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David Shrigley or David Hockney?

Having viewed David Shrigley at the Hayward Gallery, checked out Maurice de Vlaminck’s ‘Landscape with dead wood’ 1906 in the Courtauld collection, I joined the queue for David Hockney’s controversial latest exhibition at the Royal Academy. Reviews have been mixed. While serious art critics express reservations, the art loving public reportedly adore it.

Vlaminck's Lanscape with Dead Wood
‘a kind of muscular Van Gogh’: Vlaminck’s Lanscape with Dead Wood

David Hockney, Yorkshire’s ‘greatest living painter’ has returned from the sunshine of Los Angeles to reside on the seafront at Bridlington after a successful career painting the swimming pools and the beautiful people of Southern California. For at least two decades he has been an outstanding painter, famous for his faux-naïf style, the David Hockney paintings of the Hollywood Hills, a group of beautiful drawings and a series of double portraits the most famous of which is the Tate Gallery’s very popular ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ (1970-71). Turning his hand to various media, we then saw his photo-joiners, his dog pictures, his ruminations on optics (by far the most interesting), his later portraits, his watercolours – and now we have the late landscapes, which fill every available space in the Royal Academy.
The run up to the show saw the R.A. marketing department go into overdrive. Superlatives abounded. The message was, ‘This is the show of the decade and not to be missed’, it was advisable to book a ticket in advance so as not to miss out. There was even a competitive spat dreamed up between the new wonder kid Damian Hirst, originally from Leeds and David Hockney, originally from Bradford, the two great art stars of this Olympian year. David Hockney, it went, paints all his own pictures, while Damian Hirst employs other people to make his. But it was all in good fun. Damian didn’t rise to the bait and Hockney, the ever affable communicator, the friendly face of modern art, just smiled and lit another cigarette to the annoyance of the Metropolitan elite and the puzzlement of the public, fully informed of the dangers of smoking. David Hockney Paintings
The long wait in the RA queue must have had a cooling effect, because once inside the exhibition, facial expressions and body language told a different tale. A bemused silence hung in the air as visitors contemplated the roomfuls of what seemed like half finished or barely started pictures. Puzzled by the dull repetition, they wondered at the overblown scale of the work done in a style that resembled the simplified look of the self-taught amateur painter. Empty pictures filled the rooms with lazy ciphers that stood in for grass, twigs, skies, road and blossom.
The mark making of the i-Pad seemed to have taken over from the expressive brush stroke. It was only when the colour volume had been turned up to its highest level as in the Hockney painting ‘More felled trees near Woldgate’ 2008 that these David Hockney paintings took on a more interesting abstract feel and thoughts of that Courtauld Vlaminck came to mind. I was also reminded of a painting with a similar subject matter of felled trees, the Tom Thompson painting ‘The Drive’ (1916).
As the visitors moved in a glum trance through roomfuls of brightly coloured yet dreary landscapes, they encountered some colossally enlarged i-Pad prints of Yosemite Valley which seemed to ape the work of Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt (the two great painters of the American Sublime). This was then followed by a roomful of regrettable variations of Claude Lorraine’s ‘Sermon on the Mount ‘ 1656, a visionary painting to be found in the Frick collection.
David Shrigley's Headless drummer
However, relief only arrived when the visitors had the chance to sit back and enjoy the David Hockney photography piece: a video presentation of some lovely English countryside in its natural colours, recorded by the nine video cameras attached to the artist’s Range Rover as it moved slowly down the country lanes.
Back on the street, I reviewed the day. . I had just seen three shows, enjoyed the Vlaminck – a kind of muscular Van Gogh – and seen the other great pictures at the Courtauld collection. What would I remember of the day? Well, strangely it was a David Shrigley animation, ‘Headless Drummer’ at the Hayward Gallery that really stood out. Here was an artist who, together with Martin Creed, is considered the joker in the pack of new British contemporary art. His drawings are so bad, they’re funny. He’s witty, deadpan and dark. He can make you laugh and has taken the pomposity and seriousness out of contemporary art.
James Cowan

Posted by author: Jim
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27 thoughts on “David Shrigley or David Hockney?

  • Hello Jim,
    An interesting article. Did you see the work at the Haywood, the Courtauld and in all 13 rooms at the RA in one day? I would have felt completely saturated and jaded after this and wonder how I could do any of it justice.
    I was exhausted by the onslaught of colour and energy in the Hockney exhib but was rewarded by spending a lot of time staring at just a few – his charcoal drawings and the Hawthorn blossom for example.

  • Shrigley or Hockney? — Hockney for me!
    Probably precisely because this exhibition isn’t quirky, ironic or drearily badly done. (Seen too many of those!) I liked it for the no-holds-barred colour, buoyancy and sincerity. Is it new? I don’t know. But then quirky, ironic and badly done certainly isn’t…

    • Sincerity – yes that’s a good word and what I think I like about Hockney’s work.
      It’s so clear that he’s not trying to impress. He is not taking himself seriously and there is no ego or vanity in this work. I think he’s responding to his surroundings and in a very generous way (by risking criticism) showing us how straightforward and accessible ‘looking’ can be.
      I think the importance of this exhibition concerns teaching, and it is less about the work itself.

  • Having respected Jim’s knowledge and tutorial skills for many years I was amazed at his head in the sand and lack of vision at David’s outstanding show. Perhaps the queuing and crowds (who all appeared to be entranced and smiling on my visits) but who did block the opportunity to really see the paintings which should be viewed from more than two feet away, spoilt his enjoyment.
    I have been lucky enough to see this show before the public went in when only ten where in the venue, then again when friend and family had lots of room to enjoy and even at the official launch with spellbound RA’s, celebrities and major art collectors wandered around exclaiming about the work.
    So sorry Jim, cannot go along with you this time. I really think you missed the point here and equally am sure like many others it will take time to fully grasp where this work is and the bench mark it has put down for the future.

  • I wasn’t at the study visit (I wish!) but have been to two shows at the RA and both were overcrowded making it difficult to see the work. I admire Hockney without being an unqualified fan and would have a reasonably open mind, but tend to think I’d be for Hockney on this one.

  • I went on the study day that Tony went to – and didn’t see any glum faces. I found it really inspirational and uplifting, both the colour and the scale of his vision. I came away thinking that perhaps way off in the future, the critics of this exhibition will be derided for their lack of vision, in much the same way as happened to the French critic who gave the label to the Impressionists. It opened my eyes to looking, at the landscape and at trees in particular. I thought his charcoal drawings were wonderful.

  • This is not necessarily my opinion but when the teacher who inspired and nurtured Hockney comes out in protest against his latest work -maybe we should think twice:
    May I draw your attention to an article that appeared in the Sunday Times entitled David, my lad, you’re just a decorator.
    Link (behind Times Paywall)
    Derek Stafford, who taught the young Hockney at Bradford Art College between 1953 and 1957, said bluntly “too gaudy. David has become, well, more of a decorator with all those bright colours.
    If you do landscapes, then look how Cezanne did them in his subdued colours. I’m sorry to say what David does now is rubbish.”
    Stafford goes on to say that he taught David Hockney to draw and he agrees that he is one of the greatest draughtsmen of the twentieth century and he deserves his reputation – but not as a painter.
    This is also the view of a number of art critics – read the reviews and make up your own mind.

  • I’m not in a position to visit the exhibitions disucssed but have been reading this thread for interest. I don’t know if opinion of Hockney’s former teacher can carry too much weight, after all Hockney himself has a substantial oeuvre now. Must he really be held to his former teacher’s views? Surely there must be many examples of an established artist taking a direction that his mentor may take issue with?

  • Some other critic’s opinions might be of interest to read –
    Alastair Sooke in the Daily Telegraph writes – ‘I don’t understand paintings like these – they resemble the sort of Landscape that we expect from amateur Sunday painters.’
    Charles Darwent in the Independent says -‘his computer cleaned takes on Claude’ s ‘Sermon on the Mount ‘are just appalling: it is just as well the dead cannot sue.”
    But the rudest of all is of course comes from Brian Sewell in the Evening Standard :
    “Indeed half these pictures are fit only for the railings of Green Park, across from the Royal Academy and would never be accepted for the Summer Exhibition were they sent in under a pseudonym.’

  • If I had read any of these articles before seeing the work it would have closed my mind!
    I urge anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to see the exhibition to keep an open mind till you’ve had a really long look at the work. I don’t think that the small images in the media and the brochure don’t do it justice.
    From what I read on the gallery wall Hockney’s work on the Sermon on the Mount was an experiment in classical composition and should be judged as such. This world-renowned artist is allowing us to see his mistakes… and that is very rare, so, yes, maybe some of them wouldn’t look out of place on the railings of Green Park but so what – there is great work here too.

  • I went there this week – half term – and was unable to enter the last two rooms at all, because of the crowds.. So I returned to the start of the exhibition & in a corner of the second (I think) room found two Eccleshill landscapes from 1956, that I had missed first time round .. grey impasto.. absolutely spoke of Yorkshire in the mist & rain ..austere, gorgeous pieces. I felt they were a welcome relief from the gaudy Disney-scapes, which would have shouted Van Gogh into submission.

  • This is my Review of the exhibition but to sum it up I really do think this is an exhibition for the ‘public/ people’ to enjoy with a simplicity of mind rather than ‘intelligent art’.
    There may have been a lack of wooden fences in Hockney’s work but I managed to find one and sit on it comfortably coming away from the exhibition with only a few annoying splinters in my bum.
    I managed to produce 24 pages of studies and written work on this exhibition and have two distinct feelings about the work on show.
    The first is that of awe connected with the sheer size of the landscapes and I became energised and excited by the use of colours within some of his work, work which was completed with a hand of expressive brush strokes painted as if the world was about to end or at least the next Yorkshire rain burst was about to fall. This looseness gave you a feeling as if the artworks in some instances were all but mere sketches recording the moment as Hockney experienced it, yet other works were finished to please the eye and one’s senses. These works drew you into Hockney’s landscapes and engulfed you in vivid colours and breath taking track walks; one did not want to leave but stay in the peaceful changing seasons of the trees and plant life’s world.
    The highlight of the exhibition for me is the iPad works. These works obviously lacked texture but to compensate for this the differing amount of mark making within each one left you studying every corner of their picture plan for ages and in studying you were brought back to Hockney’s message once more – Observe, observe and observe that which is around you, not hidden but just walked past on a daily basis by all of us, the colours, textures and shapes of mother nature.
    The second message meant the title of the exhibition should have read – ‘Hockney and Guests’. I was very disappointed to look at lots of the work and say to myself ‘Why hello Van Gogh didn’t know you were here? You brought Monet too I see!’ Other artists who worked alongside Hockney were (in no particular order) Chris Ofili, Picasso, Derain, Seurat, Hobbema, Japanese and Chinese masters, to name but a few, many of whom have risen from the dead to help Hockney make more fame through a joint exhibition.
    Leaving this review in a positive light, I have learnt much about composition and using passing time to one’s advantage. I am also relieved that when I next here my mother say ‘Isn’t that cheating?’ in her critical review of my work when I use technology , I can smile to myself and think ‘Hockney’.

  • Reflecting on the study day my thoughts were very positive and can be seen online :-
    David Hockney A Bigger Picture
    Royal Academy, London
    21 January – 9 April 2012
    Reviewed by: Helen Read »
    David Hockney’s A BIGGER PICTURE
    “One in the back of the net for Yorkshire!”
    Having seen a taster on TV, listened to an interview on the radio and read the newspapers I had an idea of what I was going to see as I entered the Royal Academy to view David Hockney’s current exhibition “A Bigger Picture”.
    However I urge everyone to see it with their own eyes, it is such a tonic for the soul. I’m sure we are all fatigued by the gloom of the recession brought about by the city bankers; well here is the antidote to all that dismal discourse.
    If you don’t leave that exhibition feeling uplifted, optimistic and hopeful then you should check you still have a pulse!
    As soon as I entered into room 1 “Thixendale trees” the sense of childish fun hit me, my mind spun back to my childhood during the 1960’s, when I fell in love with the vibrant colours of my felt tip pens.
    Here, his brush strokes are loose and his method to infill with dabs of colour immediately brings to my mind the 19th century artists such as Claude Monet and George Seurat who used this pointillism technique.
    I move to room 2 where Hockney’s earlier landscapes hang, I love the vibrancy of “Nichols Canyon” (1980) the complementary blue and orange shouts of Fauvists like the Collioure landscapes by Andre Derain (1905). Juxtaposed we see some of Hockney’s photocollage landscapes such as “Pearblossom Highway” (1986) surely paying homage to Picasso and Cubism. It is well documented that Hockney was inspired by Picasso and the idea of multiple viewpoints being a truer way of representing reality.
    “Wow” the rich colour in room 3, such warmth, I’m now thinking about Matisse and Van Gogh. It seems ironic that these warm depictions of Hockney’s beloved Yorkshire were created at the emotionally difficult time (1997) when he was visiting his terminally ill friend Jonathan Silver. The image of the Yorkshire planes in particular, reminds me of my home county, Shropshire and I ponder the fact that Hockney has brought the beauty of the English countryside into the heart of the city of London.
    I move to room 4 and gaze at the contrasting images, oils and watercolours, as if by a different artist, there’s more draughtsmanship here ; then I read that in this room in contrast to the previous (room 3 images from memory) these are each created from direct observation. Using perspective, tone and warm colours he really catches an atmosphere of East Yorkshire in the summer of 2004
    I pass through room 5 entitled tunnels. Like great artists before him, Hockney re-visits a favourite location (a farm track near Kilham, E. Yorkshire) over and over again, exploring the effects of the changing seasons. He captures the drama of the skies, the warm light, the cold light, the evening light and the morning light, you can almost feel the chill of the snow and the kiss of the warm sunshine on your face.
    The charcoal studies steal my attention in the next room, gestural, confident, tonal depictions of Woldgate woods 2008. They are the precursors to the enormous colour studies of the same, each comprising 6 large canvases which flank the walls of this room.
    Moving on, I encounter “hawthorn blossom” in room 7, here I can feel Hockney’s energy, his enthusiasm for life. Again, he has me considering the influence of great artist’s from the past, this time its Van Gogh , I’m looking at ‘May Blossom on the Roman road ‘(2009) His sky is depicted with a curvilinear swirl of pink and blue dash’s of paint . The primitive dabs and circles of blossom remind me of the Aboriginal style of painting. It’s as if this composition is morphing towards complete abstraction.
    ‘Trees and Totems’ in room 8 strikes me as very sculptural, there is something rather anthropomorphic about the long stump of the dead tree. A remnant of a former glory, making a last statement on the circle of life. Again, strong charcoal studies in juxtaposition demonstrate the compositional development. The long horizontal golden logs lie on the complementary purple shroud of undergrowth waiting in an orderly fashion for their departure.
    At the start of the exhibition I could see the purples and yellows of “the arrival of spring” in the distance to the left of room 1, the vibrancy acted like a magnet, urging me to go straight over, but I couldn’t. The gallery leads you around, room by room in a logical progression. So at last, I’m confronted by this awesome composition in room 9.It is made up of 32 canvases. The bold, vertical lines transport me, as if I’m standing in woodland and they are clothed with Matissean style leaf motifs. This is my favourite.
    The film work in room 11 simply has to be seen. It is mesmerising. This seems to be a culmination of Hockney’s ideas, he has embraced technology to develop and push the boundary of what Picasso started with cubism. Conventional photography is flat and two dimensional, it lacks the element of the passage of time and as such lacks life. Yet by using 9 video cameras strapped to the bonnet of a moving vehicle he manages to capture a variety of; view points, depth of focus, and time frames which does take us closer to how we really see the world through our very sophisticated sensory organ “the human eye”.
    Included in this film work Hockney demonstrates his sense of humour, just prior to the dancers, he places a written message on a chair which reads; “death comes even to those who don’t smoke”. Here is a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously! Hockney is 74 years young, although (unfortunately) I have never met him, his warmth of character, his sense of fun, his intelligence, his willingness to experiment (drawing using an ipad), his energy and enthusiasm for life radiate throughout this exciting exhibition.
    I left the exhibition physically exhausted yet spiritually uplifted. Could this exhibition mark the beginning of a more positive economic period in our beautiful Country? Yorkshire must be feeling very proud; I hope they are ready for the tourists who will surely make the pilgrimage to see and experience Hockney’s world.
    Writer detail:
    Helen Read
    Open College of the Arts
    Venue detail:
    Royal Academy
    Burlington House Piccadily London W1J 0BD

  • What a great thread. It must say something about hockneys work, eh? An interesting counterpoint 4 me is hearing on radio few mins ago a clip from 1949, retiring top cat from RA, agreeing with churchill in rubbishing picasso’s work. Energising 2 have such debates

  • I am just back from the exhibition, which I found phenomenal in every sense of the word. There were vast numbers of people there, but it is quite possible to see everything as long as you have patience. And the crowds seemed pretty lively to me.
    I was almost overwhelemed by the intensity of Hockney’s vision, by his drive to look and look and look and to keep making art out of what he sees. It was also really interesting to see how things that interested him at the very start of his career – e.g. the Yorkshire landscape or the Sublime and the work of other artists (Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape) are realised in the later works, including the iPad images of Yosemite. I found the Yosemite prints a real revelation – loved his use of space and emptiness, and how he conveyed a sense of depth and scale with very little. Having read Jim’s comments before I visited I was prepared to be disappointed by the iPad works but found them a delight. The mark-making that is so much a part of Hockney’s can’t be the same as in the paintings – but the use of line, colour and contrast added huge vigour to the prints, and I found his exploration of the medium fascinating, as well as then seeing how the iPad work affected his oil painting.
    Overall there was a huge amount to take in and to see and enough ideas and stimulation to keep me going for months. One thing I want to ponder on is his development from work that was more self-consciously a commentary on the process of making art (e.g. Ordinary Picture) to a place where this reflection has been synthesised and absorbed into his representational work. As others have said, it’s as if he doesn’t feel a need to prove anything to anyone – his work seems hugely assured and confident. His use of series of works to explore a particular place or theme and his seasonal images are also something I will take away and reflect on for my own work.
    As a photographer I find Hockney understands the medium pretty well though I am inclined to take some of his pronouncements with a pinch of salt. In particular he says from time to time how limited the medium is but at the same time clearly finds it so interesting that he cannot let it alone, and has in fact made really innovative use of photography.
    As Stephanie said earlier, anyone interested in this work should try to keep an open mind and go to see it. Try to clear all the hype and argument away and just look at the work.

  • In case anyone wonders why I had started using text-speak in my last post, I was sending it from my phone and trying to limit the length of the post in case it wouldln’t send. Glad to see it worked!

    • Hi Roberta, I wasn’t aware that you were using text-speak – it just came across as a succint message. It’s nice to have a change of rhythm in posts, with some long and some short, as they are more interesting and lively to read.

  • I confess I did not leave Hockney last week feeling energised and inspired so I decided to wait a week to see what I remember, what really made an impression, before I added my comments to the debate…. and before I commented I also made a visit to the National Gallery to see some of those masters that Hockney reveres.
    I’m pretty picky about what I do and don’t like and those who know me will admit that colour is not strong on my radar – I prefer the marks made in black and white, tones, textures, reflections and shadows so you’ll appreciate that the charcoals and sketch books held my attention most with the wonderful range of mark making techniques. I also liked his early grey landscape – it had a haunting quality for me.
    I hoped that seeing his big pictures in big scale I would fall in love with them like everyone else … but I failed to see what everyone else seemed to.
    I don’t like Van Gogh style work but I accept there is a skill to his paintings that I found lacking in Hockney – Van Gogh has captured the movement that exists in the landscape – it feels alive; his marks are toned and textured where Hockneys seem naive, childlike and static.
    I found the breaks in the canvasses distracting – my eye was drawn to each canvas individually leaving me looking at a rectangular brown mass instead of a tree trunk. I just couldn’t get far enough away to appreciate the bigger picture – someone mentioned that Hockney has spent time as a set designer???
    The greens felt like artificial lawns to me – are the colours in Yorkshire so different from Kent? As I drive through the Kent Countryside at this time of year I see some amazing colours – purples, oranges and reds in the tops of the hedgerows, a lime green haze as the new leaves emerge on the willows. Will there be endless disappointed tourists visiting Yorkshire this year, unable to see the colours that Hockney sees?
    Thank you David, for creating such a stimulating debate, for putting yourself up there and making us look harder at our landscape, but no thank you … I really don’t want any of your pictures.
    Perhaps I have much to learn about reading pictures, after all I’ve only just started the Drawing 1 course, but as I left the RA I noticed a puddle on the floor in the shape of a tree top, a pigeon had walked about in it and the footprints leading away looked like Rooks circling and landing – I should have stopped and sketched it but would I have noticed it without Hockney and his naive mark making?

  • Kenneth Tynan famously once said, “I could not love anybody who did not wish to see ‘Look Back in Anger’”, and David Hockney’s latest exhibition appears to have polarised opinion as strongly as that. Like Royalists and Republicans, Religionists and Atheists, believers in Astrology and rationalists, there seems little point in their arguing with each other, their minds are made up, and no amount of reasoned argument from either side will budge them – the believers and the unbelievers, and never the twain shall meet.
    There are those who say that D.H. has opened up the possibility of landscape to a new generation, that he shows his modernity by the use of an electronic device an ipad, that he celebrates his vision with colour and vibrancy. There are others who say he is garish, overblown and repetitive.
    I am not interested in comparing Davids Shrigley and Hockney, they are too different for meaningful comparison (is Bob Dylan better than Wagner? Does it matter? They are different) nor am I interested in modernity for its own sake; the right tools for the job is the only rational position on that score.
    After having said that I have to state my position and I am feeling like the boy in the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. There is very little of worth in the exhibition, he has filled the space as planned four years ago and in order to do that he has had to blow up a lot of very slight sketches to proportions which don’t suit the medium (they look like pictures drawn with marker pens which always lack subtlety) and painted a lot of very similar canvases with crude brushwork and dabs and daubs of colour.
    I wondered at first if it was just the scale that was overwhelming but then I think of the subtlety and skill of Monet’s pictures of changing light on a haystack or a Cathedral or of his Water Lilies in the garden at Giverny as displayed in the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York which I think are probably as big or bigger than anything here and see that it is not that which is the problem. The problem is that these pictures in the R.A. are strident and overblown and brushwork, which when done well always delights me and seems to me to be half the point of painting is sadly crude and inept.

  • I think Alan has really summed up the debate very well and I entirely agree with him. Hockney’s strength lies in line drawing and so does his reputation. The comparison with Monet is a good one.
    As a student in 1979, I was able to study in Paris for three months. When I was there the Musee de l’Orangerie was closed for seven years repairs. However I had a letter from Peter Fitzgerald the Head of the Art History Department at Reading University which allowed me access on my own. Imagine being alone with those vast Lily paintings – the Hockneys’ pale into insignificance against the awe inspiring experience of being alone with those amazing paintings – it was like being in a shrine.

  • Dawn, I thought your review was original and insightful. What a lot of comments! Ploughing through these is almost as exhausting as visiting the exhibition. I felt overwhelmed by the exhibition, but not all in a good way. I thought it all looked just a bit too easy for him. Where was the struggle? However, the work has stayed with me over the weeks and will, I think, continue to do so. I think the inspiration from it will work as a trickle effect, which might come as a surprise seeing that I was overwhelmed. It’s not an exhibition I will forget (like so many others are).

  • It’s great that David Hockney’s work is stirring up so much interest and passion. His new paintings make me tingle with pleasure – just as some work by Picasso, Monet, Matisse etc. does. And just as some works on the Thames Embankment railings, and on the all-welcome website http://www.paintingsIlove.com do too. I don’t think it’s about complex technique. Surely it’s when something in an artist’s vision transcends technical criticism and resonates with the viewer’s emotions and soul? When it happens it’s intangible and inexpressible, but a little bit of heaven. David, for me, has that magic with his colours and the purity of his love of the trees and landscape.

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