A Bigger Picture

hockney woldgate woodsView larger picture

 Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 and 29 November 2006, by David Hockney

I went to see the new and enormous David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy in London earlier this week. I was not quite sure what to expect, but I went with a fair degree of cynicism. I rather thought it would be over hyped, over blown and over here; a man who had made the journey to Los Angeles, made a bigger splash, and had nothing much more to say.

I left perhaps left cynical but certainly more confused. The overall, first impression of the exhibition is very positive. It oozes energy and enthusiasm, and it elevates the spirit, or at least it did mine. But then the closer you looked and the more you think about what you had seen the more doubts emerge. In summary this is a big, bold brash exhibition of landscape paintings. There are hundreds of works, many at a huge scale, all very accessible and leaping with bright colours. It is joyful.

But ….. well, first of all you feel that Hockney must have become a prisoner of the exhibition title – A Bigger Picture. And perhaps a prisoner too of the offer to have the whole building devoted to his work. There are far too many pictures in the exhibition and some of them are far too big. To create a picture 15 metres long is a quite enormous undertaking which would take most artists years. Hockney has overcome the problem by abandoning detail – it is simply a smaller picture scaled up. You are left wondering what is the point. Secondly, there are lots of smaller works and working studies which simply do not justify exhibition. Thirdly there is a lot of repetition in the work.

All that perhaps sounds like reasons not to go. Please don’t take it that. There are some individually marvellous work in this exhibition. Seek those out and enjoy them. Personally I would like to go again so that I could do that more properly than was possible on a first visit where the sheer six and scale of pictures is frankly overwhelming.

David Hockney's 'Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007'

Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007

The first room of the exhibition is perhaps the best. It consist of four landscapes – large by most standards but modest in the context of the rest of the exhibition – each of the same row of trees in the four seasons. The pictures are well executed and overall effect is delightful. It sets you up with a very positive feel about what is to follow.

The next room provides a brief retrospective of his landscape painting, stretching back to then he was a student in the 1950s. This is a good reminder of how his style developed and includes the substantial Mulholland Drive, the Road to the Studio, 1980, painted in Los Angeles. The scale of this picture, the fauvist intensity of colour and the manipulation of space and scale makes it an excellent preparation for the pictures which follow.

After that is a series of his first Yorkshire landscapes painted from memory in 1997 after a long period in Yorkshire with a long term friend and supporter who was dying. Interestingly these pictures were painted from memory, as opposed to much of the later work which was painted from direct observation, en plein air. My own view was that the distance from the subject and the consequent requirement to draw on memory and imagination enriches the paintings and makes these some of the strongest in the exhibition. Certainly they have a strength of colour, and intensity of painting and a developed, stylistic interpretation that the later pictures do not match.

Hockney returned again to Yorskshire around 2004 and the next part of the exhibition shows many o his intial watercolour and oil sketches from that period. These are of course working, observational drawings, not completed works. And many of them were, frankly, banal; they look like the summer exhibition of an effective local artistic society. I think it was a mistake to give them so much, if any, space. If we read a great book, we do not really want to be distracted by his early drafts; by defintion they have been developed and made obsolete by what follows.

What follows is a series of rooms of current work, organised by theme and growing in scale by room. The last room, the largest space in the Royal Academy is dominated by a picture 15 metres long, truly enormous.

Some of the big pictures work well and would serve as the centrepiece of an exhibition or collection. Sound of them, as I said above, were scale up well beyond what the contents of the work could sustain. I found I was almost overwhelmed though by the sheer number and scale of works. Battered by the huge pictures I was drawn more and more to the charcoal drawings which served as initial studies and are hung with the main pictures. These were universally delightful and reminded us that Hockney can draw very well indeed. These charcoal drawings are worth an exhibition in their own right.

Also shown in these rooms are a number of large prints taken from illustrations Hockney developed in his iPad. Given the medium these were remarkable works and I can certainly see that as a tool for capturing a quick momemnt the iPad serves well in the hands of a master. I felt though that the result prints were noticeably more sterile than the other work; they didn’t quite do it form me.


David Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009

Winter Timber, 2009 
 At that point, you might think that the exhibition is over; I certainly thought so. But turning into another room the exhibition actually took two different turns. The first was a room dedicated to Hockney’s reworking and interpretation of Claude Lorrain’s The Sermon on the Mount (1656). I found his studies decomposing the original and his result reworking of the picture interesting but the final result like an overblown illustration from a children’s bible story; saccharin sweet and candy coloured. But the way the picture was populated by people and livestock listening to the sermon reminded me that in all his landscape paintings there were no people, animals or birds; you are reminded that his landscapes are colourful but sterile.

Finally the last room is dedicated to his video work. It was noticeable that this room was packed with people. I think it part because it was a welcome opportunity to sit down after the exhaustion of absorbing such a large exhibition, but also because the videos, taken from a a grid of cameras moving together slowly through the landscape were pleasantly restful and contemplative after the bursting energy of the earlier work. Whether that makes them interesting or important, I am rather less sure.

All in all, this is an exhibition which will, I am sure, be talked about for years and for that reason alone is well worth seeing. It is not perfect and it is almost overwhelming but there is enough there to justify a visit.

By the way, if you do plan to attend, book ahead and go early in the day. By the time we left at 12 o’clock the queues were very long and Royal Academy stuff were fully committed to polite crowd control.