David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy

By Richard Moss | 18 January 2011
a detail of a multi-panelled painting of a woodland
David Hockney, Woldgate Woods (November 21, 23 and November 29 2006). Oil on six canvasses© David Hockney. Image: Richard Schmidt
Exhibition: David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy of Arts, London, January 21 - April 9 2012

This vast, immersive show is all about visual pleasure. Now that he has connected with the English landscape and nature, David Hockney has done so on a grand scale. He so clearly wants to involve and envelop us in the bigger picture, and he uses size brilliantly to do it.

Rooms upon rooms of the Royal Academy are hung with vast canvasses. Multi-panelled paintings of colourful psychedelic woodlands stretch across entire walls. At times the sense of joy, freedom and excitement is intoxicating.

The majority of these 150-plus works were created dring the past eight years, but Hockney and his curators, Marco Livingstone and Edith Devaney, have included some contextualisation.

Earlier paintings from his time in the US show how the painter of Southern Californian swimming pools dabbled and experimented with landscape before the pull of the Yorkshire countryside captured him fully.

It's been building for a while. Hockney's Bigger Trees near Warter – a vast multi panel painting of a clump of (now felled) trees near the village of Warter – has been touring Yorkshire Art galleries and proving itself to be a public phenomenon. And this show, which doesn't include the latter, seems likely to do the same. 

an iPad painting of a tree next to a field
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) (April 12). iPad drawing printed on paper. One of a 52-part work© David Hockney
Hockney's artistic re-engagement with his native Yorkshire can be dated to 1997, when he returned to visit his terminally ill friend, the entrepreneur and art collector Jonathan Silver.

The poignant daily drive from Bridlington to Wetherby to be at Silver's deathbed reintroduced him to the East Yorkshire landscape of his youth and, spurred by both Silver's suggestion he paint Yorkshire and the death of his mother in 1998, he began a series of paintings from accumulated memory. 

These first forays since his student days into capturing the Yorkshire Wolds are a vibrant riot of undulating ploughed fields and valleys, with villages cut by rolling roads.

Vivid and exhilarating, like Eric Ravilious infected with the stylistic spirit of Vincent Van Gogh, they offer a first glimpse at a recurring leitmotif in which the spectator is invited into the space and engulfed by the landscape. Look at these and the monumental paintings that follow for long enough and you'll get a blissful sense of vertigo.

So it was an energetic re-connection that took grip of Hockney, and by 2005 he was on a roll. He soon became attentive to the changes in weather and light on the landscape – regularly getting up at 4.30am with his iPad in order to rattle off a couple of drawings by 7am.

He also began working on a grid of multiple canvasses to create one enormous painting and from here on in the pictures get bigger and bigger.

A series of "Tunnels" – paintings of the same tree-lined trackway between two fields – and Woldgate Woods, a series in the manner of Monet, capture the same scene from the same viewpoint at different times of year.

Irrespective of the season, both are full of intense brightness and colour. Similarly detailed studies of Hawthorn Blossom and a series called Trees and Totems, with felled trees and a recurring tree trunk invested with some kind of sculptural nobility, possess a similar luminosity. 

Freeing himself of his primary influence, Picasso (who never painted landscapes), you can see the influence of Van Gogh, Monet even Rembrandt.

But the subject matter gives a sense of the paintings being filtered through a peculiarly English prism that recalls the Neo Romantic pastoral vision of artists like John Craxton, Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash.

Beyond the touchstones and the influences, Hockney seems primarily concerned with the experience of the viewer. Everywhere you stand, and despite the inevitable crowds that will be drawn to this show, you can see the artwork.

a painting of a country lane
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) (January2). iPad drawing printed on paper© David Hockney
In Woldgate Woods, in which the arrival of spring seems to literally sweep through the largest gallery room, and the monumentally trippy 32-canvas painting of the same name that is the show's central work, there is an overriding sense of inclusion and engagement.

Yes there is rawness – perhaps better described as expressionistic vibrancy – but the painting's scale, power and joyfulness will surely win over even the most sceptical visitor.

Purists may even raise an eyebrow at the filmwork, but Hockney's multi-panelled kaleidoscopic jaunts down country lanes are both mesmeric and intensely painterly. Offering different perspectives and time frames, they also present another handy way of exploring Hockney's love of the changing seasons.

As the 18 screens linger on hedgerows and the bright green fields beyond, we get glimpses of delicate clouds that momentarily recall the landscapes of Constable. But as with the paintings, it's the earth and the foliage that attracts the eye.

There are also the customary iPad drawings, a whole room of which are blown up and printed to capture the arrival of spring. Together with the mesmerising filmwork, they make one of the best cases you'll ever encounter for using new mediums and technology to create paintings.

On one level A Bigger Picture is about painting; on another it's about taking a very intense and amplified look at the world. Yorkshire – Hockney Country – can evidently compete with California.

More pictures from the exhibition:

a colourful multi-panelled painting of a woodland with a path running through it
David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven). Oil on 32 canvases© David Hockney. Image: Jonathan Wilkinson
a landscape painting with farmland and houses across undulating fields
David Hockney, The Road Across the Wolds (1997). Oil on canvas© Private Collection, David Hockney. Image: Steve Oliver
a multi screen film showinbg the same country lane in autumn and winter
David Hockney. Nov. 7th, Nov. 26th 2010, Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am and 9.30 am. Film still© David Hockney
a painting of a woodland with flowers in the foreground
David Hockney, Under the Trees, Bigger (2010). Oil on 20 canvasses© David Hockney. Image: Richard Schmidt
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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