It should be of no surprise, that having returned to his homeland, David Hockney should follow in the great tradition of English painting, its mastery of the landscape (think Constable et al). Having forsaken sunlit California, and with it his fascination with swimming pools, Hockney, at 74, is back in Yorkshire, as is his muse.

In a giant retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, he has covered entire walls of the gallery with enormous landscapes that lure the visitor into a heady world of art and vision. The colours that infused the works of his American alter ego are still here, transformed into shapes and patterns invoking art brut as much as the Old Masters.

Perhaps because of the distance of living in another culture, Hockney’s British paintings carry a certain innocence, as if the gnarly trees, and winding, narrow country lanes were being seen by the artist for the first time. This is the England of his childhood after all, invested with memories of his family (he comes from a line of farm labourers), and the innate understanding of the land.

These imprints inadvertently find their way into his recent canvases, many done in situ, specifically for the gallery. They blaze with colours, from deep purples to bright yellows, with forms at once recognizable and abstract, like a child’s attempt at representation.

The sheer pleasure of painting emanates from these works, some measuring more than 12 metres wide – Bigger Trees Near Water; it just about dwarfs the 6 x 3 m Winter Timber.

Nichols Canyon, 1980, Acrylic on canvas, 213.4 x 152.4 cm, Private collection © David Hockney

To say that Hockney’s art has reached new heights rings of a pun. A Bigger Picture is, indeed, filled with massive canvases, but the title is not limited solely to the dimensions of the pieces. It refers as much to the artist’s use of the gallery’s space and lighting, something he has already accomplished in his 2007 Summer Exhibition, which germinated the idea for the present show.

Months before it opened, Hockney was on front pages of British newspapers, from the The Guardian to The Observer, with previews as well as numerous statements from the enchantingly verbose artist. No stranger to controversy, he managed to draw into a polemic the ubiquitous Damien Hirst, whom he accused of failing to make his own work, by employing an army of assistants for his famous (infamous?) spot paintings.

(This is not the first time that Hockney questioned the creative processes of artists. His book, “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”, caused quite a stir in the art circles. See box.)

The same cannot be said of Hockney. Hardworking and focused, he is in complete control. Each fluid stroke is done by his hand, as witnessed by many during the mounting of the mammoth exhibition. Unfettered, he is forging onward with an energy that simply can’t be reproduced by anyone else, it has to come forth in its own rhythm, reshaping our understanding of landscape and its representation in art.

But it is not only in his approach to painting and subject matter that Hockney exhibits his endless passion for creative expression – he has embraced technology with the same ardour, producing artworks on an iPad, which he has turned into a kind of sketchbook, and his thus produced drawings are included in the show.

And no, this is not all. The exhibition also features a series of films produced by Hockney and displayed using 18 cameras and multiple screens.

“We get to see the world through Hockney;s eyes,” says Edith Devaney, the show’s co-curator.

That is probably true of any solo exhibition, but in the case of A Bigger Picture it is the very scope and format of the works that draws the viewer in, much, may I add, to their delight.

For what is there not to revel in… The quiet, snow covered path among rows of trees in Winter Tunnel with Snow is like an illustration from a children’s book, evoking memories of our own childhoods… The lined up logs, echoing the marching tress on both sides of the road in Winter Timber, could be taken from a colouring book, the shapes simple and straightforward, the colours opulent in contrast.

The Road Across the Wolds mesmerizes with colour, and captivates with its tangled composition and exotic, otherworldly landscape that culminates in a burst of red, on a burning hilltop.

Whether it is his nature, or the years spent in self- enamoured California, David Hockney is a consummate self-promoter, and his goading of Hirst wasn’t the only means of garnering attention. According to The Observer, he declined to paint the Queen as he was “very busy painting England actually, her country.” Precious. And paint he did. A Bigger Picture is Hockney’s latest, and perhaps grandest tour de force, and even the Queen would have to agree. 

Royal Academy of Arts
London, UK
Tel.: 020.7300.8000
January 21 to April 9, 2012