David Hockney at the RA – A stroll through the countryside without any defining moments
The dials of the huge London PR machine have been whirring noisily in anticipation of the David Hockney blockbuster show at the Royal Academy of Arts. Suddenly the charismatic British artist, complete with broad Yorkshire accent, white beret and a cigarette rebelliously hanging out of his mouth, has been on the front of every paper and magazine. For a new show of his work, simplistically titled “A Bigger Picture” has come to town, hailed as a key event of the Olympic year, as the living artist is practically unique in having the whole mass of the Royal Academy’s huge main galleries turned over solely to him. And the incontrovertible fact is, yes, these new paintings are very, very big. But as the wise (or just disappointed) often remind themselves…size isn’t everything. For poor old Hockney, stuck in the frenzied efforts of an ageing artist faced with the Herculean task of filling the RA space with largely new works created in only a handfull of years, this much-lauded artist has fallen foul of yet another well known adage: quality, not quantity.
The exhibition started well. Once we had passed fairly swiftly through a gallery containing four landscapes of the same three trees in Thixendale, each painted in the four respective seasons, we entered a gallery paying retrospective homage to Hockney’s pre-2000 landscapes, starting with his magnificent burning orange rocky illustration of the Grand Canyon, and moving on to his Yorkshire landscapes completed when he moved back to the area from a long spell in LA (see above). I really enjoyed these works. With their bold but reflective colour scheme and rolling hills (which reminded me of my own Tuscany painting) they were pleasing on the eye and original in their composition. From there, we moved into the first of a long line of huge galleries all of which, as it turned out, contained pretty much the same image repeated countless times during different seasonal changes and from slightly altered viewpoints. The first wall was like a tapestry of small oil paintings which, as a set, worked well. They were pleasant to look at – like seeing a slideshow of countryside views all at once. However on closer observation of any specific canvas, it was clear that the works lacked in painterly technique - despite being painted outside, from observation, and at speed, Hockney does not capture the light or the complexity of the landscape in the sensational way that that other great outside painter, Claude Monet, did. In fact, for the most part, Hockney’s brushwork looked decidedly lackluster, even childish.
Thereafter we were met with a strange sensation of déjà vu as we walked form painting to painting, from one room to another. They are all paintings of trees. Lots and lots of trees. He hasn’t just painted forests, but with wall to wall forest views he’s managed to create a 3D forest in each of the galleries… perhaps that was the intention. Trees on single canvases, trees on multiple canvases stapled together, trees on film, trees on his iPad. Trees. That is not to say they weren’t pleasant, and scenic, and all the other niceties one can throw at them – but there was nothing striking, nothing remarkable. It was like bring on a stroll or a drive through the countryside. You look around you and think: the scenery is beautiful. And as you move on, you continue to be impressed by the subtle changes in the landscape all around you. But nothing really stands out. It just makes for pleasant surroundings. That was this exhibition – pleasant, samey and oh so repetitive.
There was one distinguishing feature of course – but it’s nothing new for Hockney. It’s his fragmentation of all his big paintings into lots and lots of little canvases. In a way it probably makes them easier to paint in smaller spaces, more economical to travel, and more practical when the size of the walls available at the RA demands huge canvases to fill the space. But on so many occasions, Hockney was painting at a scale when a complete one-piece canvas would have done the job. But still he would insist on painting the scene across several canvases, even though they would then be stapled and framed together (thus obviating the benefits of smaller canvases considered above). The effect of this fragmentation of the canvas space was, for me, distracting, not least when Hockney had not even lined up the image over the canvases properly, so one tree trunk would start somewhere else in the adjacent canvas. To me, all these harsh deep edges, grid-like across the painting, felt a little violent as they jarred with the organic, living and breathing landscapes captured in the painting.
Nonetheless, the biggest distraction of all had less to do with Hockney’s compositions and much much more to do with the vast multitudes of people all around us. The place was packed – and this was a Friends’ preview day. Overcrowding has been the cause of much grumbling amongst the RA Friends, who after all pay a rather hefty annual subscription for these rare privileges of private views and the odd discount. In an attempt to alleviate the squash, the RA has started allocating Friends entrance times (causing further grumbles) but despite this, the RA clearly over-allocates for the space available, and as a result not only was every room packed tight but there was a vast queue to even enter the show. This cram did not dissipate at any stage, right up until the shop at the end, where people where fighting over postcards, swiping catalogues within an inch of another customer’s nose and losing all semblance of social etiquette in aggressively pushing their way to the till.
This crush meant that the very point of the exhibition was a flop. For big paintings require a wide berth to be given before each painting so that one can stand back and consider the work from afar. But no such luck for us, pushed almost with our faces against the canvas, so what was visible more than anything was Hockney’s rather coarse brush strokes, rather than the intended over all effect of the whole. This was not, at least, a problem with the much talked about iPad pictures of which there were some 60 or so. These were blown up (and printed) quite substantially, but lost none of their precision in being so inflated – this was great news for the audience who could appreciate the iPad image from both close up and from a distance, all without pixilation disturbing the effect. However, disappointingly, because the works weren’t shown on iPad themselves, the whole point of this new digital medium was lost, since the images lacked the background luminescence which they would have boasted when created in their original form.
The final part of the exhibition did at least introduce some diversity. Hockney’s relentless study of Claude’s Sermon on the Mount resulted in a series of parodies. These made for a refreshing change – like finding a well lit path again after trawling through a dense forest. The biggest reproduction was particularly impressive. Having said that, Hockney has not added much to his reimagining of Claude’s work, only making it a bit lighter and more colourful. It’s a far cry from Picasso’s reworking of Velazquez’s Las Meninas for example, where he not only poked fun at the original, but brought so much of his own original style into the frame.
Hockney concludes the exhibition with a series of films of, yes, you’ve guessed it, trees (amongst other things) captured concurrently using 9 or 18 cameras. Such was the cram in the cinema-laid out room where they were being shown that I could get nowhere close, so in fairness to Hockney, I will comment no further.
In conclusion then, this show is like a refreshing stroll through the countryside on one of those days when the sun is out, and the first signs of Spring are breaking through after a frosty winter. But like all walks, you get tired quite soon, and the beauty of your surroundings quickly fade as your attention is swallowed up by the aching in your feet and the realisation that upon walking so far, you have the same distance to cover in order to get home again. There’s too many trees and too many people. Moreover, there is an overall feeling that the works have all been a bit rushed in anticipation and realisation of the scale of the show. Size isn’t everything, but clear away the crowds and you may just be able to appreciate the quality of the wood from the quantity of the trees.
All the images contained on this post are the copyright of David Hockney.
Written content is the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012.
- Brit Art is the main focus of the UK’s 2012 exhibition diary (normsonline.wordpress.com)
- David Hockney-mania overloads Royal Academy website (telegraph.co.uk)