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.