Sunday, 25 March 2012


25/3/12, Royal Academy

I was initially dubious. I'd seen the media coverage; I was worried Hockney's new Yorkshire landscapes would turn out to be brightly-coloured, meretricious crowd-pleasers, representational in a rather unsophisticated way. (Hark at me! How patronising I sound.)

The first room reinforced that impression: four huge pictures, each of nine panels, showing the same three trees through the seasons. Behind them a sketched-in landscape of hills; in the foreground a field. Bright and shiny, they looked as if they were painted in acrylics, though they were in fact oils.

The contrast was striking in the next gallery, a retrospective of Hockney landscapes going back 50 years, from gloomy student daubs of West Yorkshire through deconstructed Californian landscapes to the photo-collages and a vast image on several panels of the Grand Canyon. Here was the contemporary artist playing with perception and perspective and colour in the approved fashion, I thought. He's gone off since, I thought.

What made me think again was the fourth gallery, full of oil (and watercolour!) landscapes done in situ of fields and woods and roads and tracks and hedgerows and lines of trees. This being Hockney the showman they're all the same size and he fills whole walls with these identical panels. But the draughtsmanship is superb, the colours vivid but not exaggerated, the landscape in all its different moods captured brilliantly. They're not subtle but they have tremendous impact and allure. D said they reminded her of the landscapes we walk through -- indeed, of why we walk at all.

Having established his credentials as a (more or less) straightforward landscape painter in the English tradition, he then sets off on a series of formal exercises, variations on the theme. There's a room full of big, multi-panel pictures of the same small section of wood through the seasons, with all the differences in light and vegetation and colour, the repeated verticals of the trees the only constant. There's a room full of "tunnels" -- views along tracks between hedgerows and trees with the foliage arching over as the road recedes into the far distance (he does love receding roads, does Hockney, as a way to draw you into the picture and give it some sort of structure). There's a gallery of images of cut logs beside a tree stump, some more or less straightforwardly representational, others involving Fauvist experiments in colour, one a spectacular piece filling an entire wall in which the tree stump has become a gnarled face. Similarly a gallery devoted to images of hawthorn blossom includes one in which the hawthorn bushes have become grotesque shapes and the bunches of blossom look like seething maggots.

The biggest room of all contains two or three score images of the arrival of spring at different points in a large wood, done over three months and blown up from iPad sketches. The room is set off (as with the cut logs sequence) by a giant painting which pulls together many of the motifs, with spring glowers and bright green stylised "leaves" floating over the surface. The iPad turns out in Hockney's hands to be as good as a sketchbook and watercolour for capturing the changeable landscape.

In several rooms are charcoal sketches done in the field, and very good they are too. In another is a series of films he's made, shot with a nine-camera rig and projected onto nine or eighteen screens, the saturated colours of the real landscape and hedgerows a reminder that the colours in the paintings aren't so very far from the real thing.

More recently he's started to explore the sublime, and here he lost me. There's a gallery devoted to deconstructions of a Claude landscape, The Sermon on the Mount, and a giant reconstruction of it which just screamed "kitsch". And a gallery of big prints blown-up from iPad sketches of Yosemite: at that scale the iPad images lack impact and colour.

But we were won over. We liked it so much we bought the book.

We'd turned up at 18.00, having read that queues on a Saturday evening were shorter. The young man marshalling told us we'd have to wait two hours. We went away for an hour and a half to eat and came back to find the queue only marginally shorter. The marshal, by now a young woman, told us the wait would be 90 minutes. In the end it was an hour. Not too bad: we had books, the Academy's courtyard is well-enough lit to read after dark, it had been a remarkably warm (20 degs) and sunny day. Inside it was rammed, which is usually death to an exhibition. But here it added to the sense of occasion and, since most of the work was on the grand scale, it was possible to appreciate it despite the crowds.

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