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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.