The empty road
is part of Hockney's
If you are in London any time between now and 9 April, do not miss the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. It is a spectacular experience. Called 'A Bigger Picture', the exhibition focuses exclusively on versions of landscape.
The vast majority of works on display depict scenes in Hockney's native Yorkshire, and have been created between 2004 and 2011. However, some early examples of the painter's portrayal of scenes in the America where he lived for many years are included to suggest how, throughout his long career, Hockney has been preoccupied with the depiction of landscape space.
From the outset, two features will strike nearly every viewer. First the sheer scale of these works: bigger pictures indeed. Four huge works occupy the walls of the opening room. Called 'Thixendale Trees', they depict an identical tree-lined landscape over the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Works on a similar grand scale, often composed of an integrated grid of up to six large canvases, recur in many of the succeeding rooms.
The second striking feature of the entire exhibition is the extraordinary, flamboyant vividness of Hockney's use of colour. The brilliance of light and shade transforms the familiar elements of the Yorkshire countryside – grass, fields, flowers, bushes, trees, leaves – into a symphony of explosive colour. East Yorkshire becomes as dramatically exotic as Tahiti.
Despite the concentration on landscape alone, the exhibition is multi-faceted in a variety of ways. The earliest Yorkshire paintings, from the 2004-05 period, are watercolours painted outside from direct observation. In 2006 Hockney produced seven large oil paintings, called 'Woldgate Woods', featuring the same scene at different times in the year, all produced at an easel fixed at the same spot.
On the other hand, many of the landscapes are the work, not of direct observation, but of memory and imagination combined. Then there are earlier examples of Hockney's amazing photocollages of landscapes such as that of America's Grand Canyon – which captures the very texture of the layered strata of rock.
One factor above all, I believe, ensures Hockney's success as a landscape artist: his ability – so evident in this exhibition – to draw the viewer into
the scene at which he is looking.
In a recent development the artist has been producing new works using visual and technological aids – such as the iPad. Finally, near the end of the exhibition, a room is dedicated to showing Hockney's films of the Yorkshire landscape he has made by controlling nine cameras mounted on the bonnet of a jeep. In a technically complex manner, the films flow and blend together in strange and fascinating detail. Some art critics have been prepared to see a greater or lesser degree of success in Hockney's use of these various techniques. No expert, I can't. Every work is impressive, and the variety of approaches suggests only the continuing energy and creativity of the not-so-young artist.
One factor above all, I believe, ensures Hockney's success as a landscape artist: his ability – so evident in this exhibition – to draw the viewer into the scene at which he is looking. Several large works depict woods. Standing in front of them, one's eyes are stretched to take in the entire scene. The result is that the gap between you and the trees seems to disappear. You no longer are outside, but rather inside the wood. Still more important is Hockney's inclusion in so many of these pictures of roads or pathways.
I have no idea of the exact percentage, but over and over again these landscapes contain a road of some kind. The pattern is established in the American examples on display here. 'Pearblossom Highway' (1986) is a wonderful photocollage of an empty road with litter, road-signs, and one or two stunted cactus trees. 'Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio' (1980) has the curving ribbon of the road at the heart of the picture. Such roads feature in almost every Yorkshire landscape, and the effect is always the same: the viewer’s eye is drawn in by the road, following its direction, seeking its destination. Inevitably you are there, part of the scene at which you are staring. And what do you see? Nothing human, usually not even a human artefact. The road remains empty – except for you and the landscape of which you have become part.
Enjoying this exhibition and the world it creates so vividly, I'm reminded of some of Robert Frost's poems about the landscapes of New England: 'The Road Not Taken', 'Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening', and, especially in the context of Hockney's paintings of piles of cut and stacked logs, 'The Wood-Pile'. But for Frost the focus is always on man's presence and role within the natural world. For Hockney, the landscape of the natural world speaks for itself.
Andrew Hook is a former professor of English literature at