Outside the Royal Academy, a long, rain-drenched queue is waiting to see the latest David Hockney exhibition; inside, it is often hard to see the paintings for the throngs of mostly elderly and well-heeled folk who crowd appreciatively before them. Why has this artist exerted such a hold on the English imagination? Praise for Hockney regularly uses the sycophantic language generally reserved for the royals and other national treasures. For Grey Gowrie, Thatcher’s Minister for the Arts, Hockney is not only the conqueror of abstraction, but ‘happens also to be well-read, musical, eloquent and Britain’s snappiest dresser’.
While he remains best known for his Pop-era figure painting, the Royal Academy offers a very large exhibition of Hockney’s recent landscapes, interspersed with a few older pieces, some videos and iPad sketches. The works—like Hockney’s earlier experiments with photo-collage—are arranged in grids. Displayed without gaps between the component parts, they form single, museum-scale paintings; with gaps, they appear as series of landscapes made at a uniform size. The style fluctuates between Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, and contains their faux-naive rapidity of touch, tension between pattern and depth, and childlike distortions of perspective. All this was new a hundred years ago and, for more hidebound audiences, it still serves as a signpost of modernity. The subjects are fields, trees and roads, the treatment of which oscillates between a depiction of the eternal cycle of nature (the passing seasons) and gentle signs of industry (the fields are farmed in monocultures, trees are felled for logging, and sometimes there are old terraced houses or a traditional red phone box).
For those accustomed to the metaphorical gloom of much artists’ video, Hockney’s video work—also presented as a grid, an array of overlapping frames from eight cameras—comes as a cheery riposte. The sets are confected in bright primary colours, amid which decorative actors cavort. As in the paintings, colours are intensified to near painful effect. The soundtrack of a dance piece even carries its own applause—hardly needed, since the Royal Academy audience is already sufficiently enchanted. The videos and the iPad sketches are a reminder of Hockney’s long career of technical experimentation, in which his essentially retrograde style and subject-matter are purveyed through cutting-edge photographic and computer technology. The combination gives a clue to Hockney’s success: he offers not so much a conservative vision of the old, but rather a mix of old and new, in which the new is yoked to the service of the old. Technology, like landscape painting, is treated lightly, with a small boy’s wonder and enthusiasm, and bent to an affable vision with occasional gestures towards profundity. So Hockney, like the tv personality Stephen Fry—another national treasure who combines technophilia with avuncular comfort—offers a way of seeing the modern world that is conservative but without rancour or mourning for Britain’s industrial past; instead, overflowing with light, colour and optimism.
There are some serpents in the garden. In the Spectator, Niru Ratnam pointed to Hockney’s considerable talent for publicising himself and his works, suggesting that there was little substance behind the hype. Similarly, the Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell saw the show as an engine for drawing money from the Royal Academy crowds with an over-inflated display of discordant painting. The integrity that a conservative vision needs to convince comes into contradiction with Hockney’s publicity apparatus. There is so much work on offer in the exhibition, and of such vast scale, that this—along with the Hockney mugs, bags, pencils, books, tea-trays and necklaces in the Academy gift shop—inevitably brings the viewer to reflect on the Hockney industry.
In the paintings, dead industry sometimes leavens the conservative rural vision. An old mill building may be a pleasant relic of a bygone age when people ‘knew their place’, and even a welcome reminder of the passing of an organized industrial working class. The grids—and wasn’t it, says the cultural conservative, with grids that all the trouble started?—are another matter: pried from landscape and nature and returned to industry. It is as if the grids are infected by the lineage of conceptual art with its critique of creativity, and its bored, alienated artists mechanically churning out standardized products day after day.
Reviews of the Academy show have been mixed. Some critics have contrasted the relative subtlety of Hockney’s earlier American work with the blaring colours and crude handling of his latest products; the Telegraph’s Alasdair Sooke complained that the recent works resemble those of ‘amateur Sunday painters’. The credibility of the Hockney industry seems to be faltering. Did it, in any case, have much hold beyond England, where a middle class held to aristocratic values for so long, dreaming of being country gentlemen, living amidst regulated nature? Modern life produces, predictably and regularly, cultures of nostalgia, romantic visions of traditional life and exercises in primitivism. Many urban dwellers still decorate their apartments with rural landscapes, just as they did at the time of the Impressionists. Yet a newly globalized cosmopolitan class has left that vision of the old, good life behind as its plausibility faded in the light of their experience. As for Hockney’s landscapes, reduced and flattened by reproduction, they make quite pretty pictures to have on a bag or a tea-towel, and that, perhaps, is enough.