2 February 2012

David Hockney at the RA

So bad is the economy round here that even the second-hand bookseller has been having a sale – all stock £2 – so I bought a copy of David Hockney’s paper pools, published in 1980 when he was 43. This is an account of his experiments in a workshop near New York with compressing brightly coloured paper pulp to produce swimming pool images composed from six (three by two) or more sheets. As well as pen and ink drawings of his co-workers, the book includes photographs of the processes involved, taken with colour Polaroid which had become popular in the 1970s.
Hockney is an enthusiastic adopter of technology and around 1980 made use of collages of multiple Polaroid images (“joiners”) for portraits and landscapes. In the late 1990s he put considerable effort into investigating the use of cameras obscura and other optical devices by the Old Masters, although the arguments he advanced in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge, remain contentious. Most recently he has taken to using an iPad with the Brushes app.

In the last ten years many of his works have been landscapes, particularly of his native Yorkshire. In the winter of 2005/06 I saw his Midsummer in East Yorkshire 2004 (made up of six by six works) on display at Somerset House. This met with a slightly condescending reception from the critics, for example, Serena Davies in the Daily Telegraph:
… although 2004's summer was one of exceptional heat, one distrusts the effect here: everything seems a little overexposed, steeped a little long in Hockney's pot of nostalgia. … these are images painted with consummate ease, but they don't strike one as works of genius. Pretty, decorative, joyful, not a lot more. It's a struggle to see them as a call for watercolour landscape to be taken seriously: they are too personal. But if they are left as something humbler - an artist nearing 70 painting what he loves - they are delightful.
and Caroline Boucher in the Observer:
Never one to stand still stylistically, David Hockney, having dismissed his photographic phase as too limiting, spent the summer of 2004 in his native Yorkshire painting watercolours. The irony of returning to this most traditional and neglected of English painting traditions will not have been lost on him.
So here they are, 36 equally sized pictures displayed on one wall in neat rows of six. We can see from the little video playing on the opposite wall that Hockney painted both plein-air and from the front seat of the car, that he used mixed paints from pots and quite often smoked at the same time.
… They're lovely watercolours from a talented man, but if one came up in an auction next year, you'd be hard pushed to recognise it as a Hockney.

Hockney moved on to oils and the RA Summer Exhibition in 2007 gave a wall over (above) to Bigger Trees near Warter, or/ou Peinture sur le Motif pour le Nouvel Âge Post-Photographique, made up from 50 canvases. The current RA exhibition, David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, is largely given over to his Yorkshire landscape works, but frames these with some earlier and some very recent pictures made in the USA.

Winter Timber 2009 (oil on three by five canvases)
I preferred the 2004 watercolours and the oils from a year later to some of his latest, larger and more brightly coloured works (at the extreme, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), described as an oil on 32 canvases … one of a 52-part work - see the RA banner above). The preparatory charcoals on paper (Big Trees near Warter, 2008) demonstrate Hockney’s skill at drawing. His variations of Claude’s Sermon on the Mount are perhaps best-regarded as an opportunity to observe the way in which he explores one of his enthusiasms, and to envy the energy he brings to bear on them in his 70s. But I’m not sure any digital technique can remove black from an image (of the fire-blackened original in the Frick), as the RA description states, without some human judgement as to its replacement. Some of the enlarged iPad prints work better than the others, as might be expected when a new medium is being explored. Again, Hockney is generous in allowing the public to observe him undertaking the hard work of innovation, rather than providing a polished fait accompli.

Most of the critics seem to be more enthusiastic about this show than the two above were six years ago. I don’t always accept Brian Sewell’s views in the Evening Standard (for example his acerbic opinion of Grayson Perry at the British Museum) but I can see why in this case he takes the stance he does. The reservations expressed by Andrew Lambirth in his Spectator review certainly deserve consideration. There is an argument for putting Hockney in the mainstream of British landscape painting as the comparison below with the Harold Gilman, (in the Exeter museum, SW England) suggests.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture continues to 9 April and then moves to the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (May to September) and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne (October to February 2013). Tickets are £14, full price, but the RA has ensured that the exhibition is not over-crowded.

My Anticipointment Index rating (out of 5, the lower the better) is 4, perhaps 3 recognising the quantity of work displayed. There has been much advance coverage of this show (on BBC1 in particular) and David Hockney seems to have acquired ‘national treasure’ status, together with his OM and CH, which probably exempts him from the expression of criticism.


David Hockney is now back in California - post here.


  1. I have been working through many of the art works that Hockney has created in the East Yorkshire countryside by locating them in the real world. Many of them can be found at http://www.yocc.co.uk

  2. Talking about art exhibitions, it is certainly impossible to forget about David Hockney, a renowned Artist from British.

    Offer Waterman & Co.

  3. Thank you for your comment - I quite agree and wish I could afford to buy something by him from your gallery!