David Hockney: bigger pictures, smaller splash

Hockney can be brilliant, but the overblown A Bigger Picture shows him below par – if only he would start reporting honestly rather than falling back on bravura technique like an old rock star.

One of Hockney's better Yorkshire paintings: "Woldgate Lane to Burton Agnes", 2007.

• I feel as if I should apologise for writing about David Hockney – there’s already been more verbiage about his Royal Academy megashow A Bigger Picture than here is foliage in it, and that’s too much. But people keep asking my opinion of it, and I thought I should do more than keep answering, flippantly if honestly, that I felt he could have said more with just one good tree painting than a forest of mediocrities. The pip was taken the other day when, after gushing uncritically about how enthralled by it he had been, an earnest student started quizzing me about how Hockney had broken all those iPad drawings up into multiple canvases. I couldn’t work out which room the guy was referring to at first, then twigged: he had thought that every single artwork in the show was produced on an iPad. Complete with giant swishy oil paint strokes and all, perhaps from some magic giant oil paint printer. Which just goes to show that people read the blurbs, they mill around anything with a number having their thoughts directed by the audioguide, but they don’t actually look properly at the art. And whatever your opinion of this particular overblown exhibition, the best of David Hockney’s work is precisely about looking.

Compare and contrast: Lucian Freud's "Paddington Interior, Harry Diamond", and Hockney's "Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy", both 1970.

I mean looking in its literal, retinal sense: what Hockney excels at is exploring the many ways an artist can represent the appearance of things, varying his method and materials to suit the subject, aided by the perfect pitch of his drawing skills. I haven’t seen Lucian Freud Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery yet, but it should make an interesting blockbuster comparison, for Freud offers the reverse proposition – digging slowly beneath the skin of things with a dogged, unflashy technique that he developed consistently over the decades. And whereas Hockney mainly conjures his studio works from memory or visual notes, Freud allegedly needed the sitter in the room even when he was painting the background, so sensitive was he to atmosphere. Graphical analysis versus Freudian analysis, to put it glibly – one artist celebrating the outer world, one questioning the inner. With Hockney, it’s all about how he sees it; with Freud, it’s about what he sees.

Hockney's hedges, old and new: "Fields, Eccleshill", 1956 and "The Big Hawthorn", 2008.

Hockney’s pivotal works can be summed up as Percy, Pools and Polaroids: the slick paintings he made in his thirties, epitomised by “A Bigger Splash” (1967) and “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970), and the groundbreaking multi-photo panoramas of the 1980s. Traces of both periods are represented in the RA’s scene-setting capsule collection of his landscape career, which whips smartly from a sooty 1950s Yorkshire hedgerow, to sunny self-discovery in 1960s LA, to ever-expanding experiments with medium and technique during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s all presented as preparation for diving out into yet more Yorkshire hedgerows, now candy-coloured and surreal, flowering over half a century after that first gloomy verge. But this small room deserves proper scrutiny, because there is more visual invention contained here than in all the bosky salons beyond.

Some relation: Richard Hamilton, "Hommage à Chrysler Corp", 1957; David Hockney, "Ordinary Picture", 1964.

The most exciting moments are when Hockney really starts to toy with representation. “Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians” (1965) includes, purely for the look of it, a beautiful blue chair in graduated paint which recalls David Hamilton’s sinuous car parts, while “Ordinary Picture” (1964) presents the multiple visual planes of sketchy billowing curtains framing a ruler-straight fence blocking hazy pastel mountains, again with a touch of the Hamiltons. Sadly the glory days of patio pools and tense couples in smart houses are bypassed in favour of the era where he gets bored, goes all post-modern, and churns out jokey efforts like “Kerby (After Hogarth) Useful Knowledge” (1975), with its art styles from many eras colliding (a bad idea he revisits with some terrible Claude Lorrain pastiches in the main exhibition). Finding renewed vigour in the 1980s, he started tackling the vivid, fragmented, multi-viewpoint landscapes which continue to this day, first in Polariods and then in paint. The scale expands like a bubble economy, until by 1998 you could literally jump into the monstrous red maw of his 60-canvas “A Closer Grand Canyon” – exactly concurrent with his first visual forays back into the utterly different Yorkshire countryside.

"A Bigger Grand Canyon", 1998, concurrent with Yorkshire landscapes such as "The Road Across the Wolds" below.

But as his canvases grow, their treatments become less sophisticated; in retrospect, Hockney’s photocollages appear fresher than the paintings they presumably inspired. The most subtle, “Grand Canyon Looking North September 1982”, has the muted quality of an etching, with striated rock and pointillist scrub the only “marks” defining the vast arena. There’s a playful fringe of blurry netted fence in the foreground, for we’re on a viewing platform – all proof that Hockney is perfectly capable of tackling his recurring themes of viewpoints, texture and theatre without bombast. The famous “Pearlblossom Highway, 11-18 April 1986 #1” is more strident, but just as meticulous a study of contrasting surfaces as the tightly controlled early paintings, a compelling agglomeration of spiky cactus, scrubby desert, gradated glass, graphic signage and shiny metal, all beneath a glittering cubist sky. It’s a late celebration of Pop, once again recalling Richard Hamilton, whose 1956 photocollage “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” was critiquing the glamorous US lifestyle while Hockney was still making kitchen-sink daubs at Bradford School of Art.

Early and late Pop collages: Richard Hamilton's "Just what is it...?", 1956 and David Hockney's "Pearblossom Highway, 11-18 April 1986 #1".

Since then, Hockney has worked through enough styles to sustain several lesser careers (tellingly, mainly illustrators). But this relentless scaling up has sometimes been his downfall. Rather than representing with paint, using it to sculpt and suggest and tease as he did in the 1960s, on a large canvas he has a tendency simply to fill in geometrical areas with patterny brushstrokes, in a patchwork of garish textures not dissimilar to 1980s Kaffe Fasset knitwear. It is an ailment that afflicts a surfeit of the pumped-up works parading through A Bigger Picture, which some critics have suggested were too quickly created to fill up the show, and even compared to sunday painting. It’s a convincing argument, for the endless array of very similar landscapes don’t really seem to add anything to each other, or to the genre: I often found myself wishing I could be alone with just one small Eric Ravilious hillside instead.

Inspired by a drive to visit a dying friend: "The Road Across the Wolds", 1997

Another problem is emotion, or rather lack of it. Before I saw the exhibition, I was expecting intimations of mortality from the 73-year-old artist, what with all those tunnels, tree stumps, wintry vistas and vanishing points. And Hockney’s rediscovery of his native landscape has a literally funereal genesis, as he first started looking closely at the area in 1997, on a regular drive to the Wetherby sickbed of his close friend Jonathan Silver, founder of Salts Mill, who died aged just 47. It was Silver who suggested painting the Yorkshire landscape, but though Hockney watched his old colleague fade away over a period of many months, the bright crumpled hillsides produced as a result give no hint of the bittersweet experience of driving through the world’s blooming beauty en route to a terminal patient. Not that they should do, and that was presumably not Hockney’s intention; but they would be better works of art if they did (or if he was able). And as for those endless vanishing points, Hockney’s always done them – there’s one in the first room dating from when he was 18, so they’re more about geometry than mortality. Some people do see mortality in the “totem” tree stump series, though I found them awkward and too obvious, while the cigarette-like logs of the “felled tree” paintings descend into pseudo-symbolist mannerism. One is even called “Astray”, which is surely an egregious pun on “ashtray”, if not a nod to the similarly fag-obsessed Damien Hirst, who really does deal with death.

Vanishing points, stumps and logs like cigarettes in "Winter Timber", 2009.

Hockney’s naming schemes are usually pedantic, simply stating subject, place and date, and often incorporating a modifier of size or distance, as if on a spreadsheet (though I was pleased to learn there’s a place called Thwing). There’s even one where he dictates the pronunciation – “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty-eleven)” – heaven forbid we should say it “two thousand and eleven”. This matter-of-factness pervades the paintings too, and no matter what the weather, sunny or snowy or misty or autumnal, the same air of decorative, optimistic note-taking prevails. Perhaps that’s why so many commentators loved his crazy writhing hawthorn bushes: a room full of mad blossom captured from memory in what Hockney calls his “action week”, they look as if fat white witchetty grubs are seething from the trees, while cartoony shadow fingers crawl the hot pink road. They were too over-the-top for my taste, but the couple of more “realistic” treatments stood out too – the one at the top of the page, “Woldgate Lane to Burton Agnes” (2007), is one of my favourite works from the show, for its unforced splashy simplicity.

One of his psychedelic blossom series: "Hawthorn Blossom, Woldgate No.3", 2009.

With their blast of openness and light, the hawthorns’ surreal verve makes the surrounding roomfuls of towering woods seem dutiful. For all their powerful physical presence, these grand seasonal series are at heart schematic – you can’t help suspecting Hockney was painting by numbers at some points to complete the set. The worst come at the end, with enormous looping spring glades such as “Under the Trees, Bigger” (2011-11), whose beds of flowers look (possibly deliberately) like floral duvets, and are reminiscent of art nouveau-inspired municipal murals. Best are the serene and restrained late autumn and winter pieces, which due to being leafless and more linear are not so in thrall to strident colour and mark-making as the squelchy spring and blobby summer scenes, though the branches still writhe.

"Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007", from one of the many seasonal series.

It’s advisable to ignore the jarring roomful of self-pleasuring knock-offs of Claude Lorrain’s “Sermon on the Mount” (c.1656), which nestle amidst the trees like a stash of guilty porn. These are a return to his 1970s po-mo posturing, in which Claude’s dark and mysterious mount becomes various psychedelic shapes – coil, conch, pyramid, polyhedron – and most embarrassing of all, with “Love” written above it. Apparently Hockney was interested in the compression of background space (in camera terms, a long lens effect), but it’s all a bit stupid, and Turner pastiched such things better. Taking hubris one step further, he also does iPad plays on the American sublime, with technically impressive banners of Yosemite scenes, immersive in their size but with surfaces as as shallow and slippery as their digital birthplace. They cry out to be projected, or even animated (in which case they’d look like one of those tacky moving waterfall pictures you get in Chinese restaurants), rather than have their pixels rendered in flat ink. The smaller series of 51 spring drawings made on iPad aren’t quite as bad as the harsher voices claim, but they too prove that pixels behind glass are no match for particles on paper. Tucked in a far more rewarding back room of sketches, “Blossom, May 25th 2009, Sketchbook (pages 7 & 8)” is a tiny black ink, watercolour and charcoal drawing of a row of trees, each one wittily varied in its treatment, that is a more telling comment on the nature of woods than all the 60-odd iPad works put together.

Google Street View on steroids: the multi-screen HD extravaganza "Nov 7th, Nov 26th 2010 Woldgate Wood 11:30 am and 9:30 am".

There’s a better use of technology in the multi-panel HD films, which have met with a luke-warm reception, but which I found mesmerising. Not Wayne Sleep’s colourful dance games, though they are fun in a clever-clever way (especially some Matisse mats); wait till the music stops and catch the long, silent glides through the very scenes depicted elsewhere in paint, caught on multiple cameras like an electronic compound eye. Two three-by-three banks of HD screens abut, presenting a series of serene tableaux: sometimes driving us into the same tunnel view at two different times or seasons, and sometimes panning sideways along one undulating grass verge, 18 panels wide. Although each camera catches the same area as it passes, the views are slightly out of synch, and the effect is similar to an animated version of the multi-Polaroid pieces. They make the familiar unfamiliar, allowing us to observe as minutely as a woodland creature while in crystalline detail Hockney contrasts fog and snow, bright and misty blossom, vibrant thunderlight and pallid dampness. It’s like cubism in action, or Google Street View on steroids, and makes you wonder how anyone would even dare to try and capture all this existence for posterity. Yet Hockney seems to be trying to fit the whole world and all of its art history and seasons into his oeuvre, by churning out work ever faster with whatever means come to hand. It’s his most overt nod to mortality, but comes at the expense of many kinds of quality.

Enough woods, already: "Woldgate Woods, 7 and 8 November 2006".

Hockney is brilliant at times, and has had periods of being a truly original visualiser and commentator. His explorations into how earlier artists used lens-based aids such as the camera obscura are a valuable addition to art historical debate, written from the viewpoint of a super-observant practitioner. His experiments with photographs and film have been groundbreaking, and remain relevant to this day. My gaze could rove around his 1960s paintings for hours, their nuanced surfaces transcending overfamiliarity. But how I wish he would try making a smaller splash and start painting intimately again, without all the mannered grandiosity and clashing colours. I’d love to see what he made of an intimate interior, a humble still life, a minutely observed patch of ground; still employing his different painterly voices, but reporting honestly on the objects rather than falling back on bravura technique like an old rock star lashing operatically through a stadium gig. By filling 13 rooms with hundreds of large artworks created to very short order, Hockney has certainly shown, and shown off – now it’s time to start telling again.

• David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, 21 Jan–9 Apr 2012, Royal Academy, London,www.royalacademy.org.uk

Hockney with the bedspread-esque and pedantically-named "The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven)".


  1. Stephen

    I can’t believe the slagging-off that David Hockney gets from critics. If you compare him to self-publicists like Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, who really does rely on a few gimmicks like spin-paintings, coloured polka dots and butterflies glued onto monotone canvases, trotted out time (and made by others) for anyone who’ll pay him enough-rich art collectors, celebrities, multinational companies etc. Hardly original and only proof of what a brilliant salesman he is. Other people-eg Jeff Koons-don’t even do their own paintings. No doubt if DH had been doing the same things since the ’60’s, people would whine about that.
    David Hockney has never relied on his past-he doesn’t have to-though he could have done and could have played safe, regurgitating swimming pools, double portraits or photographic ‘joiners’ for the rich and famous. Instead, he prefers to investigate and explore and try new areas of representation and perspective if he finds the ones he’s gotten used to have become unsatisfactory. He’s not afraid of change in his paintings or of embracing new technology and he does it with integrity and consideration, not merely as a gimmick. Like all true artists and people who are relentless explorers, their experiments might not work every time, but they’re brave enough to try and should be praised for it. Personally, I think the vast majority of his work is still great and, even where something doesn’t work, like him, we can learn something from it. Oh, and there’s nothing wrong with work being bright, positive and optimistic, despite his age.

  2. Hockney’s later work is impelling. beautiful and does not need the pretentious words he says regarding other artists in the past to justify his earlier boring work. Too bad it took so long for him to find his metier. On the other hand, perhaps his late blooming gives hope for us all.

  3. Very well written critique and as I progressed through it I began to think it would turn out to be the usual
    dime a dozen critic’s verbal crap, you don’t have the talent to do the work, but the last paragraph was dead on.
    Producing the work doesn’t get any easier even when you a star like Hockney.

  4. Thanks for a fascinating review. If you’re a Ravilious fan you might be pleased to know that an exhibition of his watercolours is being held at the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, starting on 10 March. Go to http://www.rwa.org.uk and hit ‘What’s On’… Given that the Hockney show will still be running, it ought to make an interesting study in contrasts!

    • Vici MacDonald

      Thanks, that sounds like a must-see – actual exhibition page is here. I note that you are the James Russell who has written several illustrated books on Ravilious and are launching one at the show – for anyone interested, the details are here: jamesrussellontheweb.blogspot.com.

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