David Hockney: A bigger picture


Upon entering the galleries of David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, viewers are transported from the concrete and crowds of London to the rurality of the Yorkshire Wolds. The exhibition consists of more than 150 landscape works depicting the landscape of Hockney’s home county, East Yorkshire. The majority of these large-scale pieces were created within the last ten years, especially for the prestigious galleries of the Royal Academy.

The opening paintings of Three Trees near Thixendale immediately introduce Hockney’s preoccupation with the seasons, reinforced by their cyclical positioning within the Royal Academy’s rotunda. This interest in nature’s transformation of the landscape is evident throughout, but resurfaces most powerfully in the series inspired by Woldgate Woods.  Hockney uses saturated, fauvist hues to capture the warm vibrancy of summer. This is juxtaposed against the muted palette of winter, with feathery brush marks defining the skeletal trees.

As the titular epithet suggests, this exhibition is all about scale. The viewer is engulfed in the gargantuan landscapes of Hockney’s seasonal series.  Yet the collective impact of his small-scale observational paintings is equally impressive. Although lacking individual polish, these pieces provide an insight into Hockney’s immediate response to the landscape.

It has been suggested that Hockney’s turn towards the traditional genre of landscape marks a retreat from the radical innovation of his earlier work. Depictions of the Yorkshire Wolds do seem a far cry from his iconic LA swimming pool scenes, such as A Bigger Splash. Surely this is to be expected of a septuagenarian who has returned to the rural Yorkshire of his youth?

Yet the landscapes of David Hockney: A Bigger Picture are not totally devoid of this youthful exuberance. Paintings of the Grand Canyon from the 90s are used to contextualise the landscape focus of Hockney’s recent body of work. The burning colours and claustrophobic picture space create an inescapable intensity. This intensity, although less obviously transferred to the idyllic Yorkshire landscape, is most evident in the Hawthorn Blossom paintings. The explosive blossom, eery shadows and Van Gogh-like swirling skies result in a series of intense, almost uncomfortable, images.

The later rooms of A Bigger Picture further undermine the notion of old age conservatism through documenting Hockney’s recent experimentation with technology. This includes a showcase of more than 50 iPad drawings from 2011. Hockney has controversially hailed the iPad as an alternative to the traditional sketchbook; the device allows him to record his immediate response from direct observation of the landscape. Critics argue that anybody can create ‘nice pictures’ with this technology. Yet having experimented with the iPad’s ‘Brushes’ app myself, to little avail, I was able to fully appreciate Hockney’s mastering of this new medium. Whilst I considered the iPad drawings a group of schoolchildren contentedly sketched from them, demonstrating the modernity and accessibility of this new medium.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling that the appeal of these works relies upon their use of fashionable technology. This was reinforced by the lacklustre impact of several enlarged iPad drawings of Yosemite Valley. The digital quality of these images rendered them as decorative storybook illustrations. In comparison to the usual energy of Hockney’s work, these iPad works seemed somewhat lifeless.

Following on from the iPad drawings lies a room exhibiting Hockney’s use of film. Nine cameras were attached to his jeep so as to capture multiple perspectives when moving through the landscape. This venture was inspired by Hockney’s almost cubist belief that a single flat image can not replicate the experience of a place. The fragmented composition of these films inspired the grid that demarcates many of Hockney’s large-scale landscapes.

The traditionalist landscapes of A Bigger Picture are interspersed with Hockney’s adventurous experimentation with scale, colour and technology. However, the most striking aspects of the exhibition are Hockney’s personal attachment to the Yorkshire landscape and his appreciation of its transformation by nature. The purity of these sentiments goes some way towards explaining the exhibition’s immense popularity.

As I exited the Royal Academy, the queuing time for David Hockney: A Bigger Picture had reached a hefty two hours. A ticket officer explained that opening hours had been extended to midnight during the exhibition’s final week to accommodate demand. The Royal Academy is showing David Hockney: A Bigger Picture until 9th April, and I strongly encourage Durham students to pay it a visit this Easter.

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