man who clearly has more history then many of his British contemporaries. Combined. The next gallery Watercolours And First Oil Paintings From Observation contains a series of watercolour and oil paintings created between 2004 and 2005 from a location not far from his home in Bridlington where he felt a great connection to the green surroundings as his ancestors came from an agricultural background. Hockney would wake up very early, around 4:30am during spring and summer, and observe how the first light of day would fall on tress, plants and the never-ending landscape. Being able to paint very quickly, the master painter used a myriad of green shades to produce two or three paintings before breakfast. And while they were created as individual paintings – the curator’s decision to present them in grid format leaves you in awe and admiration how one could see the same scenery in great abundance. Also a photographer, Hockney wanted this collection to reflect a vision of how the eye sees nature and not what a camera would capture.
The following gallery Tunnels showcases seven paintings from a static position that overlooks a farm track seen through different times of the day throughout spring, summer, autumn and the winter season. Many of these are done from memory using no preliminary drawings or photos; it’s here the colours start to scream through the paint and the scale of his work swell using multiple canvases to create a single painting. The exhibition title, A Bigger Picture, is beginning to make sense as Hockney illuminates you with a wider, panoramic experience of how nature changes, adapts and evolves. Unlike an urban environment, these paintings are organic so the landscape not only changes but breathes, engages, lives and ultimately dies.
The next few galleries develop Hockney’s passion for scale, nature and seasons culminating in gallery eight Trees and Totems, which portrays a more vibrant Hockney bringing a dramatic memorial to the chopped timber and empty branches.
The galleries finest piece is of course Winter Timber, a 15 canvas painting which Devaney stated was the first painting they confirmed for the exhibition but the last to be installed. It’s also used on promotional literature and advertisements but look carefully at the figure standing in front with a paintbrush. Is it Hockney or is he paying homage to another master – Pablo Picasso?
The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty-eleven) in the adjacent gallery is the grandest and largest painting from the whole exhibition using a total of 32 separate canvases, scaling nearly four metres high and ten metres wide. 51 (out of 95) iPad drawings, drawn between last January to mid June, reveal the nearby lanes that surround the main centrepiece. They’re purposefully condensed on two tiers to show the magnitude of pictures Hockney was able to create in six months but to also allow the viewer to enjoy nature from a different angle. Hockney never used any pencils or pens to create the drawings so it can be argued they don’t qualify to be labelled as such however he’s use of technology isn’t presented as art, like Tracey Emin does with neon signs, he’s using it to create art. Which follows neatly onto the Film Work gallery where Hockney fitted 9 or 18 cameras on his car and crawled through the countryside capturing different scenes throughout the year. It is beautiful, almost Narnia-like when the 3×3 video feed of the Yorkshire landscape in the zestful spring is compared next to a 3×3 feed of the same location, moving at the same pace, of the icy, glittering winter.
Further highlights include Hockney’s adaptation of Claud Lorrain’s Sermon On The Mount which he did after his visit to the Frick Collection, in New York in 2007 as well as the 12ft high paintings of the Yosemite National Park which Hockney cheekily added to an already packed exhibition. Again the curators purposely presented the paintings in a dense space forcing the viewer to look up and admire the scale they’re presented in.
Hockney was recently quoted saying “What this show is, really, is my excitement at a period in my life when I’d gone to a place I thought was familiar (and) found it refreshing.” What we might consider an insipid background, Hockney illuminates the landscape with amazing texture and intensity to which he explains “If you find the subject exciting… then stick with it”. By the end of the exhibition, when you think Hockney can surprise you no more, a large canvas painting hidden behind a wall before you exit stuns you with such an impression that it seduces you to return to gallery one and start the journey all over again.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture will be at the Royal Academy of Arts from Saturday January 21 until Monday April 9. Daily 10am-6pm (Fridays until 10pm), £14, concs available. Images courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts
Review by Vaskar S. Kayastha