Friday, March 9, 2012

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire

"In a crowd, he that talks loudest, not he that talks best, is surest of commanding attention; and in an art exhibition, he that does not attract the eye, does nothing."  This was the regrettable conclusion of John Opie, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy (1805-09), who urged artists to paint '"for eternity," not for fashion and the contemporary acclaim of corrupt and incompetent judges"' (Kay Dian Kriz, The Idea of the English Landscape Painter).  Kriz notes that 'such practices may have prompted changes in the exhibition sites themselves.  In 1807 a commentator on the state of the arts, writing in the short lived Beau Monde, speculated that the (much-hated) red walls of the new British Gallery might serve "perhaps as a precaution against too vivid colours, which a desire of attracting notice has introduced into the school of painting."'  When a few years later John Martin started exhibiting those spectacular paintings that were on show at Tate Britain earlier this year, the Royal Academy were not impressed (but still found it convenient to promote Francis Danby as a poential rival to Martin).  One of the best known art stories from this period involves Turner turning up to add a bright red buoy to the foreground of his seascape, Helvoetsluys, so as to attract attention away from Constable's Opening of Waterloo Bridge.  "He has been here," said Constable, "and fired a gun."

Three years ago I went to the Royal Academy to see Anish Kapoor's gun firing brightly coloured red wax at the gallery wall.  Last weekend I was back, with the whole family, for another contemporary art spectacle, David Hockney's A Bigger Picture.  This new exhibition was inspired by the success of his Bigger Trees Near Warter (40ft by 15ft) at the 2007 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (see Richard Dorment's Telegraph review: 'Hockney shows that biggest is best.')  My expectations were relatively low, based on what I had seen in 2007, when Tate Britain showed some of Hockney's East Yorkshire landscapes along with his selection of Turner paintings.  But overall I enjoyed the exhibition, having stopped worrying about the quality of individual works and begun to view it more as a set of huge installations documenting a kind of postmodern performance of painting en plein air.  For Hockney this now involves iPad sketches, blown up here to about sixty times their original size, and whilst it's true that as Laura Cumming says, they 'appear inert and dehumanised', perhaps that's partly the point.  They depict The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven) and comprise a 52-part work, wallpapering the gallery in a bright computer-screen colours.  According to the RA there is 'a deliberate sense of theatricality ... the viewer is placed centre-stage with the drama of the approaching spring played out on all sides.'  It is the kind of theatricality that was criticised in the sixties by advocates of Modernism like Michael Fried, but, like John Opie a century and a half earlier, they were swimming against the tide.

Rosalind Krauss, in her essay 'Grids' (1979), argued that grids 'declare the modernity of modern art'; they are 'what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.'  In the grids that make up Hockney's landscapes he reintroduces a stylised version of nature, patterns and bright colours that reference artists from the early days of Modernism (Van Gogh, Vuillard, Vlaminck).  In her review, Laura Cumming complains of 'a neutralising tidiness. It isn't just those regular blocks into which the big works are split for ease of construction; it isn't even the superlatively concise draughtsmanship that underpins every image. It is a kind of graphic fastidiousness – nothing too out of place or too wild – bordering on neatness. Can Yorkshire be like that these days?'  Not according to The Telegraph: 'there are calls for the area to be cleaned up before it becomes a major tourist trail.One visitor said: "A tourist trap was mentioned but hopefully not in its present state. We travelled the whole length of Woldgate recently and the whole route was an eyesore. "The woods and copses were more like tips – strewn with abandoned household items. The hedgerows were littered with plastic and paper. It's fly-tipping on an almost industrial scale."'  


There has already been a huge amount written about the exhibition online, but I've noticed that some reviewers omit to mention the room devoted to Hockney's versions of a landscape by Claude, The Sermon on the Mount (c. 1656). These come as a bit of a surprise, hung between all those images of the arrival of spring in Woldgate and a darkened seating area where you can experience the Yorkshire Wolds through two grids of video screens, showing footage taken from the bonnet of Hockney's jeep.  Charles Darwent in The Independent could 'see why Hockney would be fascinated by Claude Lorrain, who, like him, invented a light that was more real than real. But his computer-cleaned takes on Claude's Sermon on the Mount are just appalling: it is as well that the dead cannot sue.'  Brian Sewell in The Evening Standard complained that 'Hockney is not another Turner expressing, in high seriousness, his debt to the old master' and described Hockney's engagement with The Sermon on the Mount as 'a sickening impertinence, contemptible.'  I would agree that he doesn't seem very reverential: you can't help thinking that Hockney's figures (elongated like Claude's) are climbing the Mount in order to dive into the swimming pool coloured sea beyond.  In an article for The Economist Karen Wright recounts her meetings with David Hockney over the last few years and recalls being shown his vast painting after Claude as a work-in-progress. 'It fills the entire wall, about 15ft high and 40ft wide, and the colours are eye-popping: there are fields of jacaranda purple in the background, and the sea has been lightened to a soft, milky, opalescent blue. ... As we leave the “Sermon” behind, he says, “I have named it ‘The Bigger Message’,” and he laughs uproariously.'