David Hockney is regarded by many as Britain’s greatest living artist. Understandably so, given his contribution to modern British art both through his works and in making modern art accessible to the public.
Landscape painting is an institution of British art, conjuring up images of the naturalistic paintings of Constable and Gainsborough and the more impressionistic landscapes of Turner.
So what happens when you put Hockney together with landscape painting? The Royal Academy is hoping that it will prove to be a winning combination, and the number of advance bookings suggests that they’ve got it right.
The first thing that hits you when you enter the exhibit is that Hockney has brought his own unique style to landscape painting and the bold colours instantly grab hold of you and pull you into his interpretation of the Yorkshire countryside. This immersion is made possible by the scale of some of his pieces and the fact that the largest gallery is covered in paintings from floor to ceiling – a room that you could spend hours in.
Throughout the exhibit you can see that the artist has experimented with various techniques, switching medium to video or using a starker palette but these dalliances are less impressive than their bolder, painted cousins.
One of the smaller galleries is dedicated to an experiment where Hockney has taken Claude Lorraine’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and slowly broken it down over a series of paintings from the realistic to the abstract. These paintings highlight Hockney’s mastery in the interpretation of life as art.
It’s only when he starts to experiment with the surreal that you feel like the exhibit is truly stepping up a gear. The fantastical colours of ‘May blossom on Roman road’ mixed with a swirling sky reminiscent of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry night over the Rhone’ suggest that you have stumbled into a Yorkshire in a parallel universe of Hockney’s creation. But just as it feels as if the exhibit is starting to get interesting we’re pulled back to reality with another landscape that looks just like five others you’ve seen in the previous gallery. When there are over 150 works on display, more of the same isn’t necessarily a good thing.
Hockney is capable of so much more. For example, one gallery displays some of his earlier landscapes and there is a painting of the Grand Canyon that uses such vivid colours that you can almost feel the heat radiating from the canvas.
The two questions that you have to ask yourself are: is this a spectacular exhibition that you should go and see? And is it everything you would like it to be? The answers are yes and no.
Though you will walk away from this exhibition feeling like you’ve witnessed some brilliant artworks by a modern master, you may not be able to shake the nagging feeling that if Hockney hadn’t played it safe and ventured further into the abstract and the surreal then this exhibition could have been so much more.
By Tabish Khan
David Hockney: A bigger picture is at the Royal Academy of Arts from 21 January to 9 April. Entrance is £14 for full adult price, concessions available. Booking recommended.
There's also a free Hockney exhibition on at Alan Cristea Gallery.