For most of his life, David Hockney has been an urban creature. Bradford and London have been his main bases, leavened by the surreal suburbia of the Hollywood Hills and the Yorkshire seaside town of Bridlington. At the very beginning of 2019, however, he bought a house a long way from other people, deep in rural Normandy.
He had been to Honfleur and seen a sunset, and then visited the Bayeux Tapestry. The food and the smoking culture appealed to him, and he liked the idea of spending more time in the area. He was going to rent a place but saw one house, almost on a whim, and bought it. La Grande Cour is a relatively modest half-timbered farmhouse – “a Seven Dwarfs house”, as he calls it – that came with four acres, a stream, an outbuilding for a studio and a treehouse. Hockney has been there ever since, smoking, eating tripes à la mode de Caen, and drawing.
His intention was to sit firm in his demesne and create a series of works depicting his first experience of the blossoming of his garden in 2019. But as he became more embedded in his new home and, courtesy of the pandemic, freed from the distraction of visitors, a bigger body of pictures emerged. Some 116 of these, drawn on an iPad before being blown up in scale to 1.5 metres by 1 metre and inkjet-printed, are now collected at the Royal Academy as “The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020”.
This show nods to his first “Arrival of Spring” exhibition of 2011 in which he captured the hawthorn frothing along the lanes and tracks of the Yorkshire Wolds. Then, Hockney needed to get in a car and drive into the countryside; in Normandy he needs only to put his chair at any spot in his garden, stare at his cherry and pear trees, and start to work.
Initially, it was a waiting game. He drew the trees with bare branches and bided his time: “You’re always wondering when the first day will be, the first little shoots, you’re looking out for them, it’s very exciting.” Then, from the same spot, the trees take on a greenish fuzz that fills out progressively as the buds turn to leaves and the leaves become foliage. The pictures are dated so the chronology between spring arriving to it taking possession can be tracked with Gilbert White-like precision.
Some trees appear as case studies, portraits, in fact, initially recognisable by the pattern of their branches and then, as leaves blur their outlines, as distinctively shaped masses. This enrobing gives some of the pictures a sense of moving; it is like staring at the individual pages of a flick-book animation. At other times he draws a wider view with a couple of plants silhouetted against the humped shape of the region’s one hill on the horizon. Then he bends down to draw a patch of flowerbed, a sprig of primroses in a basket, or a branch of cherry blossom as it passes through each stage from bud to fruit.
Hockney goes to bed early and rises early to catch the garden at every time of day, from morning mist through bright sunshine to sunset and moonlight. Fog and rain blur the familiar outlines, shapes emerge and deliquesce. Colours take on an electric charge and wane to subfusc shades. His spring is a long one, starting in February and ending in July.
[See also: The aqueous scenes of Julia Beck]
The result is a joyous display. There are no people here, just plants, sunshine, air and water. The colours fizz and the blossom is bright enough to leave its shadow on the retina when you close your eyes. Hockney’s modest little world is tangibly fresh.
The trouble is that he has made the pictures on an iPad. The resulting inkjet images have surfaces that are perfectly flat, matt and uniform so the pictures lack both any handmade feel, and the reflections and three-dimensionality that comes with paint or crayon. These are screen pictures, mechanical, algorithmical and, ironically for sap-infused scenes, inert.
Hockney was an early adopter of the iPad as a tool, using it as a form of electronic sketchbook. For the Normandy pictures he used a drawing app specially developed for him and he is enthralled by the way it allows him to work in layers, putting one translucent image on the top of another. The more complex pictures can take him 12 hours to make and with a tap of the stylus he can adopt – or change – any colour he chooses, or draw with any number of programmed patterns. Some come out like grapeshot, others are trifoil leaf shapes, or round dots of different dimensions, or a flour-like dusting of pixels. He says that an iPad allows him simultaneously to draw and paint, and he finds it the perfect tool through which to indulge his fascination with mark-making.
The rewards for the viewer are less clear cut. The pictures might intrigue him to make but they are wearying on the eye. Colours and lines sit on top of one another rather than blending, skies and grass are often just expanses of unmodulated blue or green. While a brush unloads its colour gradually during the course of a stroke, a stylus doesn’t, so every millimetre of every line has the same weight and there is no sense of the artist’s hand changing pressure or angle. This would matter less with a dozen pictures but the cumulative effect of more than 100 is of intensifying blandness. None stand out among the rest as exceptional. And there’s frustration, too: Hockney has always been a wonderful draughtsman but his fidelity to the iPad is self-emasculating.
There are things to admire in the exhibition – Hockney’s indefatigability, sense of wonder and enthusiasm, as well, of course, as the exuberance of nature. All the more of a shame that he chose to capture it in what are essentially posters, not paintings.
[See also: The quiet landscape of Giorgio Morandi]
“David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020” runs until 26 September
David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020
Royal Academy, London W1
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism