2012 is the year of the big names and the big shows that will pull in the punters and the RA has hit gold with one of their own – David Hockney RA. This is the first ‘countdown event’ for the London 2012 Festival and advance ticket sales have reportedly already outsold their van Gogh exhibition.
David Hockney, Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 and 29 November 2006, oil on six canvases. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is the first exhibition in the UK to showcase Hockney’s landscape work, a genre with which, until a few years ago, we would not have readily associated this artist. Hockney has always been innovative – famous for his ‘portraits’ of boys with Californian swimming pools in an idealised gay aesthetic. His works are recognisable – he shows LA as a landscape of pleasure and sexual freedom with cloudless blue skies and idealistic fantasies. His raunchiness has long gone and his recent work is far more mainstream and conservative, more acceptable to many audiences; he has returned to the area around his hometown of Bradford and settled down. But maybe his work hasn’t changed as much as we initially think – yes, the subject matter may be different but the ideas, use of colour and idealism still underlie the canvases. Hockney has tricked us with his change of aesthetic focus.
David Hockney, The Road across the Woods, 1997, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
So, here we have a Hockney exhibition that is a display of vivid paintings inspired by the Yorkshire countryside. This is not simply a show about nature, although the theme may lead us to believe it is. It is an exhibition about the importance of an artistic tradition and the British landscape.
Walking into the Royal Academy, you are instantly engulfed by Hockney’s work. So much so, that the use of a room with multiple doorways means visitors don’t actually know where to start from. My advice is head to the right. Once you’re in Room Two you’ll find that curatorially the show flows like a dream. The wall colours change in almost every room, often successfully alternating between deep red and putty grey (which is a surprisingly nice colour).
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Own photograph.
The second gallery contextualises the exhibition, looking at landscapes from earlier in Hockney’s career, showing how he has always been a landscape artist. Hockney has a skill with colour and, while landscape may have been present earlier in his career, this is still fairly a dramatic shift in subject. Many of his works are made up of numerous panels, reflecting the dominance of nature and A Closer Grand Canyon from 1998 comprises 60 stunning canvases. Due to its vastness, the Grand Canyon is not an easy subject for any artist to tackle but size has never scared Hockney. This painting extends the boundaries of the conventional landscape genre, focusing on the depiction of space and the experience of being within such a space at one of the most spectacular vantage points.
David Hockney, A Closer Grand Canyon, 1998, oil on 60 canvases. Own photograph.
I adore Hockney’s landscapes so, for me, this exhibition is generally a delight. They are beautiful works that can’t help but make you smile; Hockney’s exuberant use of colour creates bright, happy, idealistic paintings. The recurring motifs of idealism and the importance of colour still pervades Hockney’s work.
Moving around the exhibition, the dense hang, in Room Four, of the paintings from 2004-5 reflects the unusual smaller scale of these works and, here, it’s possible to really get a sense of Hockney’s passion for his re-discovery of landscape. Hockney has become extremely well-attuned to the natural world, studying seasonal changes. Continuing this progression, Room Five is the first of four consecutive galleries devoted to a particular subject or motif, often the same place at different times of day. It is fascinating to study the scene in its different guises.
David Hockney, A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March 2006, oil on six canvases. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
Despite Hockney’s nod to a tradition of British painting, one of the most distinctive elements of the show is his new iPad works where he is able to celebrate the new and enliven the old. Now I’m not particularly adept on any Apple product but Hockney certainly is. At 74 years old, Hockney has re-invented a tradition using his iPad as an electronic sketchbook and the stylus as his new paintbrush. He delights in the immediacy of the medium but retains the hallmarks of his style to very different effect; the painterly skill he has achieved using an App is impressive. This is apparent when comparing his iPad works to his painting, which reveals a bolder composition and use of mark-making.
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) – 2 January, iPad drawing printed on paper. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
The iPad works document the changing season, recording the transition from winter to spring along a small Roman road that leads out of Bridlington. Filling the central room, all these works form The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)which comprises 51 iPad drawings and one large painting made from 32 canvases. This gallery is stunning; light and airy, there is a deliberate sense of theatricality where the viewer is centre stage, surrounded by drama and change, engulfed by the natural landscape. Hockney has applied his obsessive energy to this new medium and this project, designed with these rooms specifically in mind. The iPad works all have dates on the walls next to them so that we can follow Hockney’s journey. He scrutinises the natural world and nothing passes him by. The works in The Arrival of Spring are strong because they are a group. Whether the paintings would retain this impact individually cannot be assessed here but, in this configuration, they are gorgeous.
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), oil on 32 canvases, Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
To leave the exhibition, you have to pass through Hockney’s reflections on Claude. The less said about these the better. Inspired, by the spatial effect seen in Claude’s Sermon on the Mount, Hockney has made a life-sized transcript and a number of studies exploring Claude’s geographical compression of space. These are bad and unforgivable, a sad way to end a beautiful show. I actually walked round again and exited through the front door so that I could end with a feel-good factor.
David Hockney, The Sermon on the Mount II (After Claude), 2010, oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
One of the final rooms in the exhibition presents a bank of screens – multi-camera footage of Yorkshire mixed with interior films and motifs from Hockney’s paintings. The videos have been filmed simultaneously using nine and eighteen cameras, fitted on customised cars, providing a spell-binding, immersive experience. Once again, Hockney enjoys pushing technology to its limits, playing with a medium with which we think we are familiar.
David Hockney, Nov. 7th, Nov. 26th 2010, Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am and 9.30 am, film still. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
Critics say Hockney wanted to get away from his recognisable signature style but, although now concentrating on a different subject, these works still retain everything that has always been important to the artist. The exhibition is about the importance of seeing and of observing and studying change. Hockney’s commitment to the landscape is evident by the close study necessary to produce some of these works. The exhibition also includes a number of drawings showing Hockney’s dedication to the fundamentals of his art. Sometimes the colours can be a bit garish and some of the works aren’t quite as good as others but, more often than not, they are beautiful – simple expressions of the joy of the natural landscape. Hockney transforms what, from any other artist, may be polite works into spectacular visions of England, filled with energy and life. Hockney’s work is ahead of its time, answering questions that have not yet been asked.
David Hockney, Under the Trees, Bigger 2010–11, oil on twenty canvases. Courtesy of the artist and via www.royalacademy.org.uk.
The exhibition is immense with more than 150 works, the majority of which have been created in the last eight years. It’s a wonderful show; Hockney is now considered the greatest living artist – he’s brilliant, the British public love him and why the hell not!
David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is at The Royal Academy until 9th April 2012, www.royalacademy.org.uk.