David Hockney’s exhibition A Bigger Picture at The Royal Academy blew me away.
I have loved Hockney for 33 years, not just as an artist, but for his curiosity and intellect, for investigating the boundaries of seeing and perception, and for just being a bloody nice human being. He sticks to his righteous and honest principles, works hard and gets stuff done. I like that.
The show starts with four giant colourful canvases – one for each season – of a landscape featuring three trees near Thixendale in his native Yorkshire. It’s a taste of what’s to come; the rolling East Yorkshire landscape obsessively observed. The views he chooses are not chocolate-boxy, they are quite ordinary: the edge of a cornfield, a pile of logs, a puddle in a muddy farm track, some thistles at the roadside, some trees. And he makes them majestic, which is actually, if we choose to look a bit harder, exactly what they are.
This is a lesson Hockney learned from Vincent van Gogh. In this show, Hockney’s ‘inner Vincent’ hangs out more than ever before; in the marks he makes, the confident way he applies paint and his love of bright, some might say gaudy colours. He seems to have picked up precisely where Vincent left off in 1890. And why wouldn’t you follow The Master?
It’s taken Hockney’s whole 60-year career as a painter to get here. The swimming pools and sparkling Californian sunlight are gone, in favour of a simpler joy: the joy of contemplating the natural world.
I gasped at A Bigger Grand Canyon. And it’s a whopper: smaller canvases tiled together to make one huge sweep of saturated reds, colours thumped down thickly. Stand close to it – it’s huge – and you are overwhelmed as it fills your field of vision, exactly as you are when you stand on the south rim and look north towards Utah. Jaw-dropping.
And then we get back to Yorkshire. If you think what you’ve seen so far is good, then this takes it up a gear.
One room displays 36 watercolours and more smaller oils than I could count, all done from life, each one taking not more than a couple of hours at most. So pretty, so ordinary, so simple, so plain. They make your heart sing with joy.
And I think that’s the secret. It’s visual plain English. There’s nothing fancy about what he’s doing, he’s just saying it how it is. So refreshing. He doesn’t get bogged down in detail, although his observations are highly detailed. Instead, he just gets on with the job. No fiddling. See it, paint it, move on. Confident. The result is simple genius.
Hockney has always loved experimenting with new ways of seeing and new technology. And so when he discovered he could make pictures more simply than ever using first his iPhone, and now his iPad, it was a revelation. The iPad seems to help him focus on observation, drawing and colour even more clearly and the technology allows him to work swiftly – with astonishing results.
The arrival of Spring
In a gallery called The Arrival of Spring, there are 51 drawings made on his iPad, charting the same few humble locations over the course of 5 months. Seen together they glow in the prettiest greens and pinks and blues and culminate in one gigantic oil painting made up of 32 canvases nearly 10 metres long and 4 metres high. The effect is of pure joy!
Not everything in this show gets my vote. The sequence of paintings of the flowering of the may bushes doesn’t always work for me. The feeling I got was of trees with infestations of caterpillars or some freak gone crazy with squirty cream. But this is more than outweighed by the epic series of Woldgate Woods through the seasons. Study them hard, dear reader, and you’ll never look at a tree in the same way again.
The paintings carry no overt political messages. Except that they do. They just don’t shout them. There are no shopping malls, consumer goods or pop culture. Hockney, one of the founding fathers of British pop art, has rejected pop culture and ask us to look at what really matters: the landscape, the seasons, the simple pleasure of the natural world. I think that’s a pretty big and important message.
For any generous benefactors out there, can I just say I really, really want an iPad with a drawing stylus. It’s my birthday next month. Given my previous paragraph, this statement may contain traces of irony.
Want to see more Hockneys? Check out his website. The show is on until 9 April 2012.