David Hockney at the Royal Academy

By Rob Packer

The cadence of summer schoolboy shorts and winter mittens and bobble hats determined my life from an early age. Fireplaces and cold at Christmas, the end of cold around Easter and my birthday, summer picnics in the park marked time. But in every new city, my European rhythm has had to be adapted to learn the subtle modulations and surprises of the heat of a Kyrgyz October, the rain of a Hong Kong May or the bitter cold of a southern Brazilian winter (by far, the worst I’ve ever experienced). It is these barely perceptible shifts that David Hockney focuses on and powerfully captures in his Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture (link to the Royal Academy here with video).

I often associate Hockney more with his role in Pop Art and his swimming pool paintings than landscape work, but the strong geographical and thematic focus on the Yorkshire countryside works in the exhibition’s favour. Around half of the galleries are hung with series of paintings of the same view at different times of year, which makes for a far more inclusive and responsive exhibition than a typical retrospective. This time, the cliché of creating a dialogue with the viewer really does ring true.

For me, most impressive was the opening gallery of a four-part series of trees in Thixendale (the exhibition is full of delicious northern place names). The same three trees, arranged around an octagonal room, appear like three ladies with spring branches dancing in the wind, in the exuberant steadiness of summer, clad in red matching the brown of a harvested field, and in the grey sadness of winter.

A fascinating difference comes in the differences in method between painting from memory and from observation. In his memory paintings, roads seem to meander through red-brick suburbia, the Salt Mills in Saltaire lord over tiny purple-roofed terraces, or the Yorkshire Wolds undulate across fields in a panoply of colours: oranges, pinks, crimsons or turquoises. When painting by observation, his colours and shapes are (understandably) more realistic, although even then geometric shapes seem to appear in hay bales and country lanes or trees appear to be trying to escape the ground.

By far the most impressive part of the exhibition, however, is Hockney’s embrace of new media. Towards the end come slow videos of the Yorkshire countryside and ‘The Arrival of Spring’, a series of 50 sketches that Hockney created with iPad and stylus during the first few months of 2011. The results are hard to believe with postimpressionistic misty greens and purples or lines of red and orange, and it feel like a combination of paint and graffiti art and you might not, quite frankly, know these were iPad sketches unless you were told.

These repeated thematic series foreground subtle changes that are often felt rather instinctively, and in one case—where a pile of logs is suddenly missing—I felt the same dull disorientation of something familiar no longer there. In January, the BBC Radio 3 broadcast a documentary on Hockney entitled ‘New Ways of Seeing’. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but these past few days have probably been the best possible time to visit, as bright sunshine and blue skies have caused what feels like an explosion of spring and I’ve noticed my own reawakened interest in and sensitivity for the changes in seasons. It truly is a new way of seeing.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture until 9 April at Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

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