Issue Number: 95
David Hockney RA has just completed his biggest ever painting, a vast open-air landscape. Martin Gayford visits him in Yorkshire to ask how he did it, and why he thinks art should engulf us
On Good Friday this year, in the company of a small group of travellers, I went to visit a warehouse on an industrial estate in Bridlington, East Yorkshire. The object of our pilgrimage was not this nondescript structure but the painting that it briefly sheltered. There, on the far wall, hung the largest picture that David Hockney RA has ever created – perhaps the most sizeable ever to be painted in the open air. This was a first for the artist, who had never before seen his entire work assembled together.
David Hockney RA at work on ‘Bigger Trees near Warter’
The painting is massive. It is made of 50 small canvases, adding up to an area measuring 40-foot wide by 15-foot high. The subject is what you might call the ordinary English countryside: a small copse of trees, with another in the background, and one large sycamore in front, spreading its network of branches above your head. To the right is a house, to the left a road curves away. In the foreground, a few daffodils bloom. The work is the solution to a problem that perplexed and defeated many of the great painters of the nineteenth century: how do you paint a mighty canvas outside, en plein air? To make the work, Hockney has employed the most up-todate digital technology, in addition to the most old-fashioned – the human hand, arm and eye.
It will soon occupy the space it was designed to fill – the end wall of the grandest gallery at the Royal Academy. This is not the largest oil painting that has ever been made; that distinction is usually accorded to Tintoretto’s Paradiso in the Doge’s Palace, Venice. However, it has little in common with an ordinary, easel-sized canvas into which one looks as though into a small window. So enormous is this picture that the experience of looking at it is like standing in front of a real tree. As Hockney says, ‘it engulfs you’.
The immense painting, as the artist explains, has developed out of the work he had been doing previously in Bridlington, where he has worked for almost two years in the quiet surrounding landscape. There, he has painted nine large scenes of the countryside, each made up of six sections.
When he returned to his home in Los Angeles, California, for a break last February, he took with him a digital photographic reproduction of all nine works – 54 separate canvases. He put it in his bedroom and simply looked at it. ‘Then I realised it was possible to make a single picture that size in the same way that we had done the others – using computer technology to help you see what you are doing,’ he says.
‘I thought it would be enormous, but it would be good on the end wall of the largest gallery at the Royal Academy. I had found a way to do an eye-catching landscape for the Summer Exhibition,’ he jokes. ‘It was quite a challenge.’
That idea came to Hockney six weeks before the day we stood in that warehouse. The first three had been spent organising the project. ‘The logistics were complicated,’ he recalls. ‘Among other necessary preparations, a special rack had to be constructed, capable of storing 12 wet canvases. Otherwise, where on earth do you put them?’
The artist spent time just looking at the subject he was going to paint. ‘I would go and sit there for three hours at a time, just looking, lying down practically so I looked up.’
The subject of the Big Picture is one of several spots in the landscape west of Bridlington where he has been working. It consists principally of an immense net of interconnecting twigs and branches. That is what Hockney was gazing at so hard, as he contends it is only by looking very long and hard that you begin to understand what you are seeing. ‘A picture this size just has to be of certain kinds of subject. Nature is one, because there is an infinity there that we all feel.’
Then, he began to make drawings, which weren’t detailed, because he didn’t want to make a painting that was simply a blown-up drawing. He used the drawings to locate where each canvas would go in the composition. The painting itself was essentially done in one breathless, three-week sprint that left Hockney’s assistant, Jean-Pierre Goncalves, looking exhausted and the painter himself exhilarated. Both had grown beards; as a result Hockney slightly resembled Cézanne.
‘The painting had to be done in one go. Once I had started, I had to carry on until it was finished. The deadline wasn’t the Royal Academy. The deadline was the arrival of spring, which changes things. The motif is one thing in winter, but in summer it’s one solid mass of foliage – so you can’t see inside and it’s not as interesting to me.’
Executing a big painting outdoors was a project that gripped several nineteenth-century artists, Constable and Monet among them (the latter had a trench dug into which his Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe was raised and lowered, so that he could work on different parts of the surface). For Hockney, as for Monet, the most crucial difficulty of painting a huge picture outside was the problem of stepping back, in order to relate each part of the work to the rest of the image. However, that was soon solved by digital photography, in conjunction with computer technology.
As Hockney worked, his assistant constantly photographed what he was doing and then fitted the images into a computer-mosaic of the whole picture. This enabled Hockney to step back, albeit in virtual space, so that he could see what he was doing. However, the artist certainly didn’t want to create a photographic look in the final work.
Hockney looking at part of the completed work for the first time in a warehouse in Bridlington
‘A photograph couldn’t show you space in this way. Photographs see surfaces, not space. I had in my head a kind of anti-photographic painting – such as a Chinese scroll painting or a late Picasso – in which the marks are all visible and boldly made with the arm, the shoulder, even the whole body. I said to my assistant Jean-Pierre, I think I’ve found my true scale.’
Close up to the surface, the painting consists of quick, free, calligraphic brushstrokes. Hockney has been painting ever more rapidly in recent years but never with such verve as he does here. He combines the virtues of the on-the-spot study, its speed and immediacy, with the carefully considered monumentality of the studio picture. That dichotomy was familiar to Van Gogh and it has now been overcome by the high-tech means used by Hockney.
‘Technology allows us to do all kinds of things today, but I don’t think anybody previously has thought that it could help painting. A great big landscape, on a big wall – that’s what the Royal Academy should be encouraging,’ he enthuses.
Perhaps that will be the theme of his lecture this summer, ‘The Royal Academy in the Post-Photographic Age’. Hockney’s assistants had produced a couple of mock-ups of the picture hanging in that room. One work was entitled A Bigger Picture, the other was called A Bigger Sensation. There are lively references in those two cheeky phrases: first, to Hockney’s 1967 pool painting, A Bigger Splash, that lent its title to a documentary film in 1974; and second, to the Royal Academy exhibition ‘Sensation’ of 1997, which launched the Young British Artists. In the end, he has decided to call it Bigger Trees Near Warter. Yet, whatever the title, the painting opens up a wider, more spacious visual world that Hockney believes is beyond the scope of photography. It is the bigger picture that interests him.
Bigger Trees Near Warter is on show at the Summer Exhibition 2007, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts (020 7300 8000), 11 June–19 Aug