This is an exhibition full of surprises. Before arriving at the exhibition I was full of questions. Hockney’s latest paintings are of landscapes. Could I be excited by pictures of trees? Could Hockney, now 75 years old, still paint with the energy and humour he did in his younger days? Could Yorkshire really provide the painter with the inspiration that the US had?
The answer to all of these questions is yes. Visitors are welcomed into the exhibition by four large, recent canvases of three trees at Thixendale. Hockney’s familiarity with the trees is evident. He calls them “old friends”. They are beautiful studies that show off Hockney’s skill, but they don’t really prepare you for what is to come.
The next gallery contains something of a contrast – a large earlier painting of the Grand Canyon. You can’t help but feel a sense of joy at the immersive and overwhelming use of oranges and reds. Hockney shows us another of his formidable painterly skills – his use of colour.
Next there are paintings of the countryside dating from the 1990s. Bright pinks, blues, greens, yellows, oranges and reds combine in abstract shapes. These works succeed in confounding our expectations of what Yorkshire “should” look like. But there is something a bit rigid about these paintings in contrast to the freedom that Hockney has evidently achieved in his more recent work.
In the early 2000s Hockney seems to have gone back to basics, as though trying to rediscover something about painting landscapes. There are many paintings here, quite often simple sketches, sometimes depicting the same view painted again and again in both watercolour and oils. We get a sense of Hockney’s process here.
A dazzling room of paintings of hawthorn blossom succeeds in capturing the fullness of spring, an event he describes as “nature’s erection” Spring in Woldgate Woods is the exhibition’s other monumental painting. The freedom of shape and line that Hockney has built up in the preceding rooms is rubbed in our faces. The leaves seem to float in front of the painting and the footpath in the middle entices you to walk down it.
The work that Hockney does on the iPad is interesting but comes across as a more restrictive medium after we’ve witnessed his mastery of paint.
This is a well thought-out exhibition. It is almost as though Hockney is holding you by the hand as you go round – explaining, showing and, yes, making us smile. Experimentation doesn’t happen behind closed doors; it’s an important part of the exhibition.
The huge range of Hockney’s abilities and the diversity of the work mean that, like any good exhibition, you want to go immediately back to the beginning and double-check it’s as good as you thought. And it is.
David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy of Arts, until 9 April
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