David Hockney’s Recent Landscapes

Mixed Messages from a Modern Master

David Hockney’s "Woldgate Woods."

LETTER FROM LONDON: David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at London’s Royal Academy (closed Apr. 9) was a smash hit even in a London season inundated with blockbuster exhibitions ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Francis Bacon. An astonishing number of Hockney landscapes — more than 150 — filled the walls. Some of them, like “Winter Timber” (2009), which covers 15 canvasses, are huge — a bigger picture indeed. Others of more modest size were hung in vast phalanxes. There was a whole wall of watercolors, for instance, and 50-odd iPad works printed on large paper covered three enormous gallery walls in floor-to-ceiling grids. And, except for one smaller room containing a retrospective of landscapes that Hockney had painted elsewhere, the show was made up entirely of recent work depicting the fields and woods of Hockney’s native Yorkshire, in the north of England, where the artist had returned in recent years to tend to his ailing mother.

This is East Yorkshire as it has surely never been seen before: bright and sunny, its blue skies crowded with white scudding clouds, its woods, copses, and banks of flowering hedges open and inviting. In contrast to some of his earlier, psychologically more complex works, these are simple, almost childlike celebrations of country roadside scenes, made exuberant by their intense color. “Tunnels,” or views down tree-lined dirt lanes, are rendered in striped purples and oranges, as if in Van Gogh’s Arles. Especially wonderful are the hawthorn hedges covered in creaming flowers, the most orgasmic of them like frothing masses of caterpillars, irresistible and (unintentionally?) comic. The expressions of an old man confronting mortality as he cares for his declining mother, these works celebrate life and fecundity and the continued promise of fertility of the natal place.

But questions grew as I stumbled along, trying not to bump into the other, seemingly equally perplexed visitors to this crowded exhibition. Hockney’s pop-inspired appropriation of impressionism is certainly facile, but it’s uninteresting without some social observation, intervention, or purpose. Perhaps the works are subversive, but how far does rendering the English countryside in colors normally reserved for tropical effects go in helping us see the North of England not just in a new color scheme, but in a new light? The relentlessness of Hockney’s summery effect is suspect: There are few deep shadows or dark clouds, and even the autumn scenes are sun-bright. Every Hockney tunnel has a light at the end of it; those that aren’t sunstruck are perhaps gray but never dark, and none are even remotely foreboding.

I heard one visitor say that “these paintings are lifting my mood,” and indeed many in the crowd seemed to want to feel that happiness. Bright color can do that — witness the shared palette of children’s TV and eye-candy advertising. Here, the relentlessness of the cheer works like Prozac — this is Pharmaceutical Art.

Hockney has made me want to see East Yorkshire, but not because I want to locate his sunny views. The Daily Telegraph reports that the actual landscapes Hockney worked in are often choked in litter from “fly-tipping” — illegal trash dumping. And nowhere in these happy scenes of rural splendor are there any complications of people (not a one), or buildings, or actions economic, political, historical, or psychological. There is a total absence of real life, rain, and vexation. Absent, too — and probably not coincidentally — are complications like aging and death. Many of these pictures will no doubt become perennial favorites in print shops everywhere, next to their impressionist models. But I wonder whether the industrious Hockney, who worked so busily on these that he turned down an offer to paint the Queen, is guilty of the sin of omission, or far worse, of evasion. Surely it is a missed chance for landscape painting to reflect on landscape, not just on the painter.

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture will be at Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao from May 15 until September 30 and at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, from October 29 until February 4, 2013.


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