David Hockney: A Bigger Picture
Royal Academy of Arts, London 21 January to 9 April
"Do you remember Walt Disney's Fantasia?" asks the artist in Martin Gayford's marvellous new book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney. "In the original version, they used Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring for one section. But they didn't get what Stravinsky's music was about...It struck me that the Disney people had been in southern California for too long. They had forgotten northern Europe and Russia, where you go from winter to everything forcing itself up through the earth."
Hockney himself left California and returned to live in Yorkshire about seven years ago - thereby becoming even more of a national treasure than he was before - partly because he missed the coming of spring and the cycle of the seasons. Like a firm statement of intent, this stunning exhibition opens with a room depicting the same set of three Thixendale trees across the four seasons.
It then turns briefly retrospective. The earliest paintings date back to when Hockney was just 18: astonishing, accomplished images of fields, and Bolton Junction in Eccleshill, depicted in washed-out greys and greens. America offered the perfect contrast to his drab Bradford childhood, an explosion of bright colour, vast panoramas and new cultural signposts to decipher. But it also opened his eyes to other landscapes, including the landscapes of the area where he once worked on a farm as a teenager. In 1997, when a close friend and supporter was dying, Hockney spent his first extended period in England since the 1970s and produced an outburst of joyous paintings, with Yorkshire transformed into a sensuous sequence of lilacs, bright greens, yellows and reds.
A Bigger Picture ends with Hockney's variations on the theme of Claude Lorrain's The Sermon on the Mount and some huge pictures, printed from an iPad, of the swirling mists and shifting backdrops of Yosemite National Park in California. Yet most of the exhibition is devoted to intense contemplation of the landscapes near Bridlington where he lives, painted from life, reimagined in the studio or filmed simultaneously on nine cameras mounted on a frame. Many keep coming back to seemingly ordinary settings, such as the maze of trees in Woldgate Woods, in different lights and at different times of year. Others celebrate the brief period, which Hockney calls "action week", when the hawthorn suddenly burst into blossom.
Approaching 75, Hockney remains startlingly energetic and enthusiastic in his observation of the natural world. But though his quick charcoal sketches have the poignant sobriety of supreme draughtsmanship, it is even more fascinating to see what happens when he lets his imagination play on the same scenes, and a lone tree stump screams out in bright lilac or is scored with sharp green stripes.