Having viewed David Shrigley at the Hayward Gallery, checked out Maurice de Vlaminck’s ‘Landscape with dead wood’ 1906 in the Courtauld collection, I joined the queue for David Hockney’s controversial latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. Reviews have been mixed. While serious art critics express reservations, the art loving public reportedly adore it.
David Hockney, Yorkshire’s ‘greatest living painter’ has returned from the sunshine of Los Angeles to reside on the seafront at Bridlington after a successful career painting the swimming pools and the beautiful people of Southern California. For at least two decades he has been an outstanding painter, famous for his faux-naïf style, the David Hockney paintings of the Hollywood Hills, a group of beautiful drawings and a series of double portraits the most famous of which is the Tate Gallery’s very popular ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ (1970-71). Turning his hand to various media, we then saw his photo-joiners, his dog pictures, his ruminations on optics (by far the most interesting), his later portraits, his watercolours – and now we have the late landscapes, which fill every available space in the Royal Academy.
The run up to the show saw the R.A. marketing department go into overdrive. Superlatives abounded. The message was, ‘This is the show of the decade and not to be missed’, it was advisable to book a ticket in advance so as not to miss out. There was even a competitive spat dreamed up between the new wonder kid Damian Hirst, originally from Leeds and David Hockney, originally from Bradford, the two great art stars of this Olympian year. David Hockney, it went, paints all his own pictures, while Damian Hirst employs other people to make his. But it was all in good fun. Damian didn’t rise to the bait and Hockney, the ever affable communicator, the friendly face of modern art, just smiled and lit another cigarette to the annoyance of the Metropolitan elite and the puzzlement of the public, fully informed of the dangers of smoking.
The long wait in the RA queue must have had a cooling effect, because once inside the exhibition, facial expressions and body language told a different tale. A bemused silence hung in the air as visitors contemplated the roomfuls of what seemed like half finished or barely started pictures. Puzzled by the dull repetition, they wondered at the overblown scale of the work done in a style that resembled the simplified look of the self-taught amateur painter. Empty pictures filled the rooms with lazy ciphers that stood in for grass, twigs, skies, road and blossom.
The mark making of the i-Pad seemed to have taken over from the expressive brush stroke. It was only when the colour volume had been turned up to its highest level as in the Hockney painting ‘More felled trees near Woldgate’ 2008 that these David Hockney paintings took on a more interesting abstract feel and thoughts of that Courtauld Vlaminck came to mind. I was also reminded of a painting with a similar subject matter of felled trees, the Tom Thompson painting ‘The Drive’ (1916).
As the visitors moved in a glum trance through roomfuls of brightly coloured yet dreary landscapes, they encountered some colossally enlarged i-Pad prints of Yosemite Valley which seemed to ape the work of Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt (the two great painters of the American Sublime). This was then followed by a roomful of regrettable variations of Claude Lorraine’s ‘Sermon on the Mount ‘ 1656, a visionary painting to be found in the Frick collection.
However, relief only arrived when the visitors had the chance to sit back and enjoy the David Hockney photography piece: a video presentation of some lovely English countryside in its natural colours, recorded by the nine video cameras attached to the artist’s Range Rover as it moved slowly down the country lanes.
Back on the street, I reviewed the day. . I had just seen three shows, enjoyed the Vlaminck – a kind of muscular Van Gogh – and seen the other great pictures at the Courtauld collection. What would I remember of the day? Well, strangely it was a David Shrigley animation, ‘Headless Drummer’ at the Hayward Gallery that really stood out. Here was an artist who, together with Martin Creed, is considered the joker in the pack of new British contemporary art. His drawings are so bad, they’re funny. He’s witty, deadpan and dark. He can make you laugh and has taken the pomposity and seriousness out of contemporary art.