I found myself in Piccadilly last week with an hour to spare between a meeting and a lunch. As I walked up Duke Street St James I was greeted by the welcoming sight of the Royal Academy’s David Hockney banners and thought “why not?!” I am lucky enough to bank with one of the sponsors so got in without queuing and, as I walked up the stairs, I pondered my pre-exhibition thoughts on Hockney. I am not sure why but I don’t feel I have ever been entirely convinced. I know that I am expected to think of him as important, I hear others describe him as the greatest living British Artist, but I am not sure that I actually like his work.
I forced my way through the busiest shop in history to the entrance and on into the opening room, Thixendale Trees, to be greeted by billions of people, the murmur of intellectual artistic discussion and some huge paintings in the main Octagon. My immediate thought was “If I took art classes, I think this might be what I would end up with.” Broad brush strokes, bright colours and distorted perspective. I would like to add here that in no way am I comparing myself to David Hockney, and I know that these paintings contain more skill with a brush than I will ever have.
I don’t tend to hang around at exhibitions where paintings do not grab me, so I wandered into the second room, Earlier Landscapes. I was immediately floored by an early painting of Hockney’s. It’s name now escapes me but it reminded me of paintings by de Staël and it was mesmerising – things were looking up. Rooms 3 & 4 were skimmed through, but room 5, Tunnels, grabbed me again.
I remember as a child, driving to see my Grandmother through the tree-formed tunnels of Sussex and thinking how amazing that was. And just this weekend experienced the same in Devon. There is something romantic and fascinating about the way that trees grow towards each other to create an intertwining tunnel through which you can drive or stand to shade yourself from the sun, or life. And as I stood in the Royal Academy, I suddenly realised that perhaps my kinship with tunnels, and maybe David Hockney’s too, is that I have a regular discussion with myself about my own mortality. I am not pessimistic, defeatist or obsessed about my own death, no, more that I regularly have to remind myself that this is my life, I must make the most of it, because one day, once I have passed through whichever tunnel I choose, I will die. Sometimes, I convince myself that I will die sooner than I ought (when I have a cold, or a slight pain in my side!) but that is something entirely different!
The paintings in the Tunnels room were gorgeous, simple, romantic and evoked memories, beautiful childlike memories that had long since been filed in the draws of life. The best however was yet to come and I was warming to Hockney immensely.
The final room I loved was totally unexpected. Having spent the entire journey focusing on nature, I suddenly walked into a room full of versions of The Sermon on the Mount by Claude Lorrain. Apparently, Hockney went to New York in December 2009 and was struck by this painting on a visit to the Frick Collection. He researched, drew related pieces and digitally cleaned the surface of the dark picture, did his own variation “after Claude” and then set about doing a number of studies, many of which are shown in the exhibition before settling on his final work: A Bigger Message.
This last room and the whole exhibition is just enjoyable, you get such a sense of Hockney having had fun in the process of creation. I love it when you go to see anything Arts related, with few expectations, and leave having had an experience that will stay with you for ever.