Forget Avatar: David Hockney’s ‘bigger’ vision is the one to relish
When Avatar came out, I couldn’t help but get swept up in James Cameron’s astonishing conception. This is because a hopelessly bad movie was redeemed only by an awesome visual feast of digital artistry, And others were equally swept up. So much so in fact that I noticed at the time that there was a popular sense of despairing yearning for a world as beautiful and stunning as Pandora. Which led me to start a slightly flippant post called Antidotes to Post-Pandora Blues. I never finished it for some reason, but the exhilarating new Hockney exhibition this morning at the Royal Academy brought it back to mind.
I had been hoping to come up with a whole list of antidotes, but for some reason got distracted after only 3.
For what it’s worth, they were:
- Recognise that even Planet Pandora is NOT QUITE what it might be
- Recognise that Planet Earth has INFINITELY MORE to offer
- Recognise that Planet Earth’s Creator is INFINITELY MORE reliable than James Cameron
I think that one of the reasons Avatar appealed so much was our total immersion in this world (especially when in 3D). In every direction, we are transfixed by its physical beauty, its evocative sound-world, its fluorescence, its wildness, its scale. It is just so disappointing to emerge back into drab, mundane, earth-bound reality. But that is to miss the wonder of the real world…
Hockey’s Vision of Reality
The RA exhibition is entitled A Bigger Picture – no prizes for guessing why (though the ‘bigger’ theme harks back to his California years when he first found fame with his 1967 ‘A Bigger Splash’, right). But it seems to me that Hockney’s development of these multi-canvas works is not about making grandiose statements or attention-grabbing headlines. These paintings are attempts at offering full immersion into the natural world. The impossibility of capturing on canvas even the remotest sense of a place as breath-taking as the Grand Canyon seems to inspire or even taunt Hockney. By offering an image that far exceeds the bounds of normal fields of vision, we are invited to step right into the world he is observing, far more effectively than any single canvas can. His Grand Canyon pictures are famously effective (see below) – one of the great aspects of this RA exhibition is its juxtaposition of older multi-canvas works with his Yorkshire landscapes of the last 5 years.
You might think that wanting to close one’s eyes in an art gallery is rather a sign of failure. And yet such was the feeling standing in front of this work (Winter Timber, 2009). Of course, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it – but such was its power, I wanted to close my eyes, wander in, enjoy the birdsong and breathe deeply. The colours are exuberant of course – they are almost Pandora-like in their fluorescence. But the scale, the bold colours and clear shapes evoke the real world as well as any great landscape painting. And that’s the thing. Hockney just loves the natural world – he knows it intimately – especially the countryside around his childhood home of Bridlington – and it is this exuberance that is so infectious. Click the images to get a larger view…
Winter Timber, 2009
Some will probably think I’m getting all pseudy – and unless one sees, or rather experiences, these paintings, it will probably seem slightly over the top. But I came away feeling more in love with the beauty of our world not less – because I’d been made to see it through fresh eyes. And you don’t need to invent an alien digital world to have that experience. Far from it – you just need to go outside.
I was reminded of something Eugene Peterson wrote in his wonderful Eat This Book, and he naturally (and validly) applies the point to Scripture:
Henry David Thoreau, one of our canonized American sages, wrote of having “travelled a good deal in Concord” (the small New England village in which he spent his life). An item in the oral tradition that formed around Louis Agassiz, the celebrated Harvard biologist and professor, remembers that he returned to his classroom after the summer vacation and told his students that he had spent the summer travelling and made it halfway across his backyard. I want to hold out for travelling widely in Holy Scripture. For Scripture is the revelation of a world that is vast, far larger than the sin-stunted, self-constricted world that we construct for ourselves out of a garage-sale assemblage of texts. (p45)
But we could and should equally allow the point to stand about travelling in the natural world. The exhibition shows how incredibly prolific Hockney is – a whole gallery is dedicated to this work, The Arrival Of Spring, which was painted for this RA exhibition – and it is surrounded by 51 iPad paintings, studies of the woods at different times of day and one many different days, in different lights. The culmination is this huge, 32-canvas studio work. I especially loved the detail of forest floor, with its grasses, wild flowers and general natural busyness. Because that is more or less at the viewer’s eye-height, it is almost as if we are part of the place’s animal life exploring through the undergrowth. It is an inviting and above all joyful vision – the title says it all…
The Arrival of Spring, 2011
I could go on and on. But won’t. Sell your shirt to see the exhibition. It won’t disappoint. It is FAR more worthwhile an investment than an Avatar DVD. And the best thing about it – this is the real world. And you’ll want to explore it even more. Perhaps especially because you emerge from the RA into the chaos Piccadilly, it made me want to get out into the countryside as soon as possible. Sadly, we’ll have to wait for a month or two before getting the chance.
Woldgate Woods, November 2006
A Bigger Grand Canyon (1998)
Salts Mill, Saltaire, 1997
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