In a typically take-no-prisoners review, respected art critic Brian Sewell slammed the new David Hockney show at London’s Royal Academy of Arts with the withering opening line: “My predominant response…is ‘why’?” Elsewhere the Yorkshireman’s work is “old-fashioned,” “clumsy,” and he is “a vulgar prankster.” As contempt goes it’s terrifically readable stuff, but simply doesn’t tally with a visit to the show itself. It’s immersive, evocative and ultimately hugely uplifting – I can’t recall more people smiling in any gallery I’ve ever been in.
A Sewell-ian search for deeper meaning among the 150 pieces on display may well be futile, but who cares when the whole thing’s this much fun? This is a celebration of nature in all its guises, from the febrile, fecund, over-sexed spring and summer months to the glazed, becalmed stillness of autumn and winter (it is striking that Hockney is able to depict even the bleakest months with a poetic but not pessimistic eye).
The vivid colours – bruised purple trees and pink streaks of fields – and shifting perspectives create a dazzling, dream-like version of the Yorkshire countryside which is powerfully bewitching, and that effect is amplified when the paintings are created as huge multi-canvas affairs. It becomes almost like set design as you are pulled into the scenes – and twee as it sounds, the noises and smells of east Yorkshire envelop you.
But that’s not to say Hockney can’t do subtlety too – among several versions of the same woodland scene, a pale, restrained mid-winter version has a gorgeous haunting quality.
The flagship moment in the show comes in the largest of the RA’s galleries with The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire 2011 where one wall is given over to a 32-panel behemoth, surrounded by more than 50 beautifully printed iPad drawings detailing the changing of the season in the same stretch of woodland between January and May. Standing in the middle you can wheel around and create your own timelapse of the onset of spring, as presented by a man who clearly loves each subtle gradient of that time of year.
However it’s not all about nature with Hockney and it’s noteworthy how many of the works include some kind of manmade intrusion – roads, road signs, electricity pylons. It’s not just an homage to rural idylls, it’s a celebration of his – and by extension our – interaction with the world around us.
I do agree with Sewell on two points. The first is a positive – Hockney is an unerringly brilliant draughtsman and in his drawings nature loses none of its visceral power. As a negative I too think the room dedicated to reproductions of Claude Lorrain’s Sermon on the Mount strikes an odd note, but even then I found something in most of the ten pictures to enjoy.
And then on the way out, you are surrounded by tall, looming pictures of Yosemite, reminding you that as with the Grand Canyon pieces at the start of the show, Hockney is equally at home with the imposing grandeur of American landscapes as he is in Yorkshire.
I left breathless, energised, moved, and, of course, smiling.
The show runs until 9 April.
Read our interview with the curator of the show here