New Hockney work is pretty but lacking

Royal Academy
by Zoe Strimpel

David Hockney’s extensive new show at the Royal Academy had, predictably enough, attracted long snaking queues on Day one. Hour one, in fact. But is it worth the hype?

The topic is East Yorkshire, Hockney’s home turf and the one to which he returned in the late 1990s after a long hiatus in California to visit his dying friend Jonathan Silver. Silver had implored him to paint his childhood landscape, to capture the sweeping greens and hills and colours of the wolds.

This exhibit focuses on work commissioned by the RA in 2007, but runs the gamut from his 1960s output right up to the huge canvases, iPad drawings and video stills of East Yorkshire that have made such a splash this time round.

There is no doubt that Hockney’s older work is more interesting, for the simple reason that it contains more reference to human lives than his brightly coloured landscapes. I greatly enjoyed paintings such as Rocky Mountains and the Tired Indians, with their odd downcast figures peering at those great American peaks, as well as Flight Into Italy, a humorous, strange depiction of the artist in a van driving through the Alps, unable to see out.

Art connoisseurs often find the recent work vulgar. I see what they mean. The current collection calls to mind the work of a talented child with amazing tools and materials, but who has not yet developed a defined or intellectually probing view of the world. These are, by and large, very, very pretty pictures: Yorkshire landscape in all its seasonal costumes, rendered in large sets of paintings in watercolour and oil, and on (or via) a variety of screens. There are hedgerows, bushes, empty towns and lots and lots of winding roads. There are lots of trees, there is timber, there are fields. The Road to York Through Siedmere is a violently twee but extremely pleasing vantage of a sweet winding road leading past fiercely red, neat cottages. Winter Timber holds pride of place: this is a purply orange picture of logs under a setting sun by a wood. It’s stunning, but oddly empty of significance.

If the paintings feel one-dimensional in meaning, then they make up for it in their audacious, sensual colour. Indeed, what is most lovely and perhaps what is most “vulgar” about the show are enormous daubs of screaming pinks and greens and purples. This may be a childish take on the world, but grass and sky of the North have done well out of it – Hockney imbues them with intense shouts of life. And there are welcome counterpoints to the swathes of colour in the form of the rather lovely watercolours and charcoal sketches. Mid Summer East Yorkshire, for example, a watercolour series from 2004, is a soothing conglomeration of smaller, pale canvases.

This is a big exhibition, in many ways: colour, space, size of canvases. But when it comes to the intellectual or emotional, it is disappointingly small Royal Academy, Burlington House, Piccadilly, until 9 April.