Hockney’s High-Tech Pictures Open Eyes at Royal Academy: Review

"Winter Timber" (2009) by David Hockney. The painting is in "David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture" at the Royal Academy in London from Jan. 21 through April 9. Photographer: Jonathan Wilkinson/Royal Academy via Bloomberg

The Royal Academy of Arts in London has never been host to an exhibition quite like David Hockney’s “A Bigger Picture.”

The academy has a history dating to 1768. The one-man show, which runs from Jan. 21 to April 9, is a tour de force. It consists almost entirely of new work, using both low-tech media such as painting and the latest high-tech tools.

Hockney approaches the time-honored subject of nature in a fresh, contemporary way. The result is spectacular.

You might ask, what’s the point of a bigger picture? Hockney means the phrase in two ways. The first is paradoxical: the larger the image, the closer to it the viewer feels. While an ordinary-sized canvas is like a window on the world, a huge one envelops you. Abstract painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock worked on a large scale for this reason.

Hockney does the same, depicting what he likes to call “the visible world.” In the exhibition, there are wall-sized paintings of corners of Yorkshire countryside near his current base of operations in the seaside town of Bridlington. The subjects are woodland and undergrowth. Looking at them, you almost feel the leaves brush your face.

That is one kind of big picture. The other is more hi-tech. Hockney has long argued that the photograph, seen through a single lens, constricts our sense of the world. After all, we have two eyes -- connected, as Hockney puts it, “to the mind.” We move around a world we can touch and feel. In lots of ways, our experience isn’t like the normal camera view.

Multiple Cameras

To address the problem, Hockney has come up with a new kind of picture created by multiple, high-definition cameras set at slightly different angles. The result is a moving photo-collage: a bigger picture because it sees more, from varying points of view.

Most of the films on show are landscapes, though the most recent is a dance spectacular, shot on 18 cameras in Hockney’s studio. It gives a wonderful festive finale to the exhibition, in which Hockney paints the stage in sumptuous color, and shoots the action like a combination of Pablo Picasso and Busby Berkeley.

The whole exhibition, as you walk through it, has a feeling of crescendo. After an initial section dealing with Hockney landscapes from early in his career, and including epic views of the Grand Canyon and Hollywood Hills, it mainly focuses on the Yorkshire terrain in which he has been working for the last few years.

Quiet Fields

In a way, most of the exhibition could be considered one huge work, documenting the way that Hockney has tracked ever closer to these quiet trees and fields.

At first he used conventional media such as watercolor and outdoor oil painting. The more recent work is mainly large-scale oils done in the studio, and drawings done on his iPad at least partly on location out in the landscape.

Some of the latter, done last autumn in Yosemite National Park in California, are printed out in a format with a height of 6 feet (1.8 meters).

Thus another high-tech medium lets Hockney combine the virtues of the on-the-spot sketch with grand dimensions.

I should declare an interest. As a friend and supporter of the artist, I’ve seen much of this work evolving. Nonetheless, I was taken aback by the boldness and panache of the total ensemble.

Hockney, 74, relates that once, after visiting a Monet retrospective, he looked around with fresh eyes, and saw “just a little bit more.”

This has the same effect. The experience is exhilarating.

“A Bigger Picture” will be at the Royal Academy, London, from Jan. 21 to April 9. The show is sponsored by BNP Paribas SA. Information: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. His most recent book is “A Bigger Message: Conversations With David Hockney.”. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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