Now in his eighth decade, David Hockney is perhaps the only living British artist to have attained – alongside actress Dame Judi Dench, playwright Alan Bennett and Stephen Fry – the peculiar status of ‘National Treasure’. To belong to this category is, in the communal imagination at least, to exhibit several qualities: professional longevity; a widely acknowledged creative talent; an often eccentric but essentially cozy personal manner tempered by the occasional episode of charming and wholly justified irritability; a certain small ‘c’ conservatism combined with mild anti-authoritarianism (National Treasures may belong to the political left or right, but are rarely ideologues); and a perceived willingness to take tea with anybody from one’s grandmother to the Queen. Alien as it may seem to anybody outside Britain, this understanding of Hockney must surely have been a factor in the Royal Academy’s decision to stage not an overview of his oeuvre, but to fill their vast and venerable exhibition spaces with his landscapes, most of which were made after 2005, and which focus on a small corner of Yorkshire, the county of his birth. The National Treasure enjoys a level of public indulgence denied less beloved mortals. In this particular case, it’s perhaps no bad thing.
Entitled ‘A Bigger Picture’, Hockney’s RA exhibition has the distinction of being hugely enjoyable, and at its best almost druggily transcendent, without ever feeling as though it were a significant part of his legacy. (For that, one should look to the works featured in the excellent ‘David Hockney 1960–1968: A Marriage of Styles’, the inaugural exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary in 2009, which charted his passage from purveyor of agitated London Pop to painter of faintly creepy Californian serenity between the years 1960 and 1968.) In a kind of ‘orientation room’ near the beginning of the show, curators Marco Livingstone and Edith Devaney make a brief stab at arguing for Hockney’s longstanding interest in landscape, presenting a couple of scratchy, Kitchen Sink-school scenes of suburban knolls and rural scrublands he made as a teenager in the late 1950s, a few canvases featuring, but certainly not wholly devoted to, mountain ranges from the 1960s and 1970s, and photomontages and paintings of the Grand Canyon from the 1980s and 1990s. It’s not terribly convincing (one might make a better case for his abiding fascination with portraiture, or even the painted word), but then again it doesn’t really need to be. The exhibition’s central narrative is one of homecoming: both the Bradford boy’s return from Los Angeles to the Yorkshire Ridings, and the eventual embrace, by this nationally cherished artist, of a very British genre, his late-flowering transformation into a latter-day J.M.W. Turner or John Constable.
‘A Bigger Picture’ is a huge show full of huge paintings, running on for room after room, as though its purpose was to somehow recreate Hockney’s wanderings through woodlands and along hedgerows on a 1:1 scale. In the interests of pure pictorial quality, it could be halved or even quartered (there are, if not many outright duds here, plenty of works that underwhelm when considered in isolation), but this would be to dial down its ebullience, its damn-your-eyes pleasure in transmuting what is, in the end, a blandly pretty part of the world into a chromatic wonderland. Painted en plein air, or in the studio, or poked and prodded into the yielding screen of Hockney’s iPad or iPhone, these are images that attempt to access the visionary, in the manner of Samuel Palmer or Vincent van Gogh. Now and then, they come close to succeeding. In the eight-panel painting May Blossom on the Roman Road (2009), a series of hawthorn bushes writhe with what appear to be huge, glowing caterpillars, grown fat under a pink and boiling spring sky. Likewise, in Winter Timber (2009), a very ordinary tree stump is anthropomorphized into a wild man of the woods, his grimacing, empurpled face contemplating a pile of felled timber the shape and colour of a carton’s worth of McDonald’s fries. Hockney is best when he allows his jokey, graphic sensibility to get mixed up in the serious business of landscape painting. When he doesn’t – as in a work such as Rudston to Sledmere, August (2005) – the result can feel a little too close to the plodding vistas that populate the Royal Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, a turgid showcase of Barbizon School fan-art and bad impressions of the Impressionists.
Much is made in the exhibition publicity, catalogue and wall texts of Hockney’s adoption of Apple products in the pursuit of his landscape works, the subtext being a kind of benign surprise, even delight, that an artist in his seventies would employ such sexily contemporary devices to such seemingly traditional ends. Whether this gives one the warm fuzzies is, I guess, a personal matter (me, I just feel faintly alarmed at yet another example of proprietary tech being promoted as though it were as open source as a pencil or paintbrush), but the results are oddly appealing. In the Academy’s largest gallery, he presents ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011’ (2011), a series of 51 large prints of works – made on an iPad using the Brushes app – that chart a seasonal shift from January to June. While his linework, here, lacks the crazed vigour of his best recent paintings, or the aching precision of his drawings, their weird flatness gives them a pleasing deadpan flavour that cuts through their tired old/new schtick. In the final analysis, I suspect they will be as peripheral to his achievements as his previous experiments with photocopiers and fax machines, but like the rest of ‘A Bigger Picture’ they are not really about creating a legacy (that, assuredly, has already been long in the bag), but about freedom, and fun, a gently telling the world to go fuck itself in the sure knowledge that it’ll want you all the more. Such are the spoils of the National Treasure. Who would deny Hockney that?