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David Hockney at the Royal Academy

July 24, 2016

Off we went the other day to see the new David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. I admit I pressed buttons a bit at random when I got the email about the show – I’ve been caught out before and not been able to get tickets when I’ve been slow off the mark.

If I’d read the blurb more carefully, I would have seen that this exhibition is not really on a par with his last great show at the RA, A Bigger Picture in 2012. That showcased his amazing, huge paintings of the woods near his home in Leeds and, at points, you felt as though you were striding through an enormous, enchanted purple forest.

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This is a much smaller affair, taking up two stuffy rooms right at the top of the Academy. The canvases, each one showing a single sitter in an identical chair (apart from a still life of fruit arranged on a stool when a sitter couldn’t make his appointment), pulsate with ferocious energy, as Hockney has used complimentary colours – yellow and purple, orange and blue – for the chair and the backgrounds. The sitters, some of whom are painted more than once, are often casually dressed and the painting looks as though it has been speedily done. Is it thrown together? Or is it immediate and therefore urgent?

I wasn’t sure what I made of it – which, in a way, shows that Hockney has succeeded. He has created something that needs thinking about.

Some of the obvious contrasts are that here it is all about people, whereas four years ago nature was in the ascendancy. A year after A Bigger Picture, Hockney’s studio assistant died in tragic circumstances and the painter moved back to the States. Maybe these canvases are a way of drawing his loved ones – (the portraits include several of his siblings) around him in a time of need. Certainly, the almost lifesize figures on the walls, hung so that you can make eye contact, seem to be judging us as much as we are judging them.

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