As promised in Two Exhibitions: Part 1 on the subject of Lucian Freud Portraits, here’s part two of my day out at London’s biggest exhibitions of the moment – this time David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Now, to be honest (much as I love Freud) this second of the two exhibitions was anticipated with an almost uncontainable frisson of excitement because…, well, I don’t really know how to put my finger on it, perhaps it was the fact that I had come to regard it as something more than just an exhibition but, rather, as a sort of fanfare heralding in a revival of landscape painting – after all, if Hockney can fill Burlington House with landscapes (and doesn’t he just) and then also pack it full of hordes and hordes of people who have come to see them then anything is possible, isn’t it? More than just an exhibition, to me “A Bigger Picture” had already come to represent a turning of the worm!
An appropriate juncture, I feel, to include a brief aside about landscape painting: in the art world, a genre that has been so painfully “out of vogue” for the longest time and for reasons I’ve struggled to grasp or come to terms with – its always struck me as a sort of “throw the baby out with the bath water” side effect of the search for something new or modern in art over the past 40 or so years that it has resulted in this cold-shouldering of the deepest well of art-inspiration that we have, the endless source of visual sustenance that is Nature. For what has felt like a nuclear winter of drabness (a time characterised by an over-focus upon the outpourings of the human psyche) and certainly for as long as I have been painting, landscapes have been the sort of “no-go” subject of the art world. Perhaps I over-embellish but that’s only because I feel so strongly about what has been the bleakest and most over-running of trends – and so it was with a whoop of delight that I stumbled upon Hockney’s comments in the BBC article and interview: David Hockney: Why art has become less back in January because here was someone that people would listen to saying exactly what I have thought for the longest time.
As the article contains a “well said, that man” moment, I would recommend that you read it and watch the interview for yourselves but, to paraphrase, Hockney espouses the view that the above issue has arisen because ” the art establishment (museums, galleries, art schools)” have become”over-enamoured with conceptual art” – in short, and in his own words: “It gave up on images a bit”, a viewpoint I discussed myself last year in a previous post. In a sentence that wouldn’t look at all out of place in that post, Hockney propounds the view that “museums and galleries have jumped too willingly into the unmade bed of conceptual art where lights go on and off in a game of philosophical riddles”. He goes on to say “the power is with images”, and declares that in neglecting them the artworld has diminished the very thing it aimed to protect, which is art. Hear hear, Mr Hockney, I couldn’t agree more!
The other shocking reality – already appreciated by those of us who revere the landscape genre and highlighted by the article – is that a great big moth hole has been allowed to form in the continuum of landscape art for the past half century: whilst the 19th century had Constable and Turner and “John Nash and Stanley Spencer rose to the challenge in the mid-20th Century” there has been no significant patronage of landscape talent by the art establishment ever since; it has been allowed to dwindle as some sort of has-been of the art world. The article makes reference to an opinion that I have often sensed lurking just a millimetre beneath the surface of many dealings I have had with art-people about my own work – the attitude that the landscape genre is considered to be “worn out”. Indeed some galleries that I have approached have been no less disdainful of the fact that I paint landscapes (even without me showing any examples) than if I had announced I embroider buttercups on lace tablecloths. Like Hockney, I have long been retorting to this with “The way of looking at it [the landscape] might be worn out, but the landscape can’t be,” and its just a case of having to look at it in new ways, of not feeling that to paint landscape you must do so after the style of Constable or Turner; like anything else, it has every potential to evolve but should not be cut off in its prime. The advent of photography has radically altered how we perceive landscape art, yes – and also nudged forwards the question as to whether we need it at all – but all of that is just a gauntlet thrown down, a call to rise to the challenge, not a reason to pack up our easels and move on. Again, as I’ve discussed at length before, photography just can’t do what an artist can do – however advanced it becomes – and there is plenty of scope for the painted landscape to soar to new heights.
Fortunately for the whole forward-momentum of this long overdue revival, Hockney has opened his easel up and firmly plonked it in the middle of the Yorkshire countryside that was his boyhood home. Now, I’ll admit that I have never been a great fan of David Hockney’s swimming pools or people in slacks stroking cats which left me cold when they were bandied around the art department at school. However, a documentary about his return to Yorkshire caught my eye about a year ago, then the book “My Yorkshire” made its way into my collection and, from there-on-in, I declared myself intrigued and rather taken with his latest work. There’s something in his style that is not my style to a degree that – yes – I’m not so at-home with his brushwork as I am with Freud’s, to whose style I could easily aspire and yet the subject-matter of his Yorkshire body of work is sufficiently up-my-street for me to feel invigorated and excited by it, even if the painter in me did crave a brush so I could tone-down the use of bright purple or confectionery pink, fill in the patches of unpainted canvas that were dotted here and there or add just a little refinement to the distinctive hawthorn blooms that, to me, just occasionally resemble canapes at a buffet.
In fact the above sounds far more critical than I intend; like any artist, Hockney has his foibles and is entitled to them and so I comment only from the point of view that bright pink countryside won’t be finding its way into my paintings any time soon. Overall, I was “wowed” by the effect of standing in a gallery hung 4 paintings high, 6 paintings wide like a closely-hung chequerboard of what was recognisably my kind of subject-matter, right down to the winding lanes, hedgerows, hay rolls on hills and patchwork green fields. It was like landing in “me land” and feeling vaguely startled to find that it does exist outside of my own head. In fact, I found that the above grid-arrangement of canvases was immediately reminiscent of the thumbnails on the gallery pages of my own website.
Above all, here were Nature’s colours in bucket-loads; a sight so invigorating as to act as some sort of elixir of the soul; there can be no doubt that this body of work is uplifting in the extreme. Just standing in a position where two exhibition spaces could be seen at once, both of them a colour-box of natural scenes, was sufficient to make me pirouette in a sort of frenzy of satisfaction. Hockney succeeds in capturing an essence of so many natural scenes that are second-nature to me as someone who walks in woodland and along country lanes every single day of my life that I felt that I intimately knew these lanes and these woods without ever having stepped into his part of Yorkshire. There were particular views that resonated so strongly that I had either painted something similar already (hay rolls on hills, intense green woodland, tree shadows on snow) or they are in my work-in-progress pile amidst the multiple subjects that I am working on to paint. Most notable was “Late November Tunnel” (I wish I had the picture to show you but can’t even find it on the David Hockney website), one of several paintings of this view across different seasons but resoundingly my favourite because of the way that the left tree trunks have been ignited orange by the low winter sun, a sight so familiar to me that it held me transfixed. My next favourite was the same view entitled “Winter Tunnel with Snow” (above) for the reason that he dares to capture the lime green hue of the trees that, incongruous as it appears, is a sight most familiar to me since, under certain conditions, tree trunks do in fact appear this colour. Perhaps that’s why I sense a kindred spirit in Hockney – at the level where he too has perceived some of the more surprising hues of nature that I love to chase after and is not afraid to express them, which all comes back to painting what you see and not what people expect.
If I’m going to compare with Freud (and having been to both exhibitions in one day then I suppose its inevitable) then there’s an overidding sense of optimism about Hockney’s material that I didn’t find in the former’s work. This optimism hinges on much more than just a profusion of colour, especially the illusive colour green that I discussed in Two Exhibitions: Part One, although use of colour does play a significant part. Inevitably, Freud’s work focusses on the subjectivity of the human experience, on human preoccupations and on the human state-of-mind whereas Hockney gets us all out of there and reconnects us to that which the exhibition is all about – “The Bigger Picture” – something (yes) far bigger than us all and of which we are all part, if only we care to remember the fact. No surprise that – as many have commented – this countryside of his is entirely unpeopled: we people it as we view the work, this is all about our relationship with the natural setting of our own lives, our natural habitat and yet the one to which many of us have become the dispossessed heirs of our own making, choosing to bury ourselves, by and large, in our concrete-built, materialistic, self-obsessed, technology-driven hidey-holes. Here is our wake-up call – hello, remember this, its the natural world that exists all around us, coloured by the seasons, beautiful beyond belief and, quite staggeringly, just waiting there for us all to be part of it once again (and we all are part of it if, sadly, out of touch). Hockney’s images have an extreme simplicity to them, a quality that I kept expecting myself to disapprove of and yet they amply serve as sort of cue-card reminders of the indigenous landscape that I think (or hope) we all carry some sort of cellular memory of, even if it is buried deeply in our subconscious, passed to us through our ancestors or our earliest memories. These paintings lack finer detail but carry sufficient prompts and enough impact, in colours that are often “turned-up to full volume”, to trigger our own minds to fill in all the blanks and so to become engaged in the whole process of experiencing what we see, like a perfect collaboration between viewer and artist. Just as symbols can register meaning in our minds as we take them in, so these images recruit our inner-selves, the residual memory banks of our species, so that we actively take part in the very act of creation and are drawn into, and reconnected with, the “bigger picture” that he depicts. It seems to me that this exhibition couldn’t have chosen a more timely moment – for our health and, probably, our survival as a species – to drag us back from the precipice and into a reconnection with nature (see my related post on this), with the bigger environment of which we are all – necessarily – a part. In my opinion, there could be no more fitting challenge than this for twenty-first century art and a total reappraisal of the significance of landscape art is key.
One of the most distinctive features of this exhibition is the inclusion of images drawn by Hockney using the Brushes app on his iPad. Of course, I’d heard all about these before going along to the exhibition, had seen examples in books and was all very intrigued by the concept. I’d even had a go at doing this myself: a few weeks ago, I was abandoned in the Apple shop as my daughter went off to do her shopping and, newly inspired by having just pre-booked my ticket for “A Bigger Picture” (and having never used an iPad before), I started to “paint”. Pretty soon, I had a half presentable landscape on the screen and a small audience. One man’s opening pundit was “you are obviously a painter” and he stood there entranced as I worked (very rapidly – I found the software instinctive and easy to use, not least because I’m accustomed to using my fingers with oils) and, over the course of almost an hour, the same man returned half a dozen times, finally inviting me to go for a coffee (which I politely declined as I was enjoying myself far too much). Several completed landscapes later, I finally dragged myself away and watched the next person to come along stare quizzically at my efforts before swirling and squiggling all over it, culminating in what looked like the classic smiley face. But the point is that I was sufficiently captivated by the potential to use technology in this way that I was already starting to imagine what I would like to do with it myself and have already found myself on walks mentally “painting” the scene in front of me on the Brushes app; it engages the same skills as any conventional paintbrush. In Hockney’s case, apart from sending 100s of these images to his friends, he has used dozens of them as canvas-sized prints in this exhibition and why not, since they are of much the same ilk as the paintings and their inclusion means another massive display of woodland scenes, lanes, hedgerows, rolling hills, tree tunnels… One small room was bedecked with floor-to-ceiling scaled images of Yosemite National Park, complete with swirling mist behind the pine trees. The use of semi-translucent colour or fade-effects – to replicate mist or create a sense of perspective as the far end of misty lanes or far-distant fields fade off into oblivion against the relief of the much bolder lines of foliage in the foreground – demonstrates one of the strengths of this app as compared to using conventional mediums in that you can determine opacity and take away just as easily as you add. In short, his use of the iPad on this scale is thought provoking and – if audacious – refreshingly experimental. Yet again, there is a sense of what he depicts being simplified, broken down into component parts and the colour being “turned up” but – in a sense – that is no more than I do with my own landscapes, when I take photographs and then turn up their volume on Photoshop before painting them. Perhaps this is where we need to go with landscape art now that we have photography to provide us with all of the mirror-like representations of nature that we could possibly need – it is the artist’s role to add something more to that, a new interpretation or an emphasis of an almost overlooked essence of a place that we have perceived when we have spent time there, a quality that we feel it is our task to preserve and to share. Because to share it is to plant it in the consciousness of many minds and that is the true power of art.
Like most of the work in this exhibition, I found the iPad images far more appealing at a distance and as part of a body of work than at close-quarters or in a piecemeal sense – they work best as part of the overall intention and Hockney’s work is quite literally made for an exhibition of this magnitude. Regarding this whole body of work, put together into one space, the combined effect is quite inspirational and I can only hope that its appeal starts to filter through and infect some of the new blood coming through the art schools as well as the outlook of some of the more cutting-edge galleries that should be leading the way. Ultimately, there is still so much scope for landscape art and this is just one (better known so better received) example of what is possible, helping to lead the genre back into the mainstream consciousness. Whilst I can appreciate his work, Hockney’s style is very much his own: I have no immediate plans to start painting landscapes like his or even nearly so and the last thing we need is a tidal wave of imitators flooding the market. What I carried away with me from this exhibition was much more along the lines of a feeling that – in the nick of time – we have been pulled back from the precipice of doom, that its “all going to be OK, really”, we haven’t forgotten how to appreciate the natural world around us, how to be inspired by it and – as an audience – how to respond to it (the reactions I gleaned all around me were resoundingly positive and everybody there seemed to be having a ball, which is what visiting an art gallery should be all about). I came away uplifted, optimistic and genuinely encouraged by a sense that the future holds a niche – more than a niche – for a painter like me.
A Bigger Picture continues until 9th April at The Royal Academy
- To view more images from the exhibition go to the BBC “In Pictures”
- A Bigger Picture – book accompanying the exhibition, Published by Thames Hudson