David Hockney is undoubtedly one of the most important of contemporary artists; all the more so because, like that other contemporary great, Gerhardt Richter, he hasn’t been seduced into the ever increasingly ridiculous nonsense that goes under the rubric of contemporary ‘conceptual art’. His latest exhibit at the Royal Academy in London is focused on one of the most traditional of subjects – the landscape.
Since its origins in Rome in the 17th century, landscape painting has both reflected and influenced Man’s relationship with the land. Since the romantic period, not much has changed in landscape painting. The landscape is romanticized and presented as a fetish object to be held in awe – a perspective that later paralleled the rise of the conversion of natural landscape to consumer product through the creation of national parks. Turner was possibly the only landscape painter to provide a different perspective – the landscape as atmosphere rather than object.
The romantic view of the landscape as fetish object continues to be carried through in contemporary nature photography of the type that populates the National Geographic magazine and other similar outlets. John Stezaker’s work comments on this view of nature.
In these days of concern with our environment and the preservation of natural spaces, a fair amount of contemporary art portrays Man as the invader and destroyer of a nature that would remain as this romantically beautiful object if only we would leave it alone.
It is in this context – and the context of landscape painting nowadays being largely seen as a spent art form – that Hockney’s work needs to be judged. And it emerges victorious.
After four centuries of landscape painting, one would have thought that there remains little to say. Yet Hockney manages to give us a totally different feel for the landscape in these images. Here the landscape is presented as a joyful motif. The bright colours (a kind of return to Fauvism – though not quite), the almost naif approach to some of the work, the general atmosphere that is created – all of these generate a sensation of fun and joy. Hockney draws no difference between so-called unspoilt landscape – or wilderness – and agricultural countryside. Both are to be celebrated. Hockney moves away from the trend to excluding any form of human influence from landscape representation – a trend that continues to perpetuate the fiction of a wilderness to be preserved untouched.
In these works the landscape is no longer that remote object to be fetishized and held in awe. Unlike so much of contemporary environmental art, guilt at being human and living our lives is no longer the emotion we are expected to feel when looking at the Hockney landscape. With these images we feel uplifted with sheer delight, enjoyment and a sense of fun – all Hockney trademarks represented with particular exuberance in this body of work. All of this creates a different and more positive human relationship with the landscape – one built on joie de vivre and which may lend itself better to building interest and support for addressing environmental questions.
One final point about this body of work. Some of the ‘paintings’ (including the two shown here) were created on an iPad – rapidly becoming one of Hockney’s favourite tools. In doing so, Hockney combines modern technology with his celebration of nature and the landscape – again a refreshing change from the dichotomous battle between nature and modern progress that is all too often set up by the environmental community.
But, of course, not everyone likes this work.