The Write Off Spring

David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 (Royal Academy of Arts, 23 May–26 September 2021) 

You have to admire Hockney for his prolificness and his ability to reinvent himself in a sixty-odd year career. The Tate retrospective was great but, the 1960s rooms aside, you could imagine at least two surveys of his work that didn’t overlap with that one. Having made art with paint, pencil, charcoal, various kinds of prints and Polaroids, it was hardly surprising that he’d embrace iPads and for some years he has been using them to make landscape images. 

Here we have 116 works drawn on iPads around his newish home in Normandy during the early Covid weeks of 2020, printed above their created size on paper and on the walls of three of the rooms in the Main Galleries (and they will move in August to the slightly smaller Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries). But are they any good? 

Well, they’d look good on a fridge.  

That’s not fair and I can’t share any pictures because of the reasonable, I suppose, no photography rule. Go here and scroll down: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/david-hockney

As I know from the various portrait exhibitions I’ve seen at – say – the Royal Academy, the National Portrait Gallery and Annely Juda Fine Art, Hockney can be very fast when he paints. Tere’s a part of me that wonders about how often we connect labour to artistic merit (and, of course, the film of Picasso or Pollock making an artwork in minutes may prove or disprove this link). In the traditional of the open air impressionists, this is a picture a day, although they are not shown in chronological order. 

Is a painting on a screen the same as a painting, even using Google’s mega-scans? Is a print the same on every weight or colour of paper? Hockney supervised the printing, so we have to take the works as authoritative. The colours are bright, almost dayglo, but we’ve seen this is his earlier paintings of France and Yorkshire. Hockney isn’t photorealist. 

A typical image is a couple of trees with a ridge or escarpment in the background – there are several versions of this in different weather conditions and times of day. This reminds me of various Norwegian country scenes, which are repeated motifs, but they drew on Constable’s cloud studies and Monet’s pictures of haystacks (and indeed of Norway). There is a variety of line and texture – thanks to the different tools – and skies are incredibly scratched on occasions. It’s all very pleasant and comforting. There are odd glitches, virtual drips of paint, and I’m thinking of Seurat’s work which similarly integrates unexpected colour combinations. 

The really odd thing – which I’ve seen in some French paintings – is the sense of the objects floating in space, in particular the trees. Again, there is precedent in Hockney, in his layered prints using transparent plastic laminates. There’s something not quite grounded about his landscapes. It’s not even that this is uncanny valley territory (and I’m remembering Jennifer Steinkamp’s Blind Eye animation at Among the Trees at the Hayward Gallery). 

But he’s also spent over fifty years challenging notions of perspective and this messing about with foreground and background might be the point. There’s a knowing faux naïf quality to these works, which means that for me there’s something missing. The naïf quality is there in Astrup, too, but he’s constructing his own country rather than constructing someone else’s … but then Hockney also constructed California in the 1960s. 

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