David Hockney at the National Gallery

Some weeks ago I rather smugly marched past enormous queues of people desperate to get into the National Gallery’s exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work.  Some of those people had been there since the early hours, and none of them were guaranteed to get in.

So there was a certain amount of poetic justice when I was to be found at 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning during the Easter holidays queuing for entry to another London exhibition that has made something of a splash.  It is ‘A Bigger Picture’, containing works by David Hockney, partly chosen and hung by the man himself.

The focus of the exhibition was especially on Hockney’s exploration of the Yorkshire countryside that he grew up in and has recently moved back to.  Accompanying these pieces was a room charting his development as an artist and some more recent work done in America.

The result was a chaotic mix.  There is no doubting Hockney’s ability as an artist-the gallery of his early work showed that he is capable of aping any style while at the same time developing his own, distinctive, look.  His striking photo-montages and vivid paintings of the Grand Canyon are the only thing I have ever seen that has come close to capturing the spirit and alien colours of the real thing.

Hockney enjoys focussing on a single subject and then attacking it from every angle, at every time of day for months on end.  When he finds something that he can really get his teeth into, the results can be truly astonishing.  Thixendale Trees is a series of four paintings of three trees illustrated in each season.  Moving from one to the next feels like moving slowly but significantly in time.  I spent ages watching them, entranced.

Likewise, his paintings of a junction of paths in Woldgate Woods begged the viewer to strap on a pair of boots, grasp a sturdy stick and jump joyously into the mud over the edge of the frame.  Or maybe lean yourself against that oak over there and listen to the birds, or kick up great storms of leaves in the autumn.  By allowing himself time to explore an area or subject, Hockney brings it to life in a way few are capable of.

When the subject doesn’t work, the result is very boring indeed.  One small (and very dull) tree stump was repeated endlessly in one room (Trees and Totems) while his versions of The Sermon on the Mount (again, endlessly repeated) were significantly less interesting than the walls they hung on.  Even his paintings of Hawthorn Blossom contrived to be dull, like looking at a hedge without any sensory benefits at all.

The label for the Hawthorn room was a particularly terrible example of the genre.  These captions are written by museum professionals, who presumably were given their jobs because they know a lot about art and are at least capable writers.  The claim that Hockney has acquired ‘a knowledge of seasonal changes akin to that possessed by agricultural workers past and present’ is both bemusing and vacuous.

In these, I fear the influence of the artist himself can be felt, which (along with the multiple rooms of poor quality but deeply personal works) did help to give the whole thing a little bit of an air of self-indulgence.  This feeling was almost entirely swept away by The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (Twenty-Eleven).

A glorious spring-time image imposes itself on one whole wall while around the other three are placed paintings done throughout spring and early summer on a Yorkshire lane.  What is remarkable about these images is that every one has been done on an iPad.  Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky (and they do look unnervingly like the sort of drawings we did as kids on Paint when you get too close) but the overall affect is glorious and overwhelming.

Oh, that the same could be said of the audience.  One of the strongest aspects of the da Vinci exhibition was that it was totally accessible regardless of one’s knowledge of art and consequently was full of the widest mix of people, all happily rubbing shoulders and reverentially (almost nervously) enjoying the art.

Contrastingly, ‘A Bigger Picture’ was crowded full of people far more interested in themselves than the paintings, happy to push you out of the way without warning or apology.  Some held forth loudly in an effort to show how amazing they were.  Others talked loudly on their mobile about what they were having for dinner.  One woman actually touched a painting and was nearly shot on the spot by the outraged (and quite crotchety, because he’d been awake since 6:30am) young man next to her.

I don’t want to end on a bleak note, so I will take you to the final, glorious room of the exhibition.  Here were a collection of paintings showcasing what Hockney does best.  On the one hand were several studies of Yosemite National Park.  Given time and space to explore he had recreated uncannily the feel of being stood at the bottom of something immense and primeval.  On the other were two pictures of Yorkshire, lovingly rendered and indefinably alive.  This is what Hockney is really about.  Sure, the whole thing is a bit of a vanity project, but it is a damn good one.

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