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David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture

Published 12 March 2012

By using the latest technology to present nature on a vast scale, the Academician breaks new ground yet again.

  • From the Winter 2011 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    David Hockney RA declares, “The great thing to say is that this is not a retrospective.” He is talking about his forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, A Bigger Picture, and he is absolutely correct. Although a few earlier works are included to provide context, essentially this is the opposite of a career overview. Of course, Hockney has been an enormously prolific and celebrated painter for half a century, and much of his earlier work – the cool images of Californian life from the mid-1960s, the grandly naturalistic portraits of the late 60s and early 70s, the photo-collages of the 80s – has already passed into the art history books. But this exhibition is not about that. It is a more unusual, indeed unprecedented, affair.

    Almost the entire space of the main galleries at Burlington House will be filled with recent work by the 74-year-old artist: much of it made within the past four years, a good deal in the past 12 months. “These are some of the best rooms in London to hang very grand paintings,” he says. “That’s what they were made for, that’s how the lighting was designed. It’s a fantastic opportunity, and I think I’ve responded to it.”

  • David Hockney RA, Winter Timber

    David Hockney RA, Winter Timber, 2009.

    Oil on 15 canvases. 274 x 609 cm. Photo: Jonathan Wilkinson. © David Hockney.

  • Hockney’s recent works are the product of a continuous wave of energy, making discoveries, boldly moving into artistic territory that no-one has explored before – and all from the base of an unfashionable seaside resort on the east Yorkshire coast. With great rapidity, not only has he mastered new digital means of drawing, but he has also developed a novel way of recording landscape as a moving image using nine separate cameras.

    “Since the RA approached me to do this show at the end of 2007, I have made three very large works. At that point none of them was planned even in a very remote part of my head,” he explains. One of these comprises a sequence of 51 iPad drawings, plus one mammoth painting, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) which will form the show’s centrepiece, in Gallery III, the largest, grandest gallery at the RA. “When I agreed to do the exhibition, in 2007, the iPad didn’t exist,” says Hockney.

  • David Hockney RA, The Arrival of Spring (Untitled, 12 April 2011, No.1)

    David Hockney RA, The Arrival of Spring (Untitled, 12 April 2011, No.1), 2011.

    iPad drawing printer on paper. 144 x 108 cm.

  • In the winter of 2008-09, he bought an iPhone, and began to draw on it with his thumb, using an app called Brushes. That year, he started sending a stream of images to the phones and email inboxes of his friends almost on a daily basis. These images were tiny, loose, free and often ravishing. The iPhone drawings were usually of what Hockney could see from his bed – the view through his window, the shutters, the bouquets that Hockney’s partner John put on the window sill. “I draw flowers every day,” he said at the time, “and I send them to my friends, so they get fresh blooms every morning. And my flowers last.” He also used this new medium to depict objects – a candle, for example, and a lamp – that, like the iPhone, glow with light.

    In early 2010, when the iPad was launched, Hockney quickly moved up to this larger tablet computer, and the prolific production of digitally-aided drawings continued: flowers, landscapes, still-life subjects. Towards the end of the year, he began to print them out on a larger scale than the iPad screen.

    Then he decided to fill the biggest gallery in his show with iPad drawings. “The more I got into the iPad, the more I realised what a fantastic medium it is for landscape. There are certain things that you can do very, very quickly using it.” In two seconds, Hockney found, he could establish the basic colour and tone of a sky, and put in some faint clouds in three seconds. He wouldn’t finish the drawing at this lightning rate but he could very rapidly fix some crucial relationships. The iPad is faster than watercolour, in which washes have to dry, or even coloured pencils. And speed counts with open-air landscape art. The paradox of East Yorkshire, as Hockney points out, is that, though the landscape is essentially unchanging, its weather is very changeable, altering the light and colour as the clouds pass overhead and the sun shifts position.

  • David Hockney RA, The Arrival Of Spring

    David Hockney RA, The Arrival Of Spring, 2011.

    Oil on canvas. 365 x 975 cm. Courtesy of the artist/© David Hockney/Photo Jonathan Wilkinson.

  • “In 2011 there was a wonderful spring, and I had planned to record it,” he explains. “We got marvellous snow, the spring was early and we were ready for everything. I had begun drawing the changing scene on the iPad in the New Year, then, when I’d printed out five or six iPad drawings on a big scale, I began to realise, my God, you could do the whole room with this method.

    "As the spring developed I realised that I had to move in closer because it was all about what was happening on the ground. Grasses came up, the first campion flowers, buttercups, dandelions. The greens were building up. I kept going back to the same places.” Eventually, he made 94 iPad drawings, from which he selected 51 for the RA exhibition. Above each will be the date on which it was drawn, and above a huge oil painting on the end wall will be the title The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) – Woldgate being a road in the country outside Bridlington. “I wanted the floating feeling of very early spring, when the first leaves appear. They come out at the very bottom of the trees, and you don’t see very much of the branches. They seem to float,” he says. The sequence of works that will be seen in Gallery III is the culmination, to date, of Hockney’s love affair with the English countryside, specifically with a few quiet miles of the Yorkshire Wolds.

    When the RA exhibition was first proposed, Hockney had already been working for several years in east Yorkshire, with increasing obsession and ambition. After decades spent based in Los Angeles, his attention had begun to shift back towards the terrain of his youth. The result, in the late 1990s, was a series of Yorkshire landscape paintings. At that stage, however, Hockney – who is fond of heat and light – returned to southern California to avoid the dark winter months here. It wasn’t until 2002 that he became captivated by the British spring. At that time he was sitting for a portrait by the late Lucian Freud, and walked every day to Freud’s house from his own London home, through Holland Park.

    Hockney found the spectacle of the changing seasons fascinating, and decided to start working on the landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds, near his house in Bridlington (a comfortable base which was once a small hotel). In a way it was a return to his roots, a landscape of memory. He had grown up in Bradford on the other side of Yorkshire, but as a teenager he had worked in the fields in the Yorkshire Wolds during school holidays. And he would visit his late mother and sister who lived in Bridlington.

  • David Hockney RA, A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March

    David Hockney RA, A Closer Winter Tunnel, February - March, 2006.

    Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth, the Florence and William Crosby Bequest and the Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation 2007.

    Oil on 6 canvases. 182 x 365 cm. © David Hockney / Collection of Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Photo credit: Richard Schmidt.

  • Hockney began this phase of his work by making drawings and watercolours, then painting oils in the open air – like 19th-century painters such as Monet and Constable – standing beside the road in all weathers . His pictures often came in sequences, such as the images of three trees at Thixendale at various stages from winter bareness to luxuriantly full summer foliage. A Closer Winter Tunnel, February-March (2006) too, is one of a number of works showing the same place at different times of year. All this activity culminated in Bigger Trees near Warter, which was painted to fill the vast end wall of Gallery III for the Summer Exhibition of 2007. This picture, some 40 feet across, consisting of 50 individual panels, is perhaps the largest landscape ever painted entirely outside in the landscape. Its subject is a perfectly ordinary copse of sycamores, whose canopy – an immensely complex network of interlocking branches and twigs – opens out above the viewer’s head.

    In the autumn of 2009, Hockney saw the Turner and the Masters exhibition at Tate Britain, which inspired him to make a further exploration of the history of landscape painting. Turner was a lover of light who had worked on the east coast of Britain and, as Hockney points out, “loved spectacular effects” (so does Hockney). The Tate show also focused on Turner’s predecessor, the seventeenth-century painter Claude Lorrain.
    Hockney then went to the Frick Collection in New York, where he looked hard at a little-known picture by Claude: The Sermon on the Mount (c.1656) darkened by time. He returned to Britain in early 2010 with an image file of this picture, producing a version of the picture as, he believes, it would have looked when it left Claude’s studio. It was the starting point for his variations on Claude’s theme, such as The Sermon on the Mount II (after Claude), 2010. This is the background to the second “very large work” that Hockney made with the RA show in mind.

  • David Hockney RA, The Sermon on the Mount II (After Claude Lorrain)

    David Hockney RA, The Sermon on the Mount II (After Claude Lorrain), 2010.

    Oil on canvas. 171.4 x 260 cm. Courtesy of the Artist/ © David Hockney/Photo Richard Schmidt.

  • Many of Claude’s landscape paintings are composed in such a way that the eye is led through a deep recession into a misty distance, sea and mountains, with trees and buildings in the foreground framing the view like the scenery at the side of a stage. The Sermon on the Mount, however, is untypical – which is why Hockney was attracted to it. In the centre is a mass – the mount – with deep space stretching back from both sides of it. Consequently, the eye can choose the direction in which to travel. At the top of the mount Jesus is delivering a sermon.

    Hockney’s exploration of this painting culminates in a large-scale work comprising a grid of 30 canvases painted in oil, called A Bigger Message (2010). In the exhibition this will be shown in the same room as a recent series of iPad drawings of Yosemite National Park in California, printed out 12 feet high. In these – a continuation of his engagement with the landscape of the far west of the US which goes back 30 years – as Hockney says, he was “reaching for the sublime”. Thus the exhibition ranges from hedgerows to mountains, from the close-focus intimacy of Constable to the majestic vistas associated with Turner (both of whom, of course, were greatly influenced by Claude).

  • David Hockney RA, Untitled (Woldgate)

    David Hockney RA, Untitled (Woldgate), 2010.

    Oil on canvas. 609.6 x 365.8 cm.

  • On one level, Hockney notes, his RA show is mostly about England. On another, it is concerned with what he has called, quoting Van Gogh, “the infinity of nature”. His recent work depicts a corner of Yorkshire, a tiny area that he is examining as obsessively as Monet did Giverny. But it is concerned with how in that microcosm you can discover the macrocosm – the endless variety of the natural world. This new work also continues his preoccupation with how human beings see, and – a slightly different matter – how they see pictures. Earlier on in his Bridlington period, Hockney spent a day drawing leaves and grasses in a Japanese sketchbook, after which he said he could see them, “much more clearly”. So the more you look, the more you see.

    Large recent paintings such as 2010’s Untitled (Woldgate) have looked equally closely at woodland undergrowth, but on an epic scale. The painting of The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) presents a similar visual paradox. It is immense, but even when seen from a distance it brings the viewer very close to objects that are actually small: the jagged blue-green leaves of nettles, yellow-green grasses. What Hockney is doing in this picture relates to abstract expressionist painting of 50 years ago. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman used large canvases in order to change the terms on which we look at pictures.

    A smaller oil painting is like a window, through which we peer at a scene. A bigger picture immerses the viewer, inviting us to relate to it with our whole body. Imaginatively, we are inside it. In his very large works, Hockney is doing something similar to Pollock, but doing it with real places and objects, and on an even larger scale. Bringing us closer, putting us inside the picture. This ambition, in turn, is connected to his long love-hate struggle with photography. His objection to photography, as he has frequently stated, is that it pushes the spectator away and doesn’t show you enough. This brings us to the third very large work Hockney mentioned, which again, he hadn’t even begun to ponder four years ago: films made using several cameras simultaneously. In the exhibition there will be a room devoted to these films, made using nine high-definition cameras and shown on multi-panelled screens. These depict just what the paintings and iPad images show: the landscape and quiet roads of the Yorkshire Wolds. One recent, very beautiful sequence, in which the cameras were mounted along one side of a slow-moving jeep to film grasses and wild flowers along the verges of a road, was made specifically to help Hockney with his oil paintings.

    “The technology does not come in a kit,” he points out. “We had to piece it together ourselves bit by bit.” Eventually, he and his team of assistants came up with a system of cameras mounted on a 4x4 vehicle, with a monitor in the back, so that Hockney could “draw” the image by adjusting the angle and aperture of each camera. The result is a kind of moving picture never seen before. Why nine cameras? The answer, in a nutshell, is because they make a larger picture, in every sense, than the single-lens view of conventional film and photography. Clearly, human eyes do not see in the same way as a single camera lens does. The nine cameras make up a more ‘fluid lens’ which creates a picture more like the world as we actually see it. One example in the exhibition is the sequence of multiple film stills November 7th, 2010, Woldgate, 11.30am and December 3rd, 2010 Woldgate, 11.30am. It’s a multiple image, in which there is no single perspective – because there are nine different angles of vision. It’s a picture that allows the viewer to choose which way to look, and in which they are surrounded by an extraordinary abundance of detail.

    So that is the message from Bridlington to the 21st century. The world, every corner of it, is full of infinite interest, and it is possible to see it freshly – in a bigger and better picture.

  • David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture 21 Jan - 9 Apr, 2012.

    Martin Gayford is Chief Art Critic for Bloomberg. His latest book is ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ (Thames & Hudson).

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