February 12, 2012

           The Bigger Picture: The Paintings of David Hockney

The Arrival of Spring Woldgate (2011) David Hockney
Bravo Mr Hockney. In this latest exhibition 'The Bigger Picture'  at the Royal Academy which is on a grand scale, there are a lot of trees. Trees become symbolic, almost mythic, but also literal, whether as stunted barks, or vigorous slender columns of strength, or just as chopped and piled up timber- they are all so closely observed that you begin to get a glimpse beyond the surface to feel the presence of trees. What Hockney tells us about trees only the trees can say, but what is really on show here is the optical phenomenon of scale and size and how it relates realistically to human perception. Yes, it is obvious. But no one has laid it out so clearly as Hockney.

He takes you through the changing aspects of vision through the human eye, the way focal points are dynamic and changing, and you become aware of the peripheral visual intake at the same time as forming a 'whole' picture. Somehow all of this perception knowledge condensed into several canvases stitched together. He achieves this control of the whole by using digital technology, as some pictures would be too cumbersome to do on location, or even in a studio. Some are made up of 50 canvases, locked together which could be exhibited smaller assembled sections.

Woldgate Woods (2006 )David Hockney

The paintings are huge, and so vivid, because so expertly painted, they linger long in the mind after seeing them because Hockney looked intensely hard at each woodland scene. What a prodigious talent, and ability to shoulder a lot of hard work was my thought on passing through the galleries at the Royal Academy. One wonders whether artists like can Damien Hurst and Tracey Emin can actually paint with a brush since that is not the skill they focus on, just more cerebral idea play.  I'm not against conceptual art, but this restores faith in the old eye-hand-brush method and the subtle revelations it still has to offer. Of course it is derivative. Hockney is the first to acknowledge his debt to the masters. 

There is a lot of Monet here - Woldgate woods is Hockney's Garden at Giverny. That's a standard comparison, but to my mind there is hommage to Vlaminck as well as Derain and Matisse, the trio of the Fauves, but with this modern twist of scale and optical realism. He's still taking their first experiments that bit further. I am reminded of Proust's comment "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking landscapes but in having new eyes". Hockney helps us to put these new lenses on.

If you get the chance to actually stand in front of the paintings, and there are hundreds of them on view, then do so. Stand further back and you can see the 'whole' vision. Stand closer to the paintings and you see the almost pixelated blotches - they look a mess. This is what impresses, finding the point, the position at which the parts 'gel' for the eye. There is a then a delight in looking. The other thing I note is his 'accessibility'. You overhear lots of grey hair blue-rinse ladies, and pot-bellied, wispy-haired men, whom one might be forgiven for thinking are not interested in art,  talking ponderously about landscape painting, totally absorbed, and making very informed comments about his use of water colour, or his expert brushwork. In fact one of my students commented 'why are there so many old people here?'  But he speaks to everyone. His possesses that rare gift of making the complex accessible and passing it on to the rest of us ordinary folks of whatever age or level of interest in art.

There are different types of cleverness and Hirst and Emin are clever indeed, and even admirable, but Hockney's cleverness, reminds us that simple is even greater. It is larger and more encompassing. It is not just the paintings but his studious, methodical, hardworking approach to studying what he sees, that has translated to film work as well. He's hit on an innovative way to make films recreate the actual perception of the eye.The film of a dance uses 16 different cameras and includes his old friend 'Wendy' Sleep. 

What does not work for me is Hockney's version of Claude Lorrain's Sermon on the Mount (1656) from the Frick. The inclusion of figures- and even Jesus- seems contrary to Hockney's well established fustinarian credentials. After all, Hockney is the one inviting us all to continue smoking and to defy the ban. If ever there was a Yorkshire contrarian is is him. It just seems against his nature, and the studies here  would best have been excluded from the exhibition. I understand the need to experiment, but it was an extra  layer of soapbox message, Hockney can do without. One of the most intriguing works is 'The Grand Canyon' (1998) which hits you viscerally with its panorama of magenta, puce, and vibrant humming orange glows and sandy tones.

The Grand Canyon (1998) David Hockney

I have never been a great fan of landscape painting, apart from liking a few Impressionists and post impressionists, and how they capture fleeting light, but 'The Bigger Picture' makes me want to begin looking all over again at trees and woods and farmlands and seeing them in this light. I always did see them this way, so as mentioned to a friend, it is nothing new, alas, but if his paintings trigger a desire to paint or even just to see the world more 'wholly' in others, it  can only be a good thing.

David Hockney: The Bigger Picture 
Till 9th April, 2012.

--> ©  Kieron Devlin, 2013 All rights reserved



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