Published  23/02/2012

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

The Royal Academy of Arts, London
21 January–9 April 2012

A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney
by Martin Gayford. Thames and Hudson, London, 2011


"Depend upon it, the love of nature is deeply implanted in man: at least the pursuit of it is almost a certain road to happiness".1
John Constable, 26 April 1826.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy provides a feast of colour in mid-winter, and a sense of optimism in bleak economic times. All advance tickets until March have been sold, and it is forecast to be the most successful blockbuster exhibition in London, challenging Leonardo da Vinci at the National Gallery and the Royal Academy’s previous record-breaker last year, The Real Van Gogh in its popularity. The critics have been less enthusiastic than exhibition attendees: “garrulous, gaudy and repetitive”; “There is no emotion, no sense of awe or melancholy. It is all things bright and beautiful, all the time” (Laura Cumming)2. Janet Street-Porter, however, described the show as “stupendous”, Brian Sewell predictably though “ranted about the ghastly gaudiness of Hockney’s vision”3 and Adrian Searle thought: “It all becomes a sort of slurry.”4

The career of David Hockney is one characterised by paradoxes, with a curious mix of tradition and innovation, of childlike simplicity and a sophisticated range of art historical knowledge and reference. Few artists today have systematically tried and tested media and technology in the pursuit of an intelligent engagement with the history of art, as Hockney. Tim Barringer points out, “It is appropriate that the student provocateur of the early 1960s, who courted controversy in the Chatterley Ban era with bleached-blond hair and with the legibly homoerotic imagery of his work, should today be a Royal Academician and the author of a scholarly treatise; an old master for the postmodern era".5

The Bigger Picture is the first major exhibition in the UK to show case David Hockney’s landscape work. Vibrant, large-scale paintings inspired by Yorkshire landscape created especially for the exhibition are exhibited alongside drawings that display his supreme skill. The effusive colour experienced in California where he lived for 30 years, has it seems formed an internal palette and led to a heightened experience of the English landscape, characterised by the remarkable seasonal diversity, largely absent in California. Defiance can be read in the prodigious outpouring of work by David Hockney in his seventies, as he confronts his own mortality for although he has attracted unprecedented popularity, he has also experienced the death of many of his close friends (AIDS in the 1980s, old age) and as an expatriate Englishman in California encountered an outsider-cum-celebrity status.  Indeed these aspects have only served to strengthen his life-affirming message. Hockney’s work delivers an obstinate celebration of his adaptability, of enduring friendship and a refusal to be drawn into predetermined notions of taste or fashion. Landscape, or Nature comes to represent all that is sacred, imploring that we must value Creation and in environmental terms ensure the survival of planet Earth. In artistic terms Hockney’s experimentation and enthusiasm for technology (from photography to the iPod) is given full rein, and he emphasizes the importance of his doing it himself.

Sadly denied an interview with this most popular living artist means that the writer could not attempt to explore or glean ideas from the man himself, but following my attendance and surrounded now by the fruits of other people's interviews, I would argue for and not against this dramatic and controversial show. What surprises me at this stage is how very critical the press have been, and yet how genuinely touched recent attendees were by the exquisite palette in the wall of iPod drawings, for example, and the inventive formal organisation of the picture plane. It seemed irrelevant whether the man next to me, visiting with his mother to celebrate her birthday, was “academically qualified”, or a “natural colourist” (he was in fact, a florist) for the pleasure was not superficial, and what a great thing that the Royal Academy could be enjoying brisk trade and long queues whilst all around boutiques and stores were empty. I have long wondered about the effect of Hockney's Christian upbringing, how his mother's Methodism translated into daily life; whether the sensitivity and determination to sing the praises of creation, in his seventies, in this surge of outpouring, has its root in a love for both the minutiae of nature, and also the grand project. In “The Road Less Travelled”, the fine catalogue essay by Marco Livingstone, he explains Hockney’s approach to working out in the open, in Yorkshire, as requiring “such dedication for so many years has made him extremely sensitive to the qualities of every season, of specific times of day and a wide variety of weather conditions, and to the opportunities that these offer to the painter intent on conveying his delight in the infinite renewal and beauty of nature”.6  Often preferring autumn or winter days to sunny and warm conditions, Hockney is able to delineate branches and twigs, the minutiae in nature. When capturing the fleeting beauty of Hawthorn bushes in May, which he refers to as ‘Action Week’, he works at speed, imbuing the work with the certainty that this ephemeral experience will recur the following year. Approaching the spiritual in art, Hockney’s daily acts of creation find parallel with the Biblical or theological notion of Thought for the Day, which when pieced together, seek the bigger picture, namely God’s Creation and His teachings for the Good Life. In the context of Hockney’s recent work, each day’s work, during every season reiterates life cycles that refer to eternity. The preoccupation with landscape as emblematic of the human spirit, in the artist’s seventies indicates that the spiritual is indeed sought, through an affinity with place. These are issues that allude to the unknowable, mysterious aspects of life. Livingston writes:

Painting nature through these years has accentuated Hockney’s appreciation of life itself. Each picture becomes a kind of prayer of thanks to nature and to the life force. He understands better than anybody that these sentiments are entwined with his childhood in Bradford (a 64-mile drive away in West Yorkshire), with his first teenage experience of the Wolds in East Yorkshire as a farm labourer in the summer months, and especially with the recent passing of his mother, to whom as an unmarried son he was intensely attached…On his [regular] visits he would take his mother out for drives into the countryside, on the very roads on which he has now been travelling regularly on his painting excursions. The importance of a sense of place, defines the specificity of these pictures and of the locations they memorialise.7

The final hang might arguably have improved the final effect, if some 20% fewer works had been included, not only because there is a degree of repetition, but because the walls with the biggest individual works such as, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire (2011), oil on 32 canvases, each 91.4 x 121.9 cm, are difficult to appreciate among the crowds from within the gallery space itself. Focusing on fewer works can lead to a greater understanding of the skill. His apparent addiction to making images, involves the necessity to maintain a resolution with his mortality, to live life to the full, work intelligently with a team, embrace technology and assert the importance, the supremacy of making with one's hands and mind. Two of the biggest works: The Arrival of Spring (referred to above) and Winter Timber (2009) were made using such a dramatic and saturated palette, that sunglasses might have helped the more easily affronted. Yet these are the two works that have been used to promote the exhibition.

The Royal Academy exhibition of recent landscape paintings begins with a small selection of landscape paintings, from the 1950s to the 1990s, indicating the multiplicity of methods and media used by the artist throughout a long and productive career. Some of these methods appear contradictory: “Broadly speaking, one can distinguish three major strands: works made from the motif, works made from memory and the imagination, and works made through the lens or with the assistance of other optical and technological devices.”8 Hockney's first experience of painting en plein air was when, as a student at Bradford School of Art, he painted the city and nearby landscape such as that at Eccleshill, which became a harbinger for his return to painting his native Yorkshire in the 1990s. It was as a student in London and at the Royal College of Art, (1959-62) that he developed his recognisable style, establishing a reputation as a most accomplished young artist.

Landscape became a strong aspect of his work in Los Angeles, where he lived from 1964; whilst travelling he made quick sketches, and fabulous large paintings such as Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990) and A Visit with Christopher and Don, Santa Monica Canyon (1984). He also made commissioned sets for opera, where large scale was required. In the RA show, the works on a vast scale, made on smaller canvases, such as, Bigger Trees near Warter or/ou peinture sur le motif pour nouvel âge post-photographique (2007) captures what the eye sees but which a camera cannot capture. Made up of 50 canvases of the same size, Hockney's massive painting was painted in the open air in situ, although it was necessary to use a computer to see everything at once. All 50 canvases hung together reveal Hockney's great technical skill and fascination with technology itself. It was on the strength of this painting, so beautifully installed in the 2007 Summer Show, that the Royal Academy invited David Hockney to stage an exhibition of his recent Yorkshire landscapes in its Main Galleries in 2012. The Bigger Picture on show this winter is the dramatic consequence.

The intensely coloured Californian landscape paintings, and the large Grand Canyon works are a precedent to the recent amplified Yorkshire works, a synthesis of observation and memory, saturated colour and spatial configuration, giving the impression of physical, intellectual and emotional travel. Hockney's fragmented perspectives in these key works were established by his using photo collage (1982-86), which works themselves grew out of a dissatisfaction with its “limitations in representing in two dimensions the physical reality of three-dimensional objects in space”.9 He was also influenced by Chinese art: “A lot of my early paintings are just isometric: that means they have no single vanishing point. I always thought it was better. It was an intuitive feeling, but I was well aware that isometric perspective was Japanese and Chinese. At that time I used to think that Far Eastern pictures were all the same, as you do when you don’t know much about something. But I was always interested in their perspective.”10 Hockney admits to blowing hot and cold towards photography, throughout his career. After his extensive research for Secret Knowledge, Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (2001),he was completely opposed to using photography, preferring instead the direct expression of drawing. Here his wide knowledge of art history comes into play, plus an original, eloquent mode of expressing his thoughts. Two of his favourite draughtsmen are Rembrandt and van Gogh:

I think van Gogh was one of the great, great draughtsmen. I love the little sketches in his letters, which seem like drawings of drawings. They are condensed versions of the big pictures he was painting at the time, so that Theo and the other people he was writing to could understand what he was doing. ..  Those early drawings of peasants are incredibly good, technically. You really feel volume, get a sense of the body and the texture of the fabric of the clothes they are wearing – and yet they transcend that, because the empathy is so strong. But technically they are as good as any drawing you’ll ever see. Rembrandt could do that too. You feel whether the clothes his figures are wearing are ragged or refined cloth, even if he has just used six lines. With a truly great draughtsman, there is no formula. Each image is something new. It is in Rembrandt, Goya, Picasso and van Gogh. You never get a repeat of a face in Rembrandt or van Gogh; there’s always something of the individual character.11

Indeed, in the 2004 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which Hockney curated, with Allen Jones (reviewed for Studio International), he asserted the supremacy of the drawn image. His views though, have modified over several years, and he is immensely impressed to have all stages of his work photographed by his assistant, Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, now making a remarkable archive of over half a million images. A new-found respect for the digital photograph prompted him to make digital pictures himself, that could then be manipulated and reassembled on his computer screen. “Transfixed by the intricate and infinitely varied configurations of the branches on the trees that had become the object of his greatest attention, he used a very high definition camera to photograph both individual trees, and groups or rows of them. Digitally manipulated so that the artist's hand once again humanises the otherwise mechanical vision of the camera, the resulting images were printed out in a variety of sizes. The most impressive of these, in the form of several friezes of the trees lining the main road not far from his studio, were shown at the 2010 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition”.12 A further development of images captured from a moving vehicle can be seen in Hockney's remarkable video works since 2010, showcased in the RA exhibition for the first time.

Regular visits to his mother in particular, in Yorkshire enabled Hockney to maintain a strong dialogue between his American life and his formative years as an artist. In 1997 he returned to England as one of his greatest friends Jonathan Silver was seriously ill; he visited him frequently in Wetherby, just west of York, from his mother’s home in Bridlington, and on the car journey he effectively reinforced observation of the beautiful Yorkshire landscape. Livingston observes that without these regular trips to visit Silver (who had long pleaded with Hockney to paint the Yorkshire landscape) before he died, “it is questionable whether the artist would have considered returning to Bridlington to paint that same part of the country with such passion, commitment and intensity”.13

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is accompanied, by an impressive catalogue, with excellent essays by Marco Livingston, Margaret Drabble and Tim Barringer published by Thames and Hudson. In this important study Marco Livingstone explores Hockney’s bold departure within the context of that 60-year career, while Margaret Drabble, Martin Gayford and other contributors address such topics as the artist’s place in the landscape tradition, especially his influence of literary ideas, on British art, and his ongoing use of new technologies. Hockney himself reflects on his recent work. Thames and Hudson have also published, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, byMartin Gayford thus offering a superb insight into the artist’s views on a wide range of subjects. Gayford has written and edited the text, of conversations over 10 years, with great scholarship and affection. It is a rewarding book that elucidates the creative work and the complex act of looking. Together with the catalogue, Conversations makes a great contribution to scholarship on the artist and his highly original art practice.

Margaret Drabble makes numerous fine observations about art and poetry and their relationship in British art to nature. Also from Yorkshire, she has an acute sensibility: “We know that the places of our childhood draw us back and that we return again and again to the fields and the woods and paths that made us who and what we are. Many painters and poets and novelists, like swallows and pigeons, have a homing instinct. The memory of place is built into our genetic code. Artists and writers are identified with landscapes, landscapes with artists and writers. But Hockney's rediscovery of his natal regions has a unique resonance, and his work of the past few years is an exceptionally strange and vivid manifestation of the power of the spirit of place.”14 Although somewhat out of fashion, landscape for a large part of the 20th century was not at the forefront of art practice, and yet it is an abiding interest of artists. Constable’s words in 1836 are contemporaneous today: “There has never been an age, however rude and uncultivated, in which the love of landscape has not been in some way manifested. And how could it be otherwise? For man is the sole intellectual inhabitant of one vast natural landscape.”15 Where artists and poets have historically chosen to capture the passing beauty of nature, and in doing so ponder the loss of petals and blossoms, and so their own mortality, Hockney mindful of his own mortality to be sure, celebrates nature and the passing seasons, with the powerful conviction that it will return, a year later. Drabble asserts Hockney's departure from the British tradition of landscape:

British poets and novelists, language-bound, veer towards solitary melancholy, towards dimness and wetness and foreboding and wildness and wilderness: the Brontës, Alfred Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, Ted Hughes. Painters more often seek the light and the sun. They disloyally take off for the Mediterranean, for Spain, for Tuscany, for California, and in England they sometimes form societies or coastal colonies from which they take their names…. the spirit of place as manifested by the St Ives Group is very different from the Hockney spirit of the Wolds. Few of its artists were Cornish-born, and their clustering was not inspired by the place itself. They were Cornwall-based, but Cornwall was not necessarily their subject.16

Hockney's homecoming asserts a total loyalty to the place in which he grew up, but with a celebratory verve, and lack of nostalgia. In his press conference at the Royal Academy last November he made several overt references to the fact that for him as an artist, the beauty of Yorkshire was largely due to it being so under-populated, thus enabling him to work without interruption. It would be very sad indeed, if a surge in tourism in Yorkshire prompted Hockney to move on. As Gayford observes,

He is a natural communicator, a ready and charming talker. This is one of the reasons, in addition to the power and accessibility of his work, why he has lived from quite early in his career in the public eye. By the late 1960s he was a star, and famous far beyond the art world. He had achieved a dubious position, which he once described as “the curse of popularity”. To function as an artist, he needed time and quiet; space in which to think and draw. His solution has been to create a small community around him… more in the manner of a Renaissance or Baroque master with assistants.17

Steeped in tradition, David Hockney’s landscape works are at once a look back at history and a speculative search into the latest technology of new ways of seeing. As homage to the enduring beauty of the painting of Claude Lorrain (c.1656), Hockney made a series based on the series The Sermon on the Mount. Xavier F. Salomon has described the detailed process that led to Hockney to pursue his love of Claude;18 most recently the Tate exhibition, Turner and the Masters (2009), led him to embark on these works based on the scene from the Gospel of St Matthew (5, 1-11) where Christ, “seeing the multitudes, he went up to a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him”. Claude’s landscapes are characterised by acute observation of nature, and a rare poetic sensibility. With Annibale Carracci and Nicolas Poussin, he was one of those who envisioned an, “ideal landscape”, thus aspiring to an Arcadian perfection. In naturalistic, geographical terms The Sermon on the Mount by Claude is a combination of the Roman Tiber Valley and aspects of the Holy Land, though he did not travel there himself. For Hockney, who in this project did not work from nature but from art restored by his own computer, this was a further departure. The technical processes of “cleaning” a large-scale transparency of Claude’s work (loaned to him by the Frick) using Photoshop over three weeks, with long periods for the examination of state-proofs, if one can borrow a printing term, indicate his forensic approach to image-making and his search for truth. The works that have resulted have a sense of theatricality, perhaps in tune with his love of opera and exemplified by the set designs he made in the 70s, such as those for The Magic Flute, for Glyndebourne Festival (1978). Henry James wrote, as Hockney must too have experienced: “Claude must have haunted the very places of one’s personal preference and adjusted their divine undulations to his splendid scheme of romance, his view of the poetry of life”.19 Art has taken the place of religion for many people in the modern world, so paradoxically the Puritanican (Methodist) zeal, that Hockney might well have observed as a child, as well as the drive of his spectacular work ethic, so developed over a lifetime put him in a unique position to preach from London’s Secular Cathedral, the Royal Academy. It is no wonder the critics are fuming!


1. Quoted by Margaret Drabble, “The Spirit of Place: A Certain Road to Happiness”, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, The Royal Academy of the Arts, Thames and Hudson, London, 2012, p. 41.

2. The Observer, London, 22.01.12, p.29

3. Evening Standard, 19.01.12.

4. The Guardian, 17.01.12.

5. Tim Barringer, “Seeing with Memory: Hockney and the Masters”, catalogue, op.cit. p. 43.

6. Marco Livingston, “The Road Less Travelled,” ibid, p.25.

7. Ibid, p.25

8. Ibid, p. 31

9. Ibid, p.35

10. David Hockney, Quoted by Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockey, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p. 58

11. Ibid, p. 187

12. Livingstone, op.cit, p.36

13. Ibid, p.34

14. Margaret Drabble, “Seeing with Memory: Hockney and the Masters”, ibid, p.38

15. Ibid, p.38

16. Ibid, p.41

17. Gayford, Conversations, op.cit, pp.61-2

18. Xavier F. Salomon, “David Hockney and Claude Lorrain: The Sermon on the Mount”, ibid, pp.56-62.

19. Ibid, p. 61

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