Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: David Hockney

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.

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 25 July, episode 3

It could have been worse. The final instalment of “British Masters”, to be fair, was perhaps the least absurd of the three, though that’s not saying much. Sauntering and chuntering his way towards the expiry of his nebulous thesis, the anxiously photogenic Dr Fox seemed to have calmed down slightly  – unless I’m getting used to him?

For Fox, every painting is a symbolist painting. And worse, a symbolist painting that only admits of a single one-dimensional interpretation. So Sutherland’s thorns represent weapons, inhumanity, post-war angst etc. But jagged natural forms appear in Sutherland’s paintings from the mid / late ‘thirties. He himself wrote that thorns “established a limit of aerial space … pricking out points in space.” In other words, his fascination with these shapes was at least as much formal as symbolic. As evidenced by his own words on archive film included in the programme, and by the optimistic colourings of some of the thorn paintings shown. But Fox only recognises symbolic and narrative content (which is why he rather obviously avoids the abstract), and seems oblivious to form, colour, texture, tonality – all the actual elements of painting.

So Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) are “badly painted”, according to Fox. But what does “badly” mean in this context? He wasn’t saying. Ah, if only Alfred Munnings had done this instead – how much better it could have been!

Hockney’s California paintings were reckoned to be images of utter paradise. But the vast flatnesses, the bleak architecture, the sterile colouring, the absolute  absence of humanity in Bigger Splash – aren’t these indicators of at least a degree of two-mindedness on Hockney’s part? There’s paradise and then there’s paradise …

A figure composition by the wonderful Keith Vaughan was “explained” as some sort of Seven Ages of Man. Seated figure: clearly foetal. Figure with small limp willy: clearly rampant adult sexuality. Figure in a shade of grey: clearly dead, etc etc.

And so it went on. At least we were spared the talk (threatened in a trailer for the series) of Vaughan as “an obsessive masturbator”, which was an unexpected piece of good judgement. Meanwhile the doctor was still much in evidence, peering quizzically at a small piece of thorn bush, slumming it down a Bradford back alley, camping it up with a waxwork of David Hockney, fondling a Chevrolet etc. In a narcissism contest, Keith Vaughan would not have stood a chance here.

Most misleading was the poor attempt to make Vaughan’s sad suicide a signifier for the supposed death of British painting. Vaughan took the tablets in 1977, since when, according to Fox, it’s been sharks and beds all the way. Yet Vaughan recognised, in comments read by Fox in the programme, that his own eclipse was symptomatic of the triumph of Pop Art, which Fox had just hailed as a reinvigoration of the “tradition”. And what about the ‘eighties revival of painting and all that flowed from that? What about (to name three off the cuff) the popular, albeit over-rated, Paula Rego? The mysterious landscapes of Peter Doig? Or Jock McFadyen, whose gutsy characters are rooted in the ‘fifties paintings of Colquhoun and MacBryde, which were overlooked by Fox? (Too Scottish, maybe? Despite the series title, Fox clearly doesn’t do provinces, feeling most secure in the home counties.) But one could add dozens of more recent significant names, without even touching the ghastly Stuckists.

The last word on TV Art presenters can go to Keith Vaughan (Journals, 24 November 1973, reacting to John Berger on the box):

“Well – he’s too smooth. Too much the professional orator for me to believe in. Effective? Yes. He knows how to hang on the ball …Takes himself too seriously. A pundit. He overbids his hand.”

That’s about right. Cheers, Keith.