Saturday, 28 January 2012

Hockney at the RA: An Experience

Mark Rothko said: “I paint very large pictures. I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however – I think it applies to other painters I know – is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.”

There are several very large pictures in this exhibition (generally made up of lots of smaller pictures, it is to be admitted) and they are neither pompous nor grandiose.  But where Rothko was concerned with expressing “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” (I love that “and so on”), Hockney is more concerned to express mutability, immutability and the simple pleasure of looking and seeing.

Lots of the pictures in this exhibition are of modest landscapes, given a kind of integrity by Hockney’s worrying of them. There are three trees he paints or draws over and over again, sometimes they are nude in winter, sometimes fully clothed in high summer; there is a tree stump that turns up in the middle, to the side, in the background of pictures, in a variety of hues.

In starkest of contrasts there is an enormous horizontal painting of the Grand Canyon, which glows.  You can feel the heat coming off it, relieved by a tiny strip of cool blue sky at the upper edge.

I found it hard not to smile at the sheer pleasure some these pictures afford.  It is impossible not to feel the joy Hockney has felt in making them.

Some of the stuff doesn’t work.  There were rooms I didn’t like, and individual efforts that fell short, but there was, invariably, something around the next corner to delight.  And there is a sneaking suspicion that while the paintings are not great, the art is.  Hockney is clearly fascinated by the changes that come over things that stay the same.  The mesmerising films of identical roads in different seasons testify to this; they also have a kind of didactic power.  “Look!” they are saying, “See!”

Some of my favourite landscapes are those that are painted as with one eye, so that perspective becomes unimportant, and the flat plane of the picture becomes a more honest place than in purely representative painting. 

The really great paintings here, though, are those of Woldgate Wood. When surroundeded by them you know that the experience is not aesthetic but sensual.  You need bring no art historical baggage to this.  Mark Rothko also said: “A painting is not about an experience. It is an experience.”

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