The Royal Academy’s current exhibition of works by David Hockney is unusual for all sorts of reasons.
All 116 of the works on display were drawn in the past year, on an iPad, when Hockney was at his four-acre estate in Normandy. They depict the arrival of spring—a season that, for Hockney, is “the most exciting thing nature has to offer.” His relentless productivity alone makes his curiosity about the season beyond doubt: he does not tire of depicting the same tree in winter, or in blossom, or in fruit.
As you walk through the wings of the galleries, looking at the pictures arranged in neat little grids like window panes, you soon find yourself constructing a map of the estate. You look out and first see, then recognise, the same landmarks cropping up again and again: the square shape of a treehouse; the distinct silhouette of certain long-limbed trees or a set of garden chairs.
The most distinct feature across the exhibition, which is also surely the centrepiece of the estate, is a large house with a red-carrot roof and beige and black timber framing. We see it just below the hump of a grassy mound, behind two pink cherry blossoms. In another view the house is obscured by a giant, bushy tree. Elsewhere, it emerges as nothing but a shadowy grey wall, as Hockney sketches from the threshold of the doorway.
To anyone who has followed Hockney’s work over the past decade—in particular, his extensive painting of the Yorkshire countryside, also in the passing seasons—this will all be familiar fare. What is more interesting is his choice of medium. After a year of experiencing the world through our screens, looking at works that are themselves the product of a screen offers a certain strangeness.
By appearances, the exhibition feels very conventional: the pictures are framed and hung in each room. In many respects, the images themselves are also conventional, both in their composition and subject matter. (Hockney readily cites Van Gogh, Bonnard and Monet as his primary influences.) But digital artworks do not reward closer inspection in the same way as a conventional painting. Stand close to any of these, as you can here, and what from a distance appears to be texture suddenly goes flat. Colours do not mix but sit criss cross on top of each other, like pieces of acetate. The brush heads are not just recognisable but the exact same, right down to the spacing of individual bristles, no matter where you look for it: whether in the shade under a tree, the leaves of hedgerows lining a pink horizon or in a highlight on the wall of Hockney’s home.
Hockney has never shied from different mediums. Usually, it is after prolonged periods of experimentation that he’s made his biggest breakthroughs—even if the fruits of those periods have themselves fallen short. It was during his first and only venture into photography in the mid 70s and 80s that Hockney began to inch closer to a reason, or philosophy, for image-making: he wanted to portray the world in a way that considered both its objective state but also our own subjective experience of it: the world as it exists, combined with how it’s seen.
Through photographs, Hockney took these dual aspects to involve some kind of fragmentation: objectivity was the image, whereas subjectivity was a matter of composition. A polaroid composite might show an object, like a guitar, emerging from a neat grid of squares. While each polaroid is needed to make sense of the whole composition, each is its own unique, atomised part. Assembled together, the work is not one image cut up into squares, but rather fragments that create a whole. In his photo collages from the same time, the effect is similar but more chaotic. A clear blue sky, like in Pearblossom Highway #1 (1986), sits like an untidy desk. Rectangular sheets of blue lie all over the place, some on top or beside each other, filling an open space in a way that feels cluttered, unruly.
The work tries to show the different experiences of looking, the subjective and the objective, in a unified way—but the effect is distracting. We are more interested in what each part is trying to show, like the pieces of a jigsaw, rather than what they are saying together. The fragmentation feels mechanical and somehow dishonest.
Over a decade later, Hockney concluded that what he was doing was “unphotographable”: he was unable to adequately capture his subjective state of mind through photographic imagery, regardless of how he composed them. “I looked through cameras for a long time,” he told the art critic Robert Hughes in 2004. “In the end, [with photography] you’re more aware of what’s at the edges, what’s not there… It’s forced to be a certain kind of picture.” And what was important was not the careful putting together of a certain kind of picture, but rather how you felt about the subject—which led him back to a particular place.
Hockney was speaking to Hughes just as he was returning more often to his native Yorkshire, where he had resumed painting again full time. This would culminate in a large body of work and an exhibition in 2012, A Bigger Picture, also hosted at the RA. By then, he had found a way of making images out of multiple parts that was not so literal or deliberative: he had come to learn that it was possible for the different aspects of experience to be contained within a single image. Those aspects could be both physical and temporal—his large works made of multiple canvases, like Winter Timber (2009), were painted over several days—but also emotive. “I might be using memory from 10 minutes past, but I’m also using memory from 50 years past,” he told Hughes, referring to the landscapes he used to work on as a farmhand as a young boy in the summer.
Now, at his current show, Hockney has discovered a medium that’s enabled him to take his journey further. An iPad affords a more immediate reaction than paint does; he can draw quickly and without the need of photographic references. It’s also less limiting than the shutter of a camera; it helps him, in his own words, to “see things as spatial.” And as you venture about the gallery, fully immersed in the landscape, walking with confidence in the direction of the house, to the cherry trees or the garden chairs—you’ll find it’s difficult to argue with that.