David Hockney. A Bigger Picture. Royal Academy. 01-02-12

Some years ago now I visited the Courtauld Gallery to see thirty six watercolours on paper by David Hockney. They were called Midsummer East Yorkshire 2004. I grew up a few miles from Woldgate woods, have driven over the Yorkshire Wolds countless times, and have lived a few miles down the road from Bridlington where Hockney now paints since the late 1980’s. It was the first time that I had seen the Yorkshire countryside that I knew and understood reflected back to me. No stone walls, no peaks, no sheep, no drama. I sat there in the middle of a London gallery and felt at home. Two fine gentlemen in expensive black astrakhan collared coats carrying silver topped canes walked right up to the label and stared at it. “East Yorkshire” they told each other wonderingly. It might as well have been Uzbekistan- they had no clear idea quite where it was. An older couple from Pocklington who had also made a special journey were sitting next to me. We looked at each other and giggled. We knew where it was all right. Those watercolours belonged to us.

David Hockney Woldgate Woods, 21, 23 & 29 November 2006, 2006 Oil on 6 canvases 182 x 366 cm Courtesy of the Artist Copyright David Hockney Photo credit: Richard Schmidt. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Since then David Hockney has devoted every ounce of his skill, experience and energy to showing the world the landscape of East Yorkshire and celebrating it. He has used the colour sensibility which his years of living in LA honed in him to look at the countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds and the Vale of York, the area which lies behind what was his mother’s home in Bridlington where he now lives, and celebrate its seasons and changing light. His output, and the rush of creativity and joy which have produced it, has been staggering. He is seventy four years old now and he has been working with the fresh eye, delight in new ideas and energy of someone thirty years younger, working on a grand scale with excitement, speed and relish. The Royal Academy have responded to this achievement by giving him the whole of the academy to play with, a rare honour. The title he chose for the exhibition is A Bigger Picture and nobody could argue with that. The work is often huge, painted outside on sets of panels which join to make a single work or worked on back in the studio from memory leading to the use of more stylised colours and shapes. Apart from a single room which contains some earlier landscapes, he has filled the Royal Academy with work from recent years. About half way round you stop and think, there’s more? Really? And there is. My single criticism of the exhibition demonstrates just how prolific he has been. Even given the whole of the academy for a hang some of these works still need more space to breathe.

David Hockney The Road Across the Wolds, 1997 Oil on canvas 121 x 152 cm Private Collection Copyright David Hockney Photo credit: Steve Oliver.

I think the biggest personal pleasure for me was the chance to see the oil painting Garrowby Hill. That hill is very special to me. I could see it from my bedroom window as a child and it was the gateway to all kinds of excitement on holidays at the coast. I have driven up and down it all my life and the gleaming curves colours and patterns which Hockney has painted are the very essence of its beauty.

The arrival of the hawthorn (or May ) blossom in the hedgerows of late spring is a spectacular and short lived event and there is a whole room of paintings glorying in this annual show of fragile beauty. It is everywhere for just a short span, so ubiquitous that it can start to go unnoticed as you drive past another hedgerow gleaming with it. It is delicate, easily bruised by wind and rain, and Hockney gives it its due and records its beauty with real bravura.

It is typical of Hockney’s open questioning mindset, always exploring new things, that he has embraced the ipad. As well as the ipad drawings there is a row of five ipods on the wall in a small room which also shows some of Hockney’s sketchbooks, and the backlit screen light really makes them glow and come to life. The sketchbooks are lovely, delicate work which back up the very accomplished charcoal drawings in the exhibition and my current hometown, Filey, got a name check in one of them so I was very happy about that.

David Hockney Nov. 7th, Nov. 26th 2010, Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am and 9.30 am Film still Courtesy of the artist Copyright David Hockney Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne

Usually in any mixed exhibition you can rely on the fact that the video installations are the least noticed element. They flicker away in their darkened space talking to themselves while people give them only a quick glance as they walk past. Well not in this exhibition. A bank of eighteen screens show almost silent moving images of the East Yorkshire landscape in different seasons, tracks, roadside verges and hedgerows. They have been filmed simulaneously by a set of cameras. Sometimes the whole eighteen screens work as one image and sometimes in two blocks of nine showing exactly the same scene in different seasons. The fact that a group of cameras has been used simultaneously and each camera has a slightly different viewpoint makes it seem real in a way that a single moving image on a screen never can be. The eye is forced to jump and cut around what it sees, exactly as we do in everyday life and at times it achieves a kind of 3D effect. While there may be nothing remarkable about the landscape we are shown, no great panorama to take your breath away, there is something quite magical about celebrating the ordinary. It makes you see things with fresh eyes and delight in the everyday teeming life and constant change which surrounds us. There is a section where the wind is blowing through a roadside verge at the foot of a hedgerow where you can almost feel the air moving. We talk a lot about the seasons when they come and go but we don’t see them set next to each other very often and being given the ability to do this is a moving experience. This is perhaps because time is telescoped and behind the joy of the images there is the knowledge that all of us, however young we are, have only a limited number of seasons left to watch. A room full of people sat with rapt attention watching the screens without moving until they had finished and giving the delightful final section showing dancers and their accompanist in Hockney’s studio a spontaneous round of applause. This small film is a charming, colourful flight of fancy which builds beautifully and achieves a strange otherworldly effect when the figures pass from one camera viewpoint to the next. There is only the smallest hint of darkness, hidden behind a joke, when a note on the small table in the foreground sits there reminding us that “death awaits you even if you do not smoke”.

David Hockney The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) Oil on 32 canvases (each 91.4 x 121.9 cm), 365.8 x 975.4 cm; one of a 52-part work Courtesy of the artist Copyright David Hockney Photo credit: Jonathan Wilkinson. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne

David Hockney The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)- 12 April iPad drawing printed on paper 144.1 x 108 cm; one of a 52-part work Courtesy of the artist Copyright David Hockney .Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne

The largest room in the academy is devoted to a single work, Fifty one ipad drawings, all precisely dated, document the coming of Spring to East Yorkshire in sequence around the walls. If you stand in the centre of the room and allow yourself to slowly scan the whole sequence you can watch it happen and turn to face the magnificent final painting, filling a whole wall, which celebrates the fact that it has arrived.

There was one room of paintings depicting The Sermon on the Mount, exploring a 1656 painting by Claude Lorrain, that I didn’t like so much. I wanted more East Yorkshire. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I? There are four huge ipad drawings of Yosemite, made in 2011, which are breathtaking, even when placed in far too small a space, but the oil paintings in the final room, very recent work, showing simple wild flowers and grasses growing beneath some trees knock spots off them as far as I am concerned and they are painted with real affection. I enjoyed the fact that a simple East Yorkshire hedgerow could go up against the majesty of Yosemite in a fair fight and come out the winner.

David Hockney Winter Timber, 2009 Oil on 15 canvases 274 x 609.6 cm Private Collection Copyright David Hockney Photo credit: Jonathan Wilkinson Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London in collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

Above all this exhibition is a celebration of the joy of being alive in a world which is worth looking at, even at its most ordinary, but alongside this there is an awareness of mortality. This is suggested in the cut timbers in the work above, and two drawings which record both the presence and the absence of a pile of timber after it is taken away. Nothing is forever, but I don’t think that Hockey is saying this is something to feel sad about. We should relish the fact that we are here at all and savour every moment. He is a hard working hedonist and that is not a bad way for any of us to approach  life.

I have been waiting for this exhibition for eight years or more because I knew what was coming without needing to be told when I first saw those watercolours in the Courtauld and prints of the large oil painting of Garrowby Hill. David Hockney has done me proud and I am grateful to the RA for allowing him to show me, and the world, what he has been doing. Since what I write will stay on the web long after I am gone, I am going to stick my neck out and say that I am convinced that this work will stand alongside Matisse’s late paper cuts and Monet’s late water garden paintings. I won’t ever know if I am right but I bet I am.


Cornelia Parker’s Neither From Nor Towards. Part of the exhibition “falling up” at the Courtauld Gallery. 22-08-11

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

T.S. Eliot – from Burnt Norton.

There is something quite magical about what Cornelia Parker does. She takes objects and gives them a new life, transforming them, sometimes by force, into a new form and then makes them into something beautiful. Her work, Neither From Nor Towards, made in 1992, forms the centrepiece of a small single room exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery entitled “falling up” this summer. She has taken weathered bricks and floated them in mid air on thin wires, allowing them to float magically and defy gravity.  There is a strong sense of structure in the work, the pieces of brick are carefully graded by size, height and position to form a unit rather than a collection of disparate floating bricks and the wires above them shimmer like summer rain reflected in the sun. As you walk around and view the work from different levels and positions it transforms and changes shape as the structure disintegrates in front of you and allows the bricks to float free of each other. It is quite mesmerising. It was made all the more so for me by the fact that the bricks were of a kind that I see every day on the beach where I walk my dogs. It was as if she had taken part of my life and reflected it back to me in a new way, giving it a fresh sense of wonder and delight. The title makes me think of the bricks as something outside of reality. They have come from nowhere and they are going nowhere. They just are, floating in their own ethereal space forever. A thing of joy and wonder.

There were other pieces in the room but I didn’t think to look at them. Neither From Nor Towards makes everything around it recede into the distance and seem unimportant. I felt lucky to be able to spend time in its presence.

The photographs are my own copyright.

Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril. Beyond the Moulin Rouge. The Courtauld Gallery. 22-08-11

It is not difficult to see why Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril became close friends. While their backgrounds were wildly different, privilege and wealth set against poverty and abuse, they both had to overcome serious physical ill health in order to be able to express their creativity. Toulouse Lautrec’s legs stopped growing after two childhood accidents and this led him to become an artistic observer, drawn to colour and life and movement in others, and Jane’s manic dance style may have had it’s genesis in the nervous disorder which at one point led to her being hospitalised. He could express his love of flamboyance and movement by observing her with great precision and getting down on paper or canvas what he was unable to do himself. They both knew what it was like to be different and they rose above it. As well as being personally satisfying their relationship was also professionally useful to them both. Toulouse Lautrec’s posters were powerful sellers of any show or venue. He featured Jane Avril in them regularly and this gave her publicity as well as generating more work for him when promoters realised that his images could sell tickets. A symbiosis if ever there was one.

Looking at the work in the Courtauld’s exhibition Toulouse Lautrec and Jane Avril. Beyond the Moulin Rouge it is also easy to see why the title was chosen. These are images which are very personal and direct, images of a real woman who may have been a star, known for her style and allure, but who was also a vulnerable woman. Look into her eyes. They are intense, world weary portraits of a woman who has seen and suffered a lot. They show someone who may have been able to summon up flamboyance and manic gaiety on stage but who was clearly all too aware of her own humanity and fraility. Late nineteenth century Parisians were fascinated by illness and she used her erratic dance style and her melancholy face to great effect in order to maximise her appeal. Her choreography was described as “epileptic” at the time, evoking an element of the freak show. In Toulouse Lautrec’s portraits you can see the effort it took her to do this, to keep on grabbing life by the scruff of the neck by a sheer effort of will and shaking it until she managed to find some fun. It was sometimes commented that he didn’t make her look enough like a star, but he was a supreme observer and he could only paint what he saw. At that time, back in the 1890’s Montmartre was not a tourist hot spot where foreign visitors wandered around safely having themselves sketched and looking for somewhere to eat. It was a dark and dangerous playground where you had to know how to look after yourself.

There are also lithographs of other stars of the time. A tiny portrait of Yvette Guillbert is barely there at all but it tells you everything that you need to know. She half spoke, half sang her bawdy repertoire, standing motionless, the first of a long tradition of dramatic French actor singers. Aristide Bruant glares out from a simple black and white drawing, daring us to have something to say about anything at all. You can imagine flattening yourself to the wall as he walks past. You can see a whole style of acting in the portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, and it isn’t subtle.

The star of this show is not, however, Jane Avril, strangely enough, it is an oil painting called Au Moulin Rouge. It has come all the way from Chicago and it is a masterpiece which Toulouse Lautrec painted between 1892 and 1895. It sets them both in context. This is not a nightclub. It is a nightmare. The blue face of May Milton, another star who was a close friend of Toulouse Lautrec, looms out at the side of the painting almost as if she is imploring us to let her out. It is a cool direct gaze that challenges the viewer, seeming to observe and judge. There are no smiles in the Moulin Rouge habituees who form the central group of drinkers, no jollity.  They are still and resigned, drinking their time away, looking for a distraction, a release from everyday life. Another Moulin Rouge star, La Gouloue, adjusts her hair in the background forming a moment of grace and movement in the image, perhaps preparing to bring her waiting audience to life when they leave the table. We are never allowed to forget the element of performance- the lighting is dramatic and theatrical, especially on Jane Avril’s beautiful hair. Lautrec captures the spice of danger in the place and sets us among them, we are both watching and being watched.

It is a shame that Toulouse Lautrec’s images have been taken up and overused by the tourist industry of today. His vision was a lot darker and more dangerous than that. At the same time you can’t blame people for still being fascinated by the images which drew people towards them right from the moment they were first pasted to the walls of Montmartre.

Michelangelo’s Dream. Courtauld gallery. 26-03-10

This exhibition is a love story. When Michelangelo met a beautiful young roman nobleman, Tommaso Dei Cavalieri, at the age of fifty seven he was at the height of his career. It was the start of a relationship which remained a close and devoted friendship for the rest of his life, even after Cavallieri married and had a family, and he was by Michelangelo’s side at his death. Michelangelo described his love for Cavallieri as a chaste passion, but looking at the results in the Courtauld gallery, where just a selection from over three hundred sonnets which Michelangelo dedicated to Cavallieri and the best of the surviving presentation drawings which were given to him are showing, there is no doubting its depth of feeling. Presentation drawings were a wonderfully intimate way for an artist to show regard and trust. A drawing was a working document with much to give away about future plans and working methods and it would usually have been kept private, but presentation drawings were an end in themselves, to be enjoyed for their beauty. It is also an immediate and personal work of art straight from the artists own hand, a glimpse into the mind of the giver.

The work on show is anything but chaste. It is full of movement, action, passion and pain. The risen Christ shakes off his grave clothes, Phaeton falls from his chariot in the sky, a lustful giant is pierced by the beak of a giant bird. It is both a celebration of male beauty and a kind of warning from an older man to a much younger one about the perils and dangers of life. It also shows a relationship which grew into one based on mutual respect. Michelangelo asks for Cavallieri’s opinions and offers to change aspects of the drawings if he wishes him to. It is a meeting of minds, not just an older man admiring a handsome younger man’s physical beauty. It must have been overwhelming for Cavallieri, who may well have been only a teenager at the time, to be included in the thought processes of a genius in this way, however rich and well connected he was.

The poetry is very beautiful, courtly, intense and rather lonely, full of longing. Unsurprisingly the handwriting is also stylish and beautiful in itself. When you read what Michelangelo wrote to Cavallieri it is impossible not to be moved by his honesty and clear sightedness as he realises that he is longing for something which will always be partially out of his reach as an old man. Whatever youth and beauty he might once have had are past and no amount of fame and artistic mastery will bring them back.

With your fair eyes a charming light I see,

For which my own blind eyes would peer in vain;
Stayed by your feet, the burden I sustain
Which my lame feet find all too strong for me;

Wingless upon your pinions forth I fly;

Heavenward your spirit stirreth me to strain;
E’en as you will, I blush and blanch again,
Freeze in the sun, burn ‘neath a frosty sky.

Your will includes and is the lord of mien;

Life to my thoughts within your heart is given;
My words begin to breathe upon your breath:

Like to the moon am I, that cannot shine

Alone; for, lo! our eyes see naught in heaven
Save what the living sun illumineth.

This is a very personal exhibition, an insight into the heart and mind of a person who lived over five hundred years ago, someone who was not only an artistic genius but also a man with deep and lasting feelings.  It is good that the Courtauld is now able to show the truth about him after so long and let us into his thoughts. That is the least that the purity and depth of feeling which Michelangelo felt for Tommaso Dei Cavalieri deserves.