A visit to David Hockney’s “Bigger Picture” exhibition


Queue for David Hockney in the Royal Academy forecourt; we had tickets!

After rising at 5.30 a.m. and driving to the station to catch a train to London that would get me there with an hour to spare, at about 09.30 a.m. I found myself in a stationery train in countryside somewhere between Swindon and Didcot Parkway. When the train eventually got going again, it was running over an hour late and I wondered if I might miss the OCA study day altogether so I contacted Gareth Dent, the CEO of the OCA, who gave me the contact number for the day which however, did not work. Fortunately, I eventually found the group shortly before they entered the Royal Academy and found myself in a small group, the leader of which was OCA tutor Tony Logan, a personal friend of Hockney’s from Yorkshire.

OCA staff - David Winning, Tony Hogan and Jane Horton

“An unusual but typical Yorkshireman!” I heard someone muttering about Hockney as we made our way through the crowd of people in the RA. “Not the kind of man who strikes one as aesthetic!”

I find myself smitten by the impression that this exhibition is more about Hockney than art and find it hard to discard the suggestion.

The first room we enter shows a group of trees (two of these have apparently been felled since they were painted by Hockney). There is one large painting for each if the seasons and these four paintings can be seen on each side of the oval room; the other four sides of the room are doorways and through these one can see further works by Hockney. Tony tells us that these paintings are examples of David Hockney reinventing landscape. He paints on an easel working directly on the panels that are then assembled as one very large painting. This is not an entirely new approach of Hockney’s, he was doing it in America when he made paintings of the Grand Canyon; one of these works contains 60 different panels!

Tony Hogan fills us in on the background to the work on show

We hear about Hockney’s life from David. His late mother was known as “the old dragon” while his assistant Jean-Pierre does just about everything except actually paint the pictures. The studio the size of a warehouse.

Hockney spends a lot of time just looking, hours just looking; for instance, two hours looking at a tree and discussing the way it looks. (I like this Zen approach yet wonder if it is really Zen or an imitation of it.) I wonder whether I might not adopt this approach more as a photographer! Certainly, there are times when I like to wander out and look rather than make photographs, to visit a place without a camera before photographing it. This approach rather depends on the subject perhaps as well as the amount of time one has.

Hockney paints what he sees; hence, a grey road might be tinged with violet because that is the colour he sees. In a painting with a misty sky, he sees the road as grey as that is what one might when there is not the ultra-violet of the open sky present. He can see these things through looking while most of us cannot because we do not and presumably because neither do we have his imagination. Other painters might also see these colours but they don’t have the courage to paint this view of reality. As a photographer, I am likely to be encouraged to suppress such colouration by correcting it to a norm.

Hockney is very dedicated to his art which he has been doing for 60 years. He sometimes sleeps only for a couple of hours in the afternoon; he may rise at 5 a.m. and work through till 11 p.m. hence the prodigious amount of work he has produced over recent years. In fact, 50% of what he has done for this exhibition is not on show.

Learn techniques intuitively!
Let inspiration be your guide!

One does need to do the groundwork training that the OCA provides; one only can only break the rules when one has learnt them. Hockney himself emphasizes the need for basic skills.

Hockney paints in an original way. For instance, he paints in his skies last when this is something most people do at first. Hockney argues that the kind of sky will reflect the landscape and so is best done last.

There is much older work from Hockney on display. Some of his paintings from the late 1950’s looked so drab and dull to Hockney’s sister that she hid them from the view of others when delivering them to an art gallery.

Hockney won a Royal Academy gold medal at 18. Some of his earlier work was about challenging the conventions of art and advancing them but this was later forgotten, perhaps as Hockney became something of an icon himself. Such is the view of a considerable amount of people and as a photographer withoutany real understanding of artist’s methods, I can only listen and reflect!

somewhere between Swindon and Didcot Parkway

I pick up a compositional tip! A spot of red at the back of a painting draws the eye in. Feel sure this would work in photography yet often one does not have the chance to present this.The photo here shows the working of such a rule.

Hockney’s revelations about the use of the camera lucida and similar drawing aids has upset the art establishment. However, it is a brilliant and penetrating insight into the fact that the Old Masters were not as masterful as we perhaps like to think. It is quite easy to see where a camera lucida has been used in composing a painting since the perspective is much flatter. Cameras are useful to the painter but frustrating since they flatten everything.

viewing Hockney's paintings

We see a wall adorned with 36 paintings, all of mid-summer in East Yorkshire.

Thinking, looking and learning …

I am struck not just by the colour and detail of Hockney’s paintings but also by his use of contrast to hold these together.

Hockney says people need to look more, to see what is in front of them without passing it by unknowingly. Again I feel a Zen message here since in Zen one sees and accepts what is. However, is this really what Hockney is doing?

When Hockney started doing this work in Yorkshire, he agreed that he wanted to keep it quiet, not advertise the place but one thing has lead to another and already tourists have been seen in the vicinity, blocking roads with their cars. The lure of the lucre!

Some of the most interesting paintings are for me in the gallery dedicated to works made with the iPad and then blown up digitally. These have an appealing characteristic (might they not be considered closer to photographs than paintings!?) and yet I don’t find myself having enough time to really look at them owing to the crowds and the presence of the OCA group. Jane Horton gives us a demo on her iPad as does Tony Logan; they have both produced distinctive artwork with this device using a fairly simple APP that supports brushes and a colour wheel for choosing the exact tones one wants to use.

There is an amusing potentially embarrassing moment when a gallery guard challenges Tony for giving a guided tour; this is not allowed by the academy unless one has appropriate documentation which Tony does not have although the OCA have been given permission to enter. He replies that he is a friend of the artist and the guard, a young foreign sounding blonde woman, starts to shrink.

Jane Horton who is the main contact for the day, asks me what I think of the exhibition; I reply that Hockney interests me largely owing to his comments about photography and the way he has used the photographic image. The next room that supports no less than 18 large screens, joined together to make one large one, is in many ways the most interesting exhibit for here Hockney is experimenting with the photographic medium in a new and innovative way; he has actually spent time testing and experimenting with different setups to come up with his own. I wonder if Hockney has used a fixed focal length lens such as a standard 50mm which gives a reasonably normal perspective of the world; his friend Tony has no idea!

viewing the multi-screen video

Although the video display is fascinating and I watch it all the way through, I can not help feeling a bit cock-eyed at the end of it. It is wonderful to have our fixed view of the world challenged but whether one looks at one screen or the whole lot of them simultaneously, a rather jumbled view of the world emerges. In spite of the detail and strong colours that result from this method, I can not see myself wanting to watch a BBC nature documentary made in this way.

discussion after the show

After seeing the exhibition, the group of OCA students meet for discussion and this turns out to be quite lively; the word “bollocks!” is heard more than once as a polarized view of the exhibition emerges. While most of the students listen quietly to the disagreement, there is an obvious difference of view between Tony Logan, a friend and great admirer of Hockney, and David, the other OCA tutor for the day, who considers the exhibition to be a “crowd pleaser” and not the work of an accomplished artist, a view that leads to him being called dogmatic and yet a view I find strangely refreshing after all the media hype that has surrounded this exhibition, much of which has been about how wonderful David Hockney is rather than giving due consideration to his work. As a photographer with a limited knowledge of art and the skill involved in it’s techniques, I feel unable to comment but can not help but see the validity in David’s down to earth approach which considers Hockney not as icon but as draughtsman. One sees what one wants to see and David emphasizes the complexity and dedication behind much of the work.

The colour slaty-grey is mentioned and when David admits to liking it, a student who is clearly very much pro-Hockney think this underlines that David has a problem. I can not help but emphasise with David here for Black and White photography as it is usually referred to is more about the colour grey, a mixture of black and white, of which there are innumerable shades. Look at an English sky on many days of the year and one will be aware of the power in this colour.

David chats with a student

I find a childlike quality to Hockney’s work but the possibility that his painting reveals a kind of naievity is quickly dismissed by David; it is faux-naieve since Hockney himself is far from naieve. The lack of craftsmanship seen in the exhibition is a result of Hockney being in a hurry to finish his work in time; this is denied by Tony who says that Hockney worked for several years to create this exhibition and has much work for it that he is not showing.

The assembly of artists both students and tutors start to get carried away by the strength of the debate and battle cry “Bollocks!” is heard along with much laughter. Photographers don’t seem to get so worked up, adopt a more considered approach, while the artists … well, the burning of a bra or two would not have been out of place here and if was not for the cold weather garments might have been removed!

Picasso is quoted as saying that one needs to draw with the abandonment of a child, that he could draw like Rafael by the age of 12 and spent the rest of his life trying to draw like a child. These remarks presumably refer to what I saw as the childlike nature of the works which frankly is the only way I can understand them as art.

Hockney’s work though is a lot more complex than one might assume; he is also asking us to look again at the English landscape.

Art has no purpose and is of no use to anyone!? Some of those present seem to gleefully accept this and yet this exhibition of art has certainly provoked a lot of interest, brought people together and encouraged serious people to visit and perhaps see their lives in a better light. In a time of economic gloom, it may have helped some people to be a little more positive. Hockney is encouraging people to see.

As for the title, The Bigger Picture, does this refer to anything more than the huge size of the paintings exhibited? Might there not be a bigger message present? This insight may well depend on the individuals present who view it. For myself, I need to give it a bit more consideration and look closely at some of the works to see if they do resonate for me in the way art can do.