Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

A small view of A Bigger Picture

And so to A Bigger Picture, David Hockney’s grand finale bid to assume the mantle of Constable at the horrendously overcrowded RA. The ticket queue wound right round Tatlin’s Tower in the courtyard, and it seemed like the whole of Guildford and Woking were here, most of them apparently from the Guildford and Woking Society of Artists. For this show runs the risk of being taken as some massively popular vindication of Sunday painting – art that is very much liked by people who don’t actually like very much art. (“Toweringly the greatest British artist alive today … Not since Picasso has there been an artist on this planet with a surer grasp … A giant in our midst” – The Daily Mail.) Along with the excellent and equally popular Freud show at the NPG, this witnesses to our acute yearning to re-access the accessible, a hunger which, the Mail notwithstanding, deserves to be taken seriously.

By the time I left, my eyes hurt from the hard glare of green. I hope never to see a tin of green paint again. Hockney is astonishingly, frighteningly industrious, and this show attempts to impress by the sheer weight of accumulation. The yardage of canvas is ten times too much. This may be a return to his Yorkshire roots, but there’s an awful lot of roots. And branches. It all needs a damn good weeding. But this busy-ness also indicates a manic impatience that may pass itself off as economy or immediacy. Finish one before you start the next, please! Hockney has always been a bit of a slack painter (even though a very clever one), and close inspection of these gigantic images quickly reveals some hasty moments, and even – in a few cases – small passages of irredeemable banality. Not that they are too noticeable viewed from the far end of a barn. These vast paintings do require distance. That or small scale reproduction, where, ironically, they work rather well.

In fact, and to his credit, Hockney positions himself firmly outside the Sunday painting tradition by his careful avoidance of the picturesque, invariably opting for a redemption of the “unremarkable” view. (Not that the Sunday painters among the viewing hordes are likely to notice this.) But unfortunately he has become so reliant over the years on photographic technologies that, for all his recent breezy talk of superseding the camera, his observations en plein air have a general tendency towards the condition of photographs. They are essentially transcriptions of the observed, which makes many of them a bit plodding. Not so often does he wrestle with the observed landscape to the extent of really re-thinking or re-shaping it, though the Hawthorn Blossom series is a good move in that direction. (I except here his experiments from memory, which look lame and under-informed in comparison to the rest.) But when he does move away from transcription, the results are sometimes marred by an assumed naivety which can look plain wrong – because it is not grounded, however distantly, in observation – or by a shift into a pop-fauve palette which somehow shouts of Disney.

Having said all this, the tighter charcoal drawings are wonderful, the sketchbooks are a sheer pleasure, and not a few paintings – particularly some of the Woldgate Woods series – are quite simply beautiful. Hockney is not Paul Nash, but at moments he does achieve a Nash-like mystery. There is a pleasing honesty about the whole project which makes it well worth the wait for a ticket, and he deserves our thanks for reasserting the primacy of looking and seeing, and for his demonstration of looking and painting as processes taking place in time. Speaking of time, in the accompanying DVD a cheap reaction is sought from Damien Hirst, who instead responds by discerning in the works a great sadness that speaks of mortality – a meaning almost certainly not within Hockney’s intentions. Whatever else Hirst may be, he surely isn’t stupid.

2 responses to “A small view of A Bigger Picture

  1. Mandrax Bassoon February 19, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    An splendid review. Maybe I don’t need to see the exhibition now … although the sketchbooks and drawings sound interesting. I am curious about this show but I’m put off by the blockbuster spectacle and, quite frankly, the images I’ve seen. But the images I’ve seen have appeared only on screen or in print. I suspect scale might be important.

    Hirst stupid? Hmm …. Don’t think I’ll be bothering with his show.

  2. richardawarren February 19, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    Well, on the matter of scale I tend to prefer the tightness given to these images by reproduction on the page/screen. They would make fine greetings cards. (I don’t mean that as a sneer.) But in the flesh I found the sheer acreage of canvas bombastic, and the looseness of some of the painting all too plain to see. And the hype is irritating, I agree. Noticeable that all the folk I’ve met who have raved about this show are those who normally never go near an art gallery from one year’s end to the next. Is that a good or a bad thing? But I think you’d like it, if only as a spectacle.

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