Georgia Hughes reviews David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture  at London’s Royal Academy

iPhones, iPads, iMac’s, Kindle’s, blackberries, tablets, the never-ending list of must have gadgets that everyone wants and needs. No-one can live without them, not even the usually more technology challenged painters who have traditionally spent decades fighting against cultural tides in their quest for the ultimate beauty. David Hockney has upped the techno-game replacing his easel with an iPad in an exciting exhibition at London’s Royal Academy.

iPad on Easel

The iPad works are hung on canvases around a large room and admittedly upon first glance they appear- shock horror- just like oil paintings. The iPad, according to Hockney is the quickest way to “paint” and “no other medium using colour is as fast” (in an email to Marco Livingstone, 30 April 2011). However, Hockney’s interest isn’t in the medium of his works, but rather in the subjectivity of the landscape, the flamboyant colours and interchangeable weather effects representing nature’s beauty through his eyes.

If this fifty-year-old can master the iPad and produce “art” to Royal Academy standards, then does it mean that anyone can? Perhaps artists should just give up painting altogether and let technology do the talking?

Before deciding on whether or not iPad drawings – which are essentially an advanced form of paint that many a childhood days were spent doodling on, creating the next background for the archaic family desktop computer – could ever be classed as art, there was the rest of the exhibition to explore.

There is an energetic vitality and vibrancy to Hockney’s work, with his earlier canvases in the first rooms echoing the Cattelan surrealist genius Joan Miró, with their imagined dream-like scenes. The landscapes then focus solely on Yorkshire, with the vibrant colours and undulating forms in the Salt Mill of 1997, where the imagined scene is transposed onto a place very close to Hockney’s heart. A common motif of a purple pathway that twists and folds across many of the Yorkshire landscapes leads the eye through Hockney’s wild imagination, and the lollipop-esque trees echo those from Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” of 1889.  You can’t help but be mesmerised by Hockney’s hypnotic sceneries.

"The Road Across The Wolds" by David Hockney

Hockney doesn’t shy away from Van Gogh’s influence, it his affinity for nature- not technology- that is his driving force; preferring to paint a field whilst actually standing in it, rather than from some far off vantage point with an idealised perspective.

In fact, the exhibition contains the largest en plein air painting to date, at 15 x 40ft, and comprising of over 50 canvases, “Bigger Trees Near Water” from 2007 was the catalyst for this exhibition. Ironically this work proves that bigger isn’t necessarily better, and his Woldgate series are much more interesting and engaging works, presenting the same scene in different seasons, à la Monet.  

"Bigger Trees Near Warter" by David Hockney

Yet Hockney takes this further by using different canvases for each image, breaking up the picture plane and by using slightly different viewpoints for each canvas he challenges the way we compose the picture in our mind’s eye. At first glance the works appear mismatched and childlike, but in a room surrounded by canvases the effect is quite mesmerising. The true sense of the landscape is evoked through Hockney’s playful colour palette, and ironic use of perspective, making the viewer the crucial element for each paintings completion.

If Hockney’s “Bigger Trees Near Water” fails to shock or impress through it’s mere simplicity and it’s being “too perfect” and the Woldgate series appears to be “too mismatched” then perhaps the iPad drawings provide the perfect solution.

Not as immediate or as lifelike as photography and not as refined and carefully planned as paintings but rather the restriction to a certain size and a certain colour palette provides Hockney with the only tools he needs to demonstrate his affinity to the landscape and to showcase his artistic and technological genius.

My only issue with the works is their method of presentation. Why could they not be displayed on screens instead of being transposed onto canvases? For being inherently 2D they all have an unnatural flatness that would perhaps be transferred into some sort of electronic sparkle of life had they been displayed on screens. This however, is my only objection of Hockney’s playful ironic attitude towards his painting. His iPad sketches are not a permanent alternative to paintings, but rather an exciting new way of capturing his imagination at any given time.

Who knows if his ideas will take on, it does sound like a tempting idea to sit in a field painting without having to worry about all the materials, and just “paint” but then again, maybe the less artistically gifted among us should just stick to angry birds.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture runs at London’s Royal Academy until April 9.


Georgia Hughes

Image 1 – The Prism

Image 2 – Martin Beek

Image 3 – Gareth Buddo