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The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011
iPad drawing printed on paper
144.1 x 108 cm; one of a 52-part work
Courtesy of the artist

Capturing the beloved country

David Hockney embraces his native Yorkshire in the first-ever UK showing of the artist’s landscape work. Review by Corinna Lotz

Unfurling through the Royal Academy’s great spaces, his version of that cherished countryside radiates a fierce love transmitted through the very latest technologies – the iPad and digital video.

He makes use of traditional charcoal, coloured pencil and watercolour for direct observation and to map out his ideas. Over the last three years, he has developed a filming technique using nine cameras on a grid attached to the bonnet of a jeep.

The pleasure of this show is that we can experience the whole artistic process.  As he says, everything starts with the sketchbooks. The capture on paper or iPad of a simple clump of trees or a bank of flowers, as in the Thixendale and Bridlington series, provides the foundation for the complex banks of moving images made with 9 and even 18 cameras, which are displayed on multiple screens.

Nov. 7th, Nov. 26th 2010, Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am and 9.30 am Film still
Courtesy of the artist

The small dark room devoted to the sketchbooks is like being inside the artist’s mind. We can see the open pages of the real thing. At eye height, a digital display turns the pages. One drawing – a huge sun shining above a field – displays Hockney’s reverence for Van Gogh’s rhythmic brushstrokes. In another, a line of trees is beautifully abstracted in a few smudges of ink, with a few grasses and flowers just barely indicated in the field below.

The Road Across the Wolds, 1997 Oil on canvas 121 x 152 cm
Private Collection Copyright David Hockney Photo credit: Steve Oliver

The individuality of the artist’s touch is translated into the iPad medium in a direct way reminiscent of Kandinsky and the Blue Rider group who revived folk art glass painting a century ago. There is a naïve freshness about these small scale views brought to us through the sophistication and luminous colours made possible by digital technology.

Particularly entrancing is the joker in the pack – one of the few non-landscape works on display – a filmed ballet which Hockney designed with choreographer Wayne Sleep, projected in a central gallery space.  In The Atelier 11.30am: A Bigger Space for Dancing colour, movement and music are brought together in a witty and joyous ensemble. Matisse’s Jazz paper cut-outs spring to mind in the zingy sharpness of it all.

Hockney chooses his subjects carefully, returning to particular places time and time again, but views and presents them in continually fresh ways, capturing the effects of the seasons, changing weathers and light. His view is sparklingly fresh and uncluttered. Sometimes the colours are strident,  even harsh, as in the Winter Timber near Bridlington series.

He has adopted and adapted the freedom of colour that he enjoyed so much in the Fauves (French for wild beasts), the Parisian artists led by Matisse and Derain, who liberated colour from its descriptive function and let it run riot.

The formats are simple ones, and classics (almost like jazz standards) in the history of landscape art. Often Hockney reverts to the motif of a tree-lined road disappearing into the distance so beloved of painters, such as Corot and others in the 19th century. Ironically there may be an elegiac quality to Hockney’s subject, as the tree-lined avenues of Europe especially in France are becoming an endangered species.

Sometimes the road turns into a tunnel, as the trees arch over it, as in a farm track in Kilham in the East Riding of Yorkshire. At other times, stately trees are spaced apart and the light falls between them, defining branches and casting shadows. Sometimes he depicts rolling hills, farms and red brick houses, as in the 32 canvases called The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011.

Winter Timber, 2009 Oil on 15 canvases 274 x 609.6 cm
Private Collection Copyright David Hockney Photo credit: Jonathan Wilkinson

There is a highly-charged knowingness about Hockney’s transformation of the every day, the simple and even mundane, into a heightened and thrilling experience. A winding road may turn a startling purple or pink. Trees are bright blues and purples. A stump rises in violet. The forest ground is a stippled orange. 

In The Big Hawthorn, the blossoms become a surface pattern and the traditional sense of perspective vanishes in favour of near abstraction. Flowering bushes become stylised and surreal, even weird, as they flop off a tree like bananas in May Blossom on Roman Road. Intimacy combines with a sense of the unworldly – shades of Stanley Spencer’s depiction of the Resurrection in his native Berkshire village of Cookham.

What a great body of work this is and long may Hockney work on.

20 January 2012

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture opens at the Royal Academy 21 January and runs to 9 April.

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