Art: David Hockney, A Bigger Picture

David Hockney’s infectious enthusiasm is abundantly on show in this exhibition, centred on colour, repetition, and sheer enormous scale

-James Piper

Winter Timber, 2009, oil on canvases (36 x 48″ each)

As an exiled northerner living down here in the big smoke, I feel an almost obligatory respect for Bradford born David Hockney. Fortunately his latest exhibition at the Royal Academy, A Bigger Picture, confirms that this respect is most certainly due.

There’s no denying Hockney’s infectious enthusiasm. Despite a long and remarkably prolific career stretching back to 60s, this is no retrospective. The older pieces on display serve to contextualize and inform an abundance of recent work produced over the last ten years. Indeed, if there is one word to describe this exhibition, it is abundant.

Having left Bradford in 1959 to study at the Royal College of Art, Hockney soon went on to leave the grey charcoal skies of England for the sunbaked highways and luminous swimming pools of Los Angeles. The second gallery sets the scene; two brilliantly dreary sketches of what could be any grim northern town are promptly left behind by the wild and surreal Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape, culminating in a huge depiction of The Grand Canyon spread across a jigsaw of canvases. The inadequacy of a single canvas is a recurring theme throughout the exhibition. In his insatiable quest for a ‘bigger picture’, Hockney is forever seeking new ways to do justice to the raw and unmediated experiencing of ‘seeing’.

After hearing of a close friend’s terminal illness, Hockney returned to Yorkshire in 1997. He began painting the Yorkshire countryside, taking as his subject the rolling hills and winding roads that lay between his mother’s house and his friend’s deathbed. These stylized, hyperreal landscapes somehow avoid sentimentality in their vibrant immediacy. Produced from memory, they don’t suggest the passing of a golden era so much as they reveal an active and lively imagination.

Hockney’s later paintings of the Yorkshire countryside, of which there are many, are produced from direct observation. From an early set of charming watercolours through to the giant oil paintings he is famous for, there is evidence here of an almost obsessive love for the landscape of his youth. It is as if he has stumbled across something he hadn’t seen before and is feverishly striving to pin it down. Perhaps it’s a discovery that radiance and colour is not limited to the exotic and can often be found closer to home.

Just as Cézanne painted Le Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over again, seeing something new in the scene each time, so too is Hockney captivated by the effect of the changing seasons on particular spots of the Yorkshire countryside. One gallery is devoted to seven huge paintings of Woldgate Woods, all depicting the same viewpoint at different times of the year. The result is striking and expertly diverts attention away from the recurring objects in the scene, towards the extraordinary variations in light and contrast cast on these objects by the differing weather conditions. There are echoes of Van Gogh in the enormous Winter Timber, with its vivid purple foreground set against brooding blues and greens, and of Monet’s Water Lilies in the sheer size and presence of the paintings. Having earlier rejected the camera as a representational device, Hockney doesn’t seek to relay the facts of a scene, but the visceral impression it leaves on the viewer.

Not all the pieces on display are successful. In their quest for scale and magnitude some of the paintings lose out on texture and detail, seeming a little crude upon closer inspection. Also, Hockney’s experiments with the iPad, whilst demonstrating an admirable vitality and openness to new forms of expression, are given a little too much prominence. No amount of technological wizardry can replace the sight of paint on canvas; physical evidence of the artist’s thought process, which can’t ever be attached to an email.

However, these flaws are a testament to Hockney’s sheer energy and constant drive to renew his work. In both its successes and failures, this exhibition astounds.

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