Five years ago David Hockney, back in Britain after several decades living in Los Angeles, painted a 12-metre landscape depicting a coppice on the outskirts of a village in his native Yorkshire. The composition was aided by the use of digital photography, and the title, “Bigger Trees near Warter, or/Ou Peinture Sur Le Motif Pour Le Nouvel Age Post-Photographique”, wittily declared the work’s conceptual as well as painterly credentials. “That was the beginning,” recalls Hockney, when I met him last week to watch the installation of his first major UK landscape show, A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy. “But at the Summer Exhibition [here] in 2007 I had to fight to show it on the main wall of the large Gallery III. Do you know what the RA asked me? Not how would I do it – but will it be for sale? I said, ‘I don’t know but it will be a spectacle, people will pay to come to see it.’ And they did.”
Among the visitors noting Hockney’s transformation from chronicler of poolside California to English Arcadian was Nicholas Serota, director of Tate. “I said to Nick, ‘Would you like it?’ The next stage was seeing it at Tate.” Hockney gifted the painting to the museum in 2008. The same year, he continues, “the RA offered me this whole space, all 10 rooms, for 2011. I took a couple of days to say yes but I said it had to be 2012 – because I needed four springs: first to observe and prepare, then to paint. I’m an opportunist, and I was being given a fantastic opportunity.” So, during three springs he became intensely familiar with the day-to-day changes in the landscape near his home, before, in a few frenetic months last year, painting the 52 works that comprise “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire, in 2011”.
This vast series is the first to be installed, in the RA’s intimidating Gallery III, and when I arrive Hockney is standing alone contemplating it. “I knew this room is the most difficult to hang,” explains the 74-year-old artist, adding with a wink, “or it has that reputation.” Huddled in black overcoat and grey suit, with tweed cloth cap and scarf, he looks bright and excited, blue eyes shining behind big half-rimmed glasses, skin glowing – he has just returned from taking the waters at a favourite European haunt, the luxurious Brenner’s Hotel in Baden-Baden (he drives there and back so that he can smoke on the journey). I have to trot to keep pace with him as he strides across the echoing gallery, checking the placement and spacing of the cycle that is the exhibition’s centrepiece.
Fifty-one of the works in “The Arrival of Spring” are prints: simplified, boldly coloured, close-up depictions of motifs – from an emerging patch of dandelions to an arch formed by bare branches that is amplified into a tunnel when the foliage grows – observed along a single-track road running from Hockney’s home in Bridlington to Kilham, 10 miles away. “They’re all drawn on an iPad but I drew them knowing that they would be printed to this size – about a metre and a half high – which is possible because of new software; previously they would have pixellated,” says Hockney. Each is titled simply by the date it was made.
The 52nd work is a 15-metre oil painting, Hockney’s largest yet, dramatically stylised, cropped, of purple and ochre tree trunks and outsize luscious leaves seeming to dance across the canvas, which reminds me of Georges Seurat. “I had always planned to make a large painting of the early spring, when the first leaves are at the bottom of the trees, and they seem to float in space in a wonderful way,” Hockney says. “But the arrival of spring can’t be done in one picture.”
If he is painting time, referencing the pastoral tradition which often marks late work – artists from Poussin to Twombly tackled the four seasons in old age – Hockney is, nevertheless, upbeat, evoking each moment of spring as celebration, not elegy. The series is exuberant, joyful: is he as optimistic in life? “Tragedy is a literary concept,” he shoots back. “Is it ever a visual concept? Spring is very energising to me. I was in California for 30 years – you get spring there but it’s very slight – so when you come back the seasons hit you a lot more. I realised there was something I’d missed. Spring is a wonderful event to watch and I’m a very visual person.”
Gregory Evans, Hockney’s former lover and long-term manager of his Los Angeles studio, says of such pictures that “Hockney is painting his boyhood”, and certainly his familiarity with this landscape is crucial. “I take a chair out to the Woldgate and sit down for half an hour – then when you go straight back to the studio you’ve got a hell of a lot in your head. You need to go with a question – it was Bonnard who said he didn’t paint outside because there was too much to see. I was in Giverny last winter, I sat there, looking at the pond, thinking what does the cloud behind the tree look like reflected in the water, I’m going to concentrate on that today. It was only a three-minute walk back to the studio, the memory would be very good for an artist such as Monet. Monet, chain-smoking Monet, began his ‘Nympheas’ in his seventies. I’m sure it gave him 10 years, it’s life-enhancing.”
The Yorkshire wolds are not quite Hockney’s water lilies but, like Monet, he is distilling artistic experiment out of his own secluded world while pursuing themes that are lifelong obsessions. “I need great big spaces, that’s why I went to California, and then why I went to east Yorkshire. I’m a bit claustrophobic, I don’t like crowds, I live by the sea – that’s what I see when I come out of my house in Bridlington. But I’m not finished with LA – I tell them there that I’m on location, they understand that in Hollywood.”
In October, he revisited California to paint Yosemite National Park on his iPad; at the Royal Academy, a team including Evans, Hockney’s Parisian assistant Jean-Pierre Gonzales de Lima and the show’s curator Marco Livingstone grapples with how to hang the prints in the small, cramped room Hockney has chosen to riff on “the obvious grandeur of Yosemite – while east Yorkshire gets the big gallery”.
A debate ensues on placing these towering, emphatically vertical compositions depicting Yosemite’s plunging waterfalls and sheer rocks, so big that each took 10 hours to print. “I drew these knowing they would be printed 12ft high; I wouldn’t have done them otherwise. We have to hang them high so you can look up. So ... ” – Hockney surveys the works with a grin – “so, in spite of the financial news, things could be looking up. We had this marvellous mist in Yosemite, very rare, with the clouds below you. You drive out through that tunnel and it’s so spectacular you just put your foot on the brake, everybody does. The thrill is spatial. All landscape is. However good Ansel Adams’s photographs are, they never quite do Yosemite justice.”
Hockney’s love-hate relationship with the camera has lasted his entire career, into what he calls today’s “age post-photographique”, where digital manipulation has enlarged the form’s possibilities but undermined its claim to veracity. His own uses of photography twist unpredictably throughout this show. Two key Californian pictures, for example, “Mulholland Drive: the Road to the Studio” (1980) and “A Closer Grand Canyon” (1998), each anticipating the panoramic Yorkshire views of roads and plains, form its core retrospective element, and when Hockney sets off to inspect their positioning, I ask whether he finds it strange to see these quintessentially American works in London. He edges conspiratorially towards me. “Stranger than you would think – because the original of ‘Mulholland Drive’ is still in LA. This is a copy.” He chuckles at the chutzpah of displaying a seven-metre photographic replica of the earlier work alongside the rich, dense oil painting of the Grand Canyon. Then we move closer. “Up near, of course, you can tell – it’s the physicality. But every part of this show echoes every other, you know.”
Thus he hangs the limpid watercolours of ripe corn and blotchy rain, “Midsummer: East Yorkshire”, his first explorations of 21st-century English landscape, in rows on one wall so that the scenes coalesce into a single image, recalling the effects of 1980s Californian photo-collages such as “Pearblossom Highway”, exhibited nearby. “I’m fascinated by pictorial space, always have been,” says Hockney. “Doing this show, with these spaces in mind, has been a great stimulant.”
In particular, he “began to see that recording the arrival of spring was possible. The snow came, I went out in the car and drew it on the iPad, so I’m warm – I feel the cold intensely because of my thin legs. When I’d done five paintings I realised that using the iPad was a method of recording all the changes I knew would occur. To show spring, you have to show what happens before.”
We return to Gallery III and he stops at “13 January”, depicting the quiet grey road flanked by reddish bare trunks and branches, tapering towards a tunnel of trees shrouded in fog. “This is a normal dull January day but, with the iPad, I could establish the background colour, then I put in two colours in about 30 seconds, then you can draw very quickly, with a wide range. With pencil you don’t have that range, with watercolour you have to mix the colours. With this” – he holds up the turquoise-cased iPad he has clutched throughout our conversation – “you can establish subtleties, little light changes. Even on dull days there is a lot of colour if you really look. The trees only go black when it rains. In February, there’s not much foliage, it’s pretty barren, then you get snowdrops, daffodils. I knew what was going to come. First the leaves, the grasses begin to grow, then the blossom, the blackthorn, hawthorn.”
With the iPad he can meet “nature’s deadline”. He whips it from its case and shows a record of the creation of a painting last week, a wintry view of Woldgate. He shows how he defines the composition with a stylus – “it’s a little more accurate than with the fingers” – then builds detail, effects changes – “you can make the brush bigger, the colour transparent”, and “all from a program that costs £8, and you have everything in your pocket, you don’t even need a pot of water. It’s faster than watercolour or charcoal. Any good draughtsman is interested in speed – you can tell it in Rembrandt’s drawings. Lots of artists would have responded to the iPad – Tiepolo, Van Gogh. There are disadvantages – the loss of resistance; part of drawing with pencil is knowing the resistance from the paper – but the advantages far outweigh them.”
As a virtuoso draughtsman able to master any medium, Hockney is always seeking new challenges. The latest is the moving image: he has set up a mini-cinema at the Royal Academy, and offers me rapid screenings. In one, 18 cameras shoot the drive along Woldgate over a year. “It’s the four seasons in two minutes. It’s about movement – the hawthorn in the wind, very lively, we had to get out quickly to film that. And the cow parsley (Queen Anne’s Lace), the detail there is like Dürer.” In another, Wayne Sleep choreographs a tap dance on a yellow-painted floor – “like the yellow brick road and Dorothy’s shoes – yellow is a colour you hardly ever see on television. Van Gogh says it’s the colour of hope, perhaps that’s why” – filmed by multiple cameras. “Pure joy,” says Hockney, predicting “there’ll be queues to see it”. He eyes me intently as I watch, concluding in triumph: “You’re scanning all the time, no camera is moving – you move. 3D’s not good enough – we’re offering a better solution! The film’s title is ‘A Bigger Space’ – this show’s not just about landscape, you know.”
I don’t think Hockney will revolutionise film; rather, he flirts with other media – as Picasso did with sculpture, or Twombly with photography – to fuel his exploration of painting. At heart, this show demonstrates how he is commanding new technologies, as well as art history, in a countercultural quest to prove that painting, in an age dominated by conceptualism and installation, can be as theatrical and monumental as any 21st-century spectacle.
It’s a truculent, brave view and has already unnerved the Royal Academy, which reckoned it had a safe landscape show on its hands only to find Hockney designing a poster for the exhibition reading “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally” – interpreted, in a Radio Times interview, as a dig at Damien Hirst. On the afternoon I left Burlington House, the RA was fretfully drafting a denial – “David Hockney has not made any comments which imply criticism of another artist’s working practices” – but my last view was of the artist himself, who grew up during the second world war as the son of ostracised Methodist pacifists, cheerfully going his own way, absorbed in the hang of one of his most absurdist paintings, a seven-metre reworking of Claude’s “The Sermon on the Mount”. He has called his version “A Bigger Message”.
David Hockney: ‘A Bigger Picture’, Royal Academy, London, January 21-April 9 (www.royalacademy.org.uk), then Guggenheim, Bilbao and Museum Ludwig, Cologne. Sponsored by BNP Paribas