If art is considered in terms of culture, this new presentation of works by David Hockney at the Royal Academy excels at it. With a host of new paintings created specially for this major exhibition, alongside work from five decades in Hockney’s illustrious and prolific career, this is an obsessive ode to the English countryside – and specifically, the Yorkshire Wolds.
The RA was in reportedly poor health before its blockbuster Anish Kapoor exhibition of 2009, and it seems determined ever since to keep its queues bottlenecked and its halls packed full. No bad thing. If art is culture, then bringing hordes of people together indicates you’ve got it right. The heaving galleries at the RA were testament to that. School children and pensioners alike repeated the same adjective - “colourful”. The colours are indeed spectacular, and the paintings ravishingly handsome, especially from afar.
David Hockney, Pearblossom Hwy, photographic collage of a Californian highway from 1986 Photo: David Hockney/Collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
With this exhibition, Hockney is celebrated as part of a proud heritage of British painters, aligning here with the great landscape painters. The succour of Hockney’s landscape work is in its warmth, optimism, and simplicity. "A Bigger Picture" doesn’t challenge or test the intellectual powers of its viewer, it isn’t offensive or provocative – at most, it’s psychedelic. There is a suggestion of subversion - the recent, specially commissioned iPad drawings, and film work that the final rooms of this epic show are dedicated to, but they don’t obfuscate. In fact, Hockney himself makes it clear that these new techniques are not a diversion, but serve to enrich a theme - the corollary, that the tech-drawings are virtually identical to those of paint on canvas.
This is a straightforward, feel-good show, as we would expect at one of the city’s leading institutions, by our "greatest living artist". Perhaps everyone is bored of polemical art – nonetheless, scratch beneath the surface and this show appears insidiously political. Absent from the visitor audiences were young people, and working professionals - maybe too cynical to enjoy a show that is thickly celebratory and sweet just to the tip of saccharine. By narrowing this exhibition to virtually only landscape paintings, there is the sensation there is something missing. There’s a beefier side to Hockney that this exhibition chooses to ignore, or even to hide… then again, I do belong to that bracket of suspicious minds. It feels like something has been brushed under the carpet. Hockney’s landscapes don’t tell the whole truth – he applies colours like make-up, and the older body of works was painted from memory from Sunny LA. Our countryside is truly magnificent – but step outside into the bleak, drizzly January weather and you won’t feel like a Hockney painting looks.
David Hockney, Winter Timber, 2009 Photo: Private collection © David Hockney.
The RA (and sponsoring partners the Welcome to Yorkshire and the The Yorkshire Wolds) seem to have chosen Hockney to declaim a new era of British optimism and hope, to recall the beauty of our land and the productivity and ingenuity of our artists. It’s an important year for the UK, and this exhibition is the ideal way to warm up national pride. I’m sure I’ll be waving a union jack come summertime.
All images courtesy The Royal Academy of Arts