A path disappears beneath the arched boughs of tall beech into a distant tunnel of light. A farm track runs off into infinity between two fields. Paths in woods and forks in roads are ancient metaphors for the lifeline, its crises and decisions. Identical forks symbolize the complex interplay of free will and fate. We have free will, but we don’t really know what we are choosing between. In his essays On Late Style, the critic Edward Said explores the idea that late artistic works are not always serene and transcendent but sometimes unresolved and contradictory.
As in Robert Frost's famous poem roads and tracks provide the central metaphor within David Hockney’s landscapes in this major new exhibition, which sees a return to his native Yorkshire. The soft greens, the woods and undulating hills show that we are in the heart of England. This is a love affair with the land of his birth: as tender in its Englishness as Elgar’s Enigma Variations or Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. There is not a blue splash of a Los Angeles swimming pool in sight. This huge exhibition is an engagement not with the self or the ego or with ironic modes of deconstruction but with the cycles of nature and how they can be translated into paint through a commitment to looking. These poignant and, at times, melancholy, yet also joyful paintings, are potent intimations of mortality. Hawthorn blooms in its fragile white glory for a few days beside a small country lane, felled logs lie in a wood like fallen soldiers. Death, decay and renewal are Hockney’s subjects. This is an artist who knows he is approaching his last decades.
In the first gallery the viewer is confronted by the Thixendale Trees. This quartet of paintings sets up many of the themes of the exhibition. The trees stand in a landscape devoid of human presence. Only the straight lines of the ploughed fields show that it has been cultivated. The upturned branches of the winter trees slowly become weighed down through the late spring to hang heavily beneath their summer green foliage before, again, shedding their leaves. Like Monet’s Haystacks these works explore the same location in different conditions of light and weather, observing the subtle seasonal shifts.
Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937 and his stellar reputation was established while still a student at The Royal College of Art when his work became synonymous with the birth of British Pop Art. Visiting Los Angeles in 1964, he was attracted by the life style and strong light and, escaping what he perceived to be an English greyness, decided to settle there. Now the enfant terrible of the gay lifestyle has, spurred like some lost prodigal son by friendship and devotion to family, returned to embrace a remote corner of the Yorkshire Wolds. Until his 60th birthday England had remained largely untouched as a subject.
It was in 2002 that he took up the unfashionable medium of watercolor. This allowed him to work fast outside and provided a different vehicle for looking to that of the ubiquitous gaze of the camera. Hockney spent nearly three years working in this difficult medium before returning to the "luxury" of oil paint. His work abounds in paradoxes, embracing references to art history, whilst remaining full of restless innovation. There are nods in the direction of Turner, Van Gogh and Paul Nash, and a series of playful works based on Claude's The Sermon on the Mount in styles that draw on Philip Guston and Picasso. Whilst he embraces the Romanticism of the likes of Thomas Moran, he also uses the Paintbox software on an iPad in an update of the artist's traditional practice of recording the natural world. Drawing with his finger on a digital screen is no more than an extension of his preoccupation with all forms of draftsmanship. Also included in the exhibition are many fine charcoal drawings that might have come from Constable's sketchbook.
Since the death of Lucien Freud, Hockney has been labelled the 'greatest living British painter', a difficult mantle to take on. Both a traditionalist and an innovator he moves through the landscape looking, absorbing and drawing before returning to the studio to create monumental works of Fauvist colour that sing out with the verve of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony.
David Hockney A Bigger Picture at the The Royal Academy of Arts from 21 January to 9 April 2012
18 April/May 2012 artillery