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David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy of Arts, review

January 25, 2012

Whatever game David Hockney is playing in his hotly anticipated Royal Academy show eludes me, says Alastair Sooke.

Five blockbuster British art exhibitions in run-up to London 2012 Olympics

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy, Jan 21 – April 9

It is 50 years since David Hockney graduated from the Royal College of Art wearing a gold lamé jacket. Within a few years he had earned a reputation as an enfant terrible whose risqué autobiographical work touched upon the taboo subject of homosexuality. With his oversized spectacles and hair dyed silvery blond, he became Brit art’s first celebrity: a charmer whose personality beguiled the public as much as his work.

Fast-forward half a century, and Hockney is still feted and adored. He shed his skin of provocative wunderkind long ago, fashioning instead a role as a plain-speaking chain-smoker specialising in common sense. Following the death of Lucian Freud, he is routinely described as Britain’s greatest living painter. He is certainly the most popular: there have reportedly been more advance ticket sales for his new exhibition at the Royal Academy than there were for the gallery’s blockbuster Van Gogh exhibition in 2010.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is devoted to a single genre: landscape. It came about after the artist showed Bigger Trees near Warter – a gargantuan landscape covering 50 canvases that is now in the collection of the Tate – at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2007. After it caused a splash , the RA offered Hockney the full suite of main galleries for a show of landscapes. The resulting exhibition contains more than 150 works, mostly created within the past decade.

Many were painted outdoors and depict the countryside around Bridlington, the small Yorkshire seaside town where Hockney has lived for seven years. There are bright oil paintings of wheat fields and tree-lined country lanes. There are multi-canvas vistas of woodland seen in different seasons. There are watercolours of hedgerows and haystacks, charcoal sketches of copses and logs, and more than 50 colourful “drawings”, created using an iPad and printed on to paper, documenting the onset of spring along an old Roman road that runs out of Bridlington. There are even nine- and 18-screen video works that record the fluctuating appearance of Woldgate Woods: captured using high-definition cameras ingeniously rigged on to Hockney’s Jeep, they subject the natural world to the kind of scrutiny that the German artist Albrecht Dürer once lavished upon a clump of turf. Generally the mood is upbeat, homely yet wonderstruck. I half expected to hear a cuckoo sing. The colours are citrus-sharp.

You would be forgiven for asking: what happened? After all, Hockney is best known as the raunchy Californian sensualist who painted sun-kissed boys gliding through the azure swimming pools of Los Angeles in the Sixties. And yet here he presents himself as a modest pastoralist, content to hymn the bounty of nature with quiet exultation – dancing, like Wordsworth, among the daffodils. Once inspired by distant destinations such as Egypt, China and America’s West Coast, he now seems happy pottering about a neglected nook of England. The prodigal son has returned to within 65 miles of Bradford, where he was born in 1937, and settled down. The internationalist has turned parochial. The radical has come over all conservative.

As if to explain this transformation, the second room of the exhibition presents a mini-retrospective of earlier landscapes. We see two dingy paintings from the Fifties, a smattering of stylish canvases from the Sixties and Seventies, and several views of California and the Grand Canyon, including one gigantic work full of oranges and reds so scorching you can practically feel your retina burning up. The gallery functions as a kind of airlock, inviting us to shed our perceptions and consider Hockney afresh as a landscape artist, before venturing forth to look at his more recent work.

Whether or not we accept this argument, the simple truth is that the show is far too big. Like a sprawling oak in need of a tree surgeon, it required a stronger curator prepared to lop off the deadwood. I could happily have done without the watercolours recording midsummer in east Yorkshire in 2004, or the suite of smallish oil paintings from the following year.

Read more at: David Hockney succumbs to hubris

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