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Around the galleries

David Hockney's biggest pictures

— February 2012

Associated media

David Hockney Winter Timber, 2009 Oil on fifteen canvases 274.3 x 609.6 cm overall Private collection

Exhibition: 'David Hockney: A Bigger Picture'

David Hockney wants us to be engulfed and encompassed by the space in his Yorkshire landscapes. In this magical exhibition, he mostly succeeds, says Alette Rye Scales

The overall impression of ‘David Hockney RA. A Bigger Picture’ is an explosion of colour – not the kind one would normally associate with Yorkshire landscape, but the rich, vibrant colour Hockney first used in his iconic Los Angeles paintings. 

The artist, who left England for the sunnier and sexier climes of Southern California in 1964, visited his native Yorkshire regularly. Having long noticed the way the light constantly changes in the countryside, since 2004 he has spent most of his time painting near his house in Bridlington on the East Yorkshire coast. 

With his Californian colour palette he has been recording nature’s changing seasons with obsessive zeal.  Above all, this is manifest in the paintings of trees. Trees standing tall and trees cut down.  Hockney is clearly passionate about trees, and the spectator can feel alternately uplifted and overwhelmed by the sheer size of these magnificent paintings.  Of course, this is the effect Hockney is after.  He wants us to be overwhelmed, even to feel enclosed and encompassed by the space in his landscapes and, in the best of the works on show, he succeeds.

Where one might have expected a retrospective exhibition from a 74-year old artist, this is instead a hugely ambitious show of new work. Eleven galleries display 150 works. As well as huge composite (multi-canvas) oil paintings, there are watercolour paintings, charcoal sketches, iPad ‘paintings’ and multi-perspective film and in several cases, the works have been specially carried out for this exhibition. Hockney is a fast-working and prolific artist, whose sketchbooks, on show here, bear witness to his exceptional skills as a draftsman and his extraordinary powers of observation.  

The exhibition starts in the Academy’s octagonal room with four large, rectangular paintings of a row of trees on the edge of a field in Thixendale, painted from the same vantage point at different seasons from summer  2007 to autumn 2008. This is hardly an original idea, but reflects Hockney’s reverence for Monet’s later work, which has undoubtedly influenced him.  The stylized treatment looks forward to the orderly, near-obsessive method of recording the seasons that characterizes many of the Yorkshire landscapes to come.  

In the second gallery, we are reminded of Hockney’s earliest landscapes. Two small gloomy but accomplished views, one of a corner in Ecclesfield and one a view of a Yorkshire field, painted while he was still a student at Bradford College in the 1950s, help to explain the artist’s desire for escape to America. The effect of California and its light had an enormous impact on Hockney’s style.  The gigantic, composite painting A Closer Grand Canyon from 1998, also in this gallery, consists of 60 smaller canvases in which the reds and oranges seems almost tangible and warm and the space curiously real.

Hockney’s device of creating huge paintings by joining together several smaller canvases not only creates visually stunning images, but is practical, as it enables him to move his pictures about and paint everything himself en plein air before the motif. 

The first Yorkshire landscapes from 1997–8 in gallery 3, painted from memory, are rather gaudy in colour, and to my mind, this is the least successful section of the show.  But it immediately picks up in the next series of galleries.  The first revelation is the series of 36 closely observed and beautiful small watercolour landscapes from 2004.  These are the result of Hockney’s first attempt at tackling the difficult medium of watercolour, which he may have found too slow for his fast hand, so in 2005 he painted a series of 26 bigger landscapes in oil.  These feature beautiful, undulating roads and rolling hills at various times of the year, painted, one feels, with true affection and with perspectives that draw one into the landscapes. 

Although the exhibition is arranged chronologically, it is also divided into themes, revealing the way Hockney becomes fascinated by a subject and spends a long time painting it again and again before moving on to new things. One of my favourite groups of landscapes in the show is the set of seven large composite paintings of the same view of Woldgate Woods, painted from May to December 2006.  The view is of a quiet location in the woods where two paths intersect.  Here, Hockney has recorded the effects of the change from early spring and cool summer to glowing autumn and dark winter.  These landscapes possess an authenticity and sometimes lyrical quality that impress itself on the spirit.   

Likewise Winter Timber, 2009, a large composite painting of a pile of cut timber lying on a side of a track on which two groups of tall, dark winter trees converge. The perspective of the track draws one into the landscape, which seems authentic despite its magical quality and the strong purples, green and oranges.  Hockney would argue that these colours are there, we only have to look better. The painting is one of a group of pictures of felled and cut trees, all of which are carried out in similar, deliciously strong, dark colours.  The contrast with the several beautiful charcoal drawings of the same motif that hang in the same gallery is delightful.   

In gallery after gallery one finds oneself enveloped by and drawn into Hockney’s magical world of landscape: through the fabulous series of hawthorn bushes, both bare and heavy with blossom, and the so-called tunnel, a narrow country lane flanked by trees in different seasons, until one arrives at the centrepiece of the show.

This is the gigantic ‘The arrival of Spring in Woldgate East Yorkshire’, which adorns the main wall in gallery 9. It is composed of 32 smaller paintings and was painted specifically for this exhibition.  It is a huge and spectacular close-up view of the lower part of two converging lines of trees, painted in a stylized manner, much like a theatrical backdrop.  The spectator needs to stand well back in the gallery to take it all in.  The eye is led into the middle ground of the painting, in which the trees seem to be rooted, by a path that stops there, which lends the image a slightly uncanny feeling. The overall impression is both magical and theatrical.  

All around the walls in this gallery are paper reproductions of iPad ‘paintings’, or ‘drawings’ as Hockney prefers to call them, of Yorkshire landscapes.  The fact that there are no brush strokes in these images does not worry me.  I find them delicate and beautiful and the colour palette every bit as good as that of his watercolour paintings. Hockney’s iPad paintings are totally innovative and as a tool for a fast draftsman, the iPad has become indispensable to the artist.  Hockney watches the changing light obsessively.  He rises at 4.30 a.m., having already recorded the view and the light through his window on his iPad before getting up.  The great thing for him is also that he can flick back to earlier drawings on this new electronic tool.  As if to demonstrate what can be done with the iPad, one of the last displays in the show is in a small gallery, lined all round with four floor-to-ceiling paper prints of iPad paintings, made on a recent trip to the Yosemite Park in the USA.  Ranging in tonality from clear blues, whites and reds to a purplish grey, these are truly stunning images.  

On another recent trip to New York, Hockney became intrigued with the landscape painting,  ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ by the French 17th-century painter, Claude Lorrain (Frick Collection).  He obtained a digital reproduction of it; computer enhancement enabled him to see what the colours would have looked like when fresh.  One gallery in this show is dedicated to his ‘transcription’ of the painting.  On the end wall hangs the huge composite painting, carried out in very bold, almost garish colours. 

On the sidewalls hang various colour sketches and smaller paintings in different styles of the same subject.  Two of the best seem influenced by Picasso’s late style, and as such can be seen as a tribute to the Spanish artist, which is somewhat curious in the present context.  Even though Hockney’s large version of Claude’s painting is skilfully carried out, I found it unmoving, despite the subject.  Hockney has insisted it is not a religious painting and explained that what drew him to it was the unusual depiction and depth of the space in the original work. As such, he felt it belonged in this show.

Hockney’s most recent enthusiasm, the films he and his technical team produce with the use of a nine-camera device mounted on a truck, is revealed in the penultimate gallery, designed as an open cinema. Here we can sit and reflect quietly while two surprisingly peaceful and beautiful nine-perspective films of a wooded landscape in different seasons rolls on side by side before our eyes.  With the final, small gallery containing a number of fabulous sketchbooks and iPad drawings in their original size, almost as an aside to the exhibition, the cinema experience seems a fitting end to an exhibition that delights the senses and powerfully reveals the modernity, energy, inventiveness and pure artistic skill of a man who can surely be counted amongst the very greatest modern artists.  



Alette Rye Scales
Art historian

Media credit: © David Hockney, Photo credit: Jonathan Wilkinson

Editor's notes

David Hockney RA. A bigger picture’  is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London until 9 April 2012
Sunday – Thursday 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (last admission to galleries 5.30 p.m.)
Friday 10 a.m.–10 p.m. (last admission to galleries 9.30 p.m.)
Saturday 9 a.m.–10 p.m. (last admission to galleries 9.30 p.m.)
*Except 18 February and 17 March (10 a.m.-10 p.m.)
NEW: Open until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 February, excluding the final, Easter, weekend

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