Stuff The Critics, Hockney's Bigger Picture Exhibition Is Magnificent

The most influential British artist of the 20th century has a major new exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes starting this weekend at the Royal Academy. Our in-house Yorkshireman snuck in to have a skeg.
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The most influential British artist of the 20th century has a major new exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes starting this weekend at the Royal Academy. Our in-house Yorkshireman snuck in to have a skeg.

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David Hockney - definer of Pop Art, most influential British artist of the 20th century, arguably the world’s greatest living artist, a man who has captured the vibrancy of California, the grandeur of the Grand Canyon and carried out extensive academic research into the painting techniques of the art world’s greatest masters - has spent the past 15 years or so painting hedges near Brid. The results of this seemingly bizarre but ultimately spectacular excursion into the natural minutiae of East Yorkshire are now collected in ‘A Bigger Picture’ a major new exhibit at the Royal Academy. And it is MAGNIFICENT.

Some critics (mainly Brian Sewell, the pointless cock) have been withering and dismissive in their reviews, others have questioned the merit of Hockney’s techniques and a couple have been borderline patronising about the old boy. The truth is that this is a collection for the people, not the critics. If you’re a resident of Yorkshire you will adore it, but equally anyone who has any interest in the beauty of the British countryside will find much to admire and even more to love in this collection.

The majority of the exhibit is made up of Hockney’s Wolds work. It starts with four seasonal images of three trees near Thixendale, mounted on adjoining, surrounding walls. The pictures are all near-identical multi-canvas works where only the seasons change. And as you turn to observe all the images you are immediately presented with the major themes of the exhibit – landscapes, time, Yorkshire and man’s control of nature.

Next is a room of background work. You see earlier landscape work such as the Grand Canyon and even some from West Yorkshire. Seeing these reminds you that Hockney has always sought to capture our world in his own way and the availability to him of any vista in the world makes his decision to decamp to the unfavoured East Riding all the more surprising.

The truth is that this is a collection for the people, not the critics.

The images in Room 3 are some of the relatively familiar drawn-from-memory landscapes that Hockney created in the mid 90’s while commuting from Bridlington to York to visit his dying friend Jonathan Silver. These pictures are credited with reawakening Hockney’s interest in Yorkshire and include superbly compressed routes through the Wolds, Sledmere and down Garrowby Hill. They are among the most rich and imaginative images he has created and offer an entirely new way to explore some beautiful countryside.

Next come some early Yorkshire watercolours and oils. Here we see Hockney learning the vocabulary of the landscape. They are unfussy, almost business-like renderings of fields, roads and villages. Flowers and weeds take centre stage and you sense that he is trying to find a theme for the work, searching out what makes the region special. It’s the last time the images are completely realistic and unmannered; simple but brilliant work.

After this rooms become more specifically themed. There is a room full of the ‘tunnel’ a lane over-arched by trees near Brid that Hockney has returned to countless times in all weather conditions. Then there is a Woldgate Wood room, similar to the previous one but with bigger canvases illustrating more of the same elements. Next comes a room full of images of hawthorn blossom. It’s here that the paintings become more abstract and impressionistic. The blossoms are exaggerated, snake-like strings and the colours and shapes in the background take on a Van Gogh-like simplicity.

This stage of Hockney’s Yorkshire journey reaches its pinnacle in the following room. ‘Trees and totems’ is the most extreme room and, consequently, the hardest to love. The pictures in here are of a tree stump and some piles of timber and they are garish to the point of appearing hallucinogenic. It feels very much like Hockney is taking the pieces he has put together in earlier works and is deliberately forcing them into a new, punishing order. It’s not an East Yorkshire I recognise and it left me wondering if Hockney had maybe been eating some of the mushrooms he finds around his feet while working.

‘Trees and totems’ is the most extreme room and, consequently, the hardest to love. The pictures in here are of a tree stump and some piles of timber and they are garish to the point of appearing hallucinogenic.

The next room heralds both the arrival of spring and a return to gentler imagery. The biggest space in the RA is filled with dozens of single iPad drawings of Woldgate Wood created in spring 2011. I was expecting these images to be the least satisfying of the whole exhibit as his iPad drawings I had seen previously looked almost wilfully basic. These images work wonderfully, however, they have a pretty, diffused look that suits the subject matter and, strangely, the further you move away from the pictures, the more defined they become.

There is then a room featuring Hockney’s ongoing attempts to recreate The Sermon On The Mount by Claude. These pictures constitute a fascinating and noble attempt to honour a classic painting but seem totally out of place in the exhibit. An odd diversion.

For any resident of East Yorkshire, the next room is a hoot. 27 high resolution video screens arranged in a 9x3 formation show slow tracking shots of various paths through the county’s woodlands and paths. The framing and focus of each screen is subtly different to ensure your eye notices all of the tiny details. The pictures are eye-poppingly crisp and undoubtedly make the point that we need to look harder at our environment to fully appreciate it. What is far more entertaining, though, is seeing about a hundred serious London-type art lovers stare in silence at load of nettles by the side of a muddy track near Thwing. ‘There’s loads of them near our house’, I wanted to shout.

Imagine if that was your granddad. How proud would you be of the owld get?

The exhibit culminates with some iPads mounted on a wall showing some drawings on the instrument they were originally created and sketch books containing rough-drawn but hugely impressive first drafts of some of the paintings. There are some large iPad drawings of Yosemite thrown up in the last room before the exit but these feel very much like an afterthought and these last couple of rooms basically amount to the equivalent of the ‘additional material’ section on a DVD. No mind, the exhibition has done its job by then and I leave open-mouthed and over-awed.

The critics may have been sniffy about this show (and they are undoubtedly know much more about art than a mere Yorkie pleb like me) but I was overwhelmed by the images I saw. Strip away all the critical one-upmanship, the ‘place in the history of art’ debate and you are left with a 74 year old bloke standing in all weathers in a muddy field turning out some of the most vivid, exciting, extraordinary, enervating, life-affirming art works in the world. Imagine if that was your granddad. How proud would you be of the owld get?

This show utterly overwhelmed me. It changed the way I look at my home county forever and I believe it will define the way the world perceives the Yorkshire Wolds, in much the same way that the Impressionists utterly defined the way we look at France.

Critics be damned. Sewell be stuffed. A Bigger Picture is a magnificent tour-de-force by a supremely talented artist.

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