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Jolly Hockney sticks

David Hockney now considers he is painting and not drawing on his iPad, as John Evans reports

03 June, 2021 — By John Evans

David Hockney, No. 88, 3rd March 2020, iPad painting. © David Hockney

THE grand old smoker of English art has happily spent a spring (as the Covid-19 coronavirus began to bite) at his Normandy home, producing pretty pictures, pretty quickly.

The Royal Academy’s show David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020, features spectacularly colourful, enlarged, paper prints of iPad images, described as “the tonic to lift your spirits”.

There are some 116 in the exhibition, an epic effort, which runs until September 26.

And, it’s true, they are pleasant and uplifting.

Yet despite the big colour splash and its feel-good aura, this show, ultimately, is a what-I-did-on-my-break offering, albeit well timed for a coming out of lockdown.

Hockney explains: “…we were in a house in the middle of a four-acre field full of fruit trees. I could concentrate on one thing, I did at least one drawing a day with the constant changes going on, all around the house.

“I kept drawing the winter trees, and then the small buds that became the blossom, and then the full blossom. Then the leaves started, and eventually the blossom fell off leaving a small fruit and leaves, this process took about two weeks, all the time I was getting better at my mark making on the screen”.

And in the show catalogue he tells curator Edith Devaney that when he first got an iPad in 2010 he produced drawings; but with these works he was using layers more, and a variety of shapes, and new brushes developed for him, and he considered he “thinks like a painter” on the tablet now.

David Hockney, No. 133, 23rd March 2020, iPad painting. © David Hockney

So there are trees and trees and more trees, and bushes, and fields, plenty of blossom (the basic); the house, a tree house and ladder, (the better); and a little water and a nod to Claude Monet’s lily ponds (the best).

There is some variety. Daffodils appear, and still-life flower tubs, the odd moonlit landscape, and even garden furniture.

But it all comes back to the trees.

The passing of time is a central theme and these works are “presented chronologically”.

Well, to an extent.

Yet the display necessarily affects our ways of seeing.

A wall of 17 images of equal size, about 1×1.5metres, and limited palette, makes it difficult to judge the quality of one from another.
Better, for example, to view six different and colourful images of the same tree, hung together, in another gallery.

Hockney’s tablet techniques are intriguing: repeated patterns and leaf shapes; a sort of “pad pointillism”; waves and daubs, slashes up and down.

Yet the limitations of the technology can and do show through. Edges can be easily missed, and voids can be discerned in a way blank areas of canvas need not.

When an iPad work succeeds it can be enchanting. But the difficulties of how to depict a shadow decently, trying the equivalent of cross-hatching or, even worse, trying to highlight a flat image with a last, sharp, line as a detail or a faux highlight, are not easily overcome even by such an experienced artist.

There’s been reference to Hockney taking inspiration from the Bayeux tapestry, located near his Normandy home.

But while it’s true the iPad works can be seen as chronology they have no room for human figures or even animals. The lockdown isolation is not sufficient explanation.

Surely Hockney’s portraiture is far more interesting.

David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 is at the RA, Piccadilly, W1, until September 21.
Advance booking is essential for a timed ticket, either online (royalacademy.org.uk) or phone (020 7300 8090).

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