Visitors to the Royal Academy could be forgiven for thinking this new exhibition is a retrospective, or at least, an overview of David Hockney’s work. In fact, the exhibition’s title translates far more literally, for the pictures in this exhibition are big. Some of them are really big, giant landscapes constructed from 15 or more canvasses, whose vibrant colours pulsate through the elegant rooms of Burlington House, and the sheer space afforded them allows us, as viewers, to stand back and explore them. Alongside these massive paintings of the Yorkshire wolds, a landscape of rich pasture and rolling hills, are works created on an iPad, which remind us that Hockney has always been excited by new technology (recall his photo-collages of the 1980s). The instant accessibility of the iPad enabled him to make rapid sketches (no waiting for watercolour paint to dry!) and quickly record the shifting colours and nuances of the landscape and the weather.The paintings may be of the landscape of his native Yorkshire, but Hockney references California, his home for many years, in hot Matisse-like colours -- a rich palette of reds and golds, greens, purples and blues. By choosing to concentrate on landscape, Hockney connects with the great European tradition of landscape painting, and the work of artists such as Constable, Turner, the lover of light, and his predecessor Claude Lorraine. And by depicting a very small area of Yorkshire, he is able to examine it as intimately as Monet examined Giverny and its environs.
But it is the sheer scale of the paintings which is important: we are invited to see “a bigger picture,” literally and metaphorically. A small canvas is a window, a glimpse, while a large painting invites us in, allows us to inhabit it, and immerse ourselves in it. We feel not only the physical vastness of the landscape and a sense of its grandness (this is particularly striking in the pictures of Yosemite in room 13), but also its subtle nuances and details. Created largely en plein air, the multiple depictions of the same scene are redolent of Monet’s series paintings: enter the Royal Academy’s central hall and the experience is exactly like seeing Monet’s famous water lilies, as Hockney invites us to view, in the round, four paintings of the same group of trees at Thixendale at four different times of the year.
The received opinion is that landscape painting is over, except amongst Sunday painters, but Hockney demonstrates the excitement and energy of the natural world, bringing it to life with his vivid palette, his keen eye, and his draughtsman’s skill with line and form: here spring hedgerows laden with exuberantly blousy blossom, there emerald greens softened by golden summer light, or dazzling late autumn umbers and earthy reds.
If you know how to look, the landscape is alive with colour: purple trees, blue fields, red stones, and the same subject never looks the same way twice. In the series of iPad pictures The Arrival of Spring (room 9), the subtlety of the changing seasons is documented in flamboyant, daring colours, and rapid mark-making, which draw the eye along the same lane, past the same landmarks.
The film of the landscape Hockney has painted, produced with 9 cameras running at the same time, each from a slightly different viewpoint, allows an amazing picture to build up before your eyes. Like the his photo-collages of the 1980s, the multi-view film allows one to see incredible details and subtle changes, a captivating journey through the seasons, like strolling along the same country lane every day for a year.
The scale of the exhibition itself is vast too -- there are more than 150 works on display -- and the visitor might want a second look to take it all in. But it flows well through the thematically-arranged galleries, with a sense of a crescendo as one approaches the main room, and the immense 32-canvas painting The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty Eleven). The soft earth tones of the walls complement the displays well, and as one wanders through the rooms, one is offered tantalising glimpses, down a lane, across a field. Everywhere you look there is colour and energy.
Alongside the new work is a retrospective room, which charts Hockney’s long-standing interest in the landscape, from the 1950s to the 1990s, and there are drawings and sketches throughout, as well as an entire room devoted to his preparatory work. Here, technology assists once again: Hockney’s sketchbooks are displayed digitally, allowing us to browse them. Five wall-mounted iPads show the original iPad pictures created with the ‘Brushes’ app: it is fascinating to see them in their original format, backlit, and to compare them with the blown-up versions. For anyone interested in painting, this is a marvellous opportunity to examine the artist’s craft.
This breathtaking exhibition of great panache and vibrancy is set to be a sell-out. Vivid in its colours, romantic in its subject-matter, it is enjoyable, exciting and above all, uplifting, and reveals Hockney as an artist still bursting with ideas and creativity.