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January 20 2012

Yorkshire falls for Hockney's view

Northern visitors to Royal Academy exhibition impressed by how well artist captures beauty of the wolds they see every day

When David Hockney painted the sun decks and swimming pools of late-60s Los Angeles his images seemed to sum up the ethos of the place – sexy, hedonistic and free. When it comes to louche glamour, the village of Driffield doesn't really compare. But, 40 years on, it's the stunning countryside of the Yorkshire Wolds that has inspired the artist's latest work.

Do his almost hallucinatory paintings of the place, currently filling 13 vast rooms of the Royal Academy in London, conjure up its spirit? Definitely, says a group from East Yorkshire touring the exhibition. Hockney's vibrant 1997 painting The Road to York From Sledmere is the first that stops them in their tracks. "This red is the colour of the Sledmere estate houses – he's brought that out," says David Hinde, 55, from Bampton village.

Driffield school's head of art, Rosie Bramley, 37, sees the view depicted in an adjacent picture, Garrowby Hill, "every single day". She said: "He's exaggerated the steepness of the hill, but he captures its twisty steepness, and the vast expanses of patchwork field."

"He's perfectly captured that bluey-green haze you see across the Vale of York," agrees Hinde. "And is that York Minster at the top?" The rest of the group agrees that it is.

Born in Bradford, Hockney started returning more and more frequently to his home county in the mid-1990s to visit his mother, who died in 1999. (Another factor was the smoking ban in Los Angeles – Hockney is a die-hard advocate for cigs.) Though he still has a studio and home in LA – he jokes that when he's away he's "on location" – he now lives in a converted guest house in Bridlington on the East Yorkshire coast. Most of the 150 works in A Bigger Picture, the Royal Academy's show, were done between 2004 and 2011 and include charcoal sketches, iPad drawings, monumentally-sized oil paintings and a multiscreen video work.

The colours, which some critics have found too lurid, don't faze the group from Yorkshire, though environmental consultant Nick Farnsworth, 38, does balk at 2009's Winter Timber, with its bright, purple trees. "I think if you sit like an artist and look you really do see the colour," says Jill Armstrong, a columnist from the Yorkshire Post who grew up in the area Hockney has painted. "It's such a simple landscape, which is what I love about it."

Bramley says that A Closer Winter Tunnel, February – March "really captures that quiet stillness of that area".

"He makes a desolate road look quite attractive," says Farnsworth. "You want to walk your dog down there."

The fact that Hockney's landscapes are devoid of humans doesn't seem inaccurate to Neil King, 65, from Beverley. "I've cycled a lot in the world and it is as deserted as that. It's very thinly populated and that's what's beautiful – you get away from everything."

The area is, however, "teeming with wildlife", says Hinde. "It's marvellous to see the hares running around in the early summer. I notice he doesn't cover that." "Maybe he can't do paws," muses filmmaker Dave Lee, 43, from Hessle.

The group agree that his swirling patterns capture the wolds's eroded landscapes – Farnsworth says some of the hills are so steep shepherds use quad bikes. Looking at the many pictures in one room that Hockney has made using the Brush app on an iPad, King says "there's a sense of the wolds in all of them. It's a gentle, rounded landscape and Hockney gets that in the way he curves the tunnels and the foliage."

His huge, violently-coloured picture The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 gets less acclaim.

"It's overwhelming, it looks like he's spent too long in the woods and eaten a load of magic mushrooms," says Lee.

"He's an incredibly talented observer but when he introduces colour he's clearly capturing his feeling about a place – and I think that does relate to how we view the wolds," counters Bramley.

The exhibition only opens officially on Saturday, but already the Royal Academy has claimed the show is the most in demand since its Van Gogh retrospective two years ago – an artist referenced throughout this show.

Hockney's stock has never been higher: he was recently voted Britain's most influential living painter, and last month accepted the Order of Merit, having turned down a knighthood.

"He's a proper artist who makes you want to make things," says artist Gary Hume, who has his own recently opened exhibition around the corner at White Cube. "Even if there's a picture I shrug my shoulders at, it's because I haven't travelled with him to that place – but I still believe that he should be mapping it."

In an adjacent room a large audience of friends of the gallery watches an HD film of a hedgerow in reverent silence. "It's making me smile that so many people are looking at something you walk past every day with your dog," says website designer Steve Hey, 43. "He's taking elements from the landscape and making us really, really look at them."

"I love the idea of someone just looking at nature," says Sarah King, 65, who runs a bed and breakfast in Beverley with husband Neil. "He captures the things most people don't stop and look at. The video makes you look at the landscape with such brilliance, you could begin to see where he was getting the colours from."

The group applauds Hockney's use of cutting-edge technology, particularly 18-year-old Danny Gray, a student at Driffield school, who also uses his laptop and phone to create pictures.

Hockney's landscapes remind Farnsworth of "looking at your photos on your iPad, then you push the enhance button and it bounces to life."

Lee, meanwhile, simply applaud's Hockney's work ethic. "He's out in all weathers, making two pictures a day and he's 74! If your grandad was doing it you'd be well chuffed."

The exhibition finishes with a room of iPad pictures of Yosemite National Park in California. Hockney recently told the Guardian that the exhibition had been designed so "the obvious grandeur of Yosemite will be in smaller rooms than the less obvious grandeur of Woldgate. I like that."

"We all know we live in a really pretty part of the world, but what I've learned from seeing these paintings today is that we live in an unbelievably beautiful part of the world," concludes Lee, back outside the Royal Academy.

"This exhibition makes you realise that it's not just pretty – it's beautiful. And as much as I want to go back inside, it really makes you want to go home."


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January 19 2012

The art of the app

David Hockney is not the only artist using an iPad to create new work. Here is a selection of art sent in by our readers that was created using various apps on the iPhone and iPad



January 16 2012

David Hockney: The wold is not enough

The Royal Academy's major show of David Hockney landscapes has its crazy moments. But all that fresh air wears Adrian Searle out

Out in all weathers (rain excepted), standing in woodlands and at roadsides, David Hockney has come a long way from the California poolside, and from the Bradford of his youth – to the east Yorkshire landscape inland from Bridlington, where he now lives for most of the year. Setting up his easels in the great outdoors, or sitting in his car recording his observations with a painting app on his iPhone or iPad, or cruising quiet lanes in a van bedecked with video cameras, Hockney's reinvention of himself as a full-blooded landscape artist is not without danger. As well as nature and the weather, he's up against history.

Hockney's homecoming is recorded in A Bigger Picture, opening this Saturday at the Royal Academy in London. It is a very big exhibition. It goes on and on. It is hard to like Hockney's later work in its entirety, but then you do have to be selective when faced with any facet of his long career. Those funny, sassy, sexy 1960s paintings – caught happily between figuration, storytelling, jokiness and abstraction – are winning in all sorts of ways, as are his pools, his lawn-sprinklered buffed California, his boys in the shower and on their sun-loungers.

Hockney's strengths are mostly graphic and illustrational. He can draw like Ingres (or redo Picasso redoing Ingres) and make of it something of his own. His later landscapes lack the charm, but carry the vices as well as the wit that gave his earlier work such character. They're just big and wilful. Hockney lacks the elan and notational elegance of, say, America's Alex Katz, as well as the vision of Samuel Palmer and the wonderment of Stanley Spencer, never mind the degree of perspicacity shown by dozens (if not hundreds) of lesser-known landscape artists, many of whom line the walls of the Royal Academy summer shows. And we haven't even got to the very great painters of nature: Courbet and Turner, Monet and Constable, Cézanne and Van Gogh.

The best landscapes here, depicting hawthorns in full spring flower, their branches heavy with blossom, do attain an almost surreal and visionary delight, but they culminate in a painting so over the top – May Blossom on the Roman Road, from 2009 – that it looks as though giant caterpillars were climbing all over a kind of mad topiary, beneath a roaring Van Goghish sky. I wish more works could be as crazy as this: Hockney captures and amplifies something of the astonishment of hawthorns in bloom. I kept thinking of dying Dennis Potter describing in that 1994 interview with Melvyn Bragg how "nowness" had become so vivid: "Instead of saying, 'Oh, that's nice blossom' … I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom."

This kind of presentness, and sense of presence, is, I think, what Hockney would like to capture. He has always been good at finding surprising and elegant ways to orchestrate differences: the palm tree against the sky, the light on the water, the splash in the still pool. These allow your eye to alight on things in different ways, just as the mind records what the eye sees with various degrees of nuance and recognition. Hockney still tries to do this but fails as often as he succeeds. Looking closely at his paintings of tunnels of trees overhanging a country track, I just get irritated by all the dibbling and dabbing, all that poking and flicking, the results of his attempts to vary the pace and the touch. What he actually lacks is touch itself. I don't mind the coarseness of his smaller and larger painterly gestures, but they seem as affected as they are impetuous. It all becomes a sort of slurry. Large or small, in watercolour or in oils, the paintings seem to sag, their variety – bright celandines under a canopy of spring foliage, a carpet of fallen beech leaves tiger-striped by shadow – becoming a sort of sameness.

Often, his painterly effects work well enough in reproduction. Looking at the catalogue I get the point, but in the raw, the paintings aren't nearly so successful. They don't bear looking at for very long. And there are other artists, whose ambitions aren't nearly so developed as Hockney's, who do this sort of thing much better. I think he is fighting slickness, or too much style, or rote solutions to painting problems: how to do bare branches, puddles on the path, the grass under your feet, the herringbone rhythms of tractor tracks. It is clear Hockney is excited by these variations and difficulties. But all those splodges and patterns, smears and dapples and churnings get very wearying. I just can't wait to get indoors and kick the gumboots off.

A Bigger Picture opens with a group of large paintings depicting three big trees near Thixendale, painted from the same vantage point in different seasons. Leaves come and go, crops grow, the autumn fields are tilled. Green hills turn blue in winter, under milky skies. We've seen this sort of thing many times.

In the catalogue, Margaret Drabble drivels on about Hockney's homecoming. "He eschews the misty elegiac pastoral mode," she says. But it is precisely this mode, updated, that gives Hockney's later work its charm, such as it is. Hockney, Drabble tells us, "has not founded a Bridlington school". But he runs very close to a school of mucky, chancy English landscape painting that is already ubiquitous – and degraded by its overfamiliarity.

The show takes a detour through earlier Hockney landscapes: from mid-1950s student work depicting a dreary Bradford suburb, to a huge 1998 painting of the Grand Canyon. Along the way there are witty photocollages, including 1986's Pearblossom Highway, a desert road littered with signage and beer bottles, and a full-size photographic reproduction of his 1980 painting Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio. It is extremely unpleasant to go from real paintings, with their record of touches and accretions, to this gigantic reproduction. There are things the photograph can't record. This is the work of art in the age of electronic reproduction – and it is just a precursor to what comes later.

The largest gallery is filled with a single work in many parts: The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty-eleven). The piece is as cumbersome as its title, which is printed on the wall above a giant multi-panelled painting. The other walls are double-hung with blown-up, printed images of drawings made on an iPad. Hockney uses the app again, in works depicting Yosemite in the American west. It allows him to draw like Van Gogh, to blur and smear and dapple and dot, to do all the things painting can do, except paint. The images have no texture, surface or sheen. They look almost wipable. They can never hide their electronic origins, no matter how painterly they appear. There's something inescapably dead and bland and gutless about them.

Hockney mistakes, I think, technology for modernity. He has worked with older technologies: the Polaroid, the colour photocopier, the fax. Lately, he has even been making multi-panelled digital videos, shot while driving along the same roads he paints. The camera doesn't linger and neither should we. Openness to technical innovation is one thing, art another. All you are left with is spectacle. The video featuring dancers in the artist's studio, hoofing, tap-dancing and generally enjoying themselves adds nothing either. These flashy films and iPad drawings feel like filler. Hockney's best landscapes carry a sense of real presence, of being there.


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January 15 2012

Hockney, Freud, Turner and Hirst: art blockbusters of 2012

As the works go up and the buzz begins, we speak to the movers and shakers about how they got here …

David Hockney: Royal Academy

It's an Olympic year for artists too, and first out of the blocks is David Hockney: A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy. Like the athletes competing in London this summer, Hockney – now a veteran at 74 – has spent the past four years pushing himself beyond his limits in preparation for what could be the defining test of his career. The result is one of the most ambitious shows in the Academy's 244-year history: more than 150 works, some of them gargantuan, more than 80% of which have been made specially for this exhibition and the particular spaces of this light-filled gallery.

For Edith Devaney, co-curator of the exhibition, the most invigorating part of the process has been watching the new paintings emerge first-hand. "Like David, we didn't know what to expect, but we knew it would be exciting," she says. "I remember him saying to me when we started off this process, 'We won't get this wrong.' And I thought, 'No, we won't.'"

Hockney has always dabbled in landscapes – notably his photo collages of the Grand Canyon and Pearblossom Highway in the 1980s and 90s when he was still in the States – but they have been a sustained focus of his work since he returned to live in Bridlington, East Yorkshire a decade ago. In recent years he has produced paintings at a complusive rate, first with watercolours then oils, and most recently on his iPhone and iPad. "David's not actually that interested in technology, he's just interested in other methods you can use to make art," she explains. "The work he did on his iPhone is charming, but the work he does on his iPad has the painterly quality of his oils – it's astonishing."

Another new direction for Hockney is his use of film. Showing as a world exclusive at the Royal Academy his films are created by nine high-definition cameras pointing in fractionally different directions – the result has been described as a "moving cubist collage".

"It has the same multiplicity of perspectives," says Devaney. "When you look at this film you feel as though you are seeing the world through David Hockney's eyes."

With Hockney's canny knack for self-promotion – he recently declined to paint the Queen because he was "very busy painting England actually, her country" – marketing expectations for the show are off the scale. As a private and independent institution, the Royal Academy is not obliged to supply a projected attendance, but there are whispers that A Bigger Picture could challenge the 1999 Monet exhibition, which hosted 813,000 visitors. Demand was so relentless back then that the Academy opened its doors 24 hours a day, a UK first. "In principle we'd do that again," says Jennifer Francis, head of press and marketing. "Certainly in the final few weeks, if we think people will be there at three in the morning."

Advertising for the show will have local, national and international targets – from buses in Bradford to the LA tourist board. "It's the first time I've bought space on buses up and down the country," says Francis. "There is a massive buzz about this exhibition."

"I really sense the position of this exhibition in history," interjects Devaney. "It's a slight change of direction for us: we are picking someone like David, who is at the height of his powers, and giving him freedom. Working very closely with him, but allowing him to take off. In 100 years' time people at the Academy will look back and think, 'Oh my God, this was a really important thing for the Academy to have done.'"

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is at the Royal Academy, London W1, 21 January-9 April

Lucian Freud: Portraits

The cynical among us might wonder if the National Portrait Gallery's auspicious Lucian Freud: Portraits exhibition was hastily conceived in the aftermath of the artist's death last July. We would, however, be missing the mark by, ooh, about five years. "The idea came to me in 2007, just after we won the Olympic bid," says the National Portrait Gallery's contemporary curator Sarah Howgate. "Everybody felt it would be a fantastic exhibition to do in 2012, when Lucian was going to turn 90. Our director, Sandy Nairne, told him, 'You are going to be our Olympian,' which Lucian found quite amusing."

Howgate can also measure the complicated gestation of the show in another way. "I started writing to lenders in 2008 to request his work and then I went off on maternity leave," she recalls. "Now my little boy is three and the exhibition is just about to start!"

There are 132 works in Lucian Freud: Portraits, the largest exhibition of his portraiture that has ever been assembled. Howgate secured almost all of the key paintings that she requested from museums and private collections, including Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, bought in 2008 by Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich for £17m, a world record auction price. Other coups include one of Freud's grandest works, Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau), not seen in the UK for a decade, and Portrait of the Hound, his final, unfinished painting.

"It's a balancing act for lenders," says Howgate. "Works, which quite often hang on their walls, have to come down for a year and that creates quite a gap. But on the other hand their work is going to be hanging in this really important exhibition in a great venue, so it's prestigious to be part of it. And it's happening at a time when the world's attention is going to be on the UK and London in particular."

The NPG is anticipating around 160,000 visitors, which would match the number that came to see David Hockney Portraits: Life Love Art in 2006 (also curated by Howgate), their record for a paid-admittance show. Denise Vogelsang, head of marketing, advises booking in advance and coming in the morning; an "early-bird offer", for example, gives you two-for-one tickets for the first slot of the day. "But the show takes over pretty much the whole of the ground floor," says Vogelsang, "so it's a bigger space than we normally have and we can accommodate a larger number of visitors without it feeling too crowded."

Howgate is adamant that Lucian Freud: Portraits be viewed as "a celebration, not a memorial", and she points out that the artist had seen and approved the paintings that are being shown, even the layout of the exhibition and the merchandise. Nevertheless, it will be almost impossible to view the show, which spans 1939 to 2011, without speculating on Freud's colourful personal life. His two wives and assorted lovers are prominently featured, and it sometimes feels that you can see relationships deteriorating over the course of their sittings.

It will also be hard not to consider Freud's legacy as you wander round. "It's just really sad that Lucian isn't going to see it because he would have been incredibly moved by it," says Howgate. "Obviously his family are all going to come, so it's going to be an emotional time for them and that is going to make it all the more powerful. There was a feeling in the art world that a real master had died, and I think it will become even more clear that we have lost one of the greatest realist painters of the 20th century."

Lucian Freud: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February-27 May

JMW Turner: National Gallery

The venerable National Gallery was just five years old in 1829 when JMW Turner wrote a will leaving his entire oeuvre – more than 1,000 works – to the nation. The artist had just one stipulation: when he died, he wanted a pair of his own paintings (Dido Building Carthage and Sun Rising Through Vapour) hung between two landscapes (what he called The Seaport and The Mill) by a baroque artist who had inspired him more than any other, Claude Lorrain. The request is still honoured to this day, in the cosy, octagonal room 15, but in March the National Gallery is preparing a much grander statement of the affinity between the two masters.

Turner will be the draw for most visitors but Jill Preston, the National Gallery's head of communications, believes that Claude's mastery of light and composition will be a revelation. "We're hoping that a lot of people out there will, through the Turner name, be introduced to Claude for the first time," she says. "Outside the art world a lot of people who are not familiar with Claude will find his work absolutely delightful, really inspiring."

Turner was formally introduced to the work of Claude, who died almost a century before he was born, when two of his landscapes came through London in 1799. These paintings, along with Turner's sketches of them, open the exhibition. "They really caused a splash those two Claudes, they were what everybody was talking about," says Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery. "The sketchbooks record Turner's reactions to these works and he refers to them again and again throughout his career because it's material he can keep reusing but making different each time. This room really sets the scene for their relationship."
Turner Inspired: In Light of Claude might seem the most traditional of the big 2012 shows, but the National Gallery believes it has much to intrigue enthusiasts of Hockney, Freud, even Hirst. "Our show "is about looking backwards and forwards at the same time," she says. "Turner saw that you could look at a work painted decades earlier and make something very different of it. That's what artists go on doing and I think that's what Turner was showing he could do with Claude."

Preston is determined to spread the word that the gallery is becoming more rounded, less stuffy even. The programme for 2012 includes a show where contemporary artists, dancers and poets respond to three works by Titian. Friday Lates, where the collection and shows stay open till 9pm, offers live music, debates and a roomful of people sat cross-legged with pencils and paper doing a Talk and Draw session. "We would like the process of discovering an exhibition to be an active one," she says.

"Five million people come to the National Gallery each year so variety is very important."

Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude is at the National Gallery, London WC2, 14 March-5 June

Damien Hirst: Tate Modern

Everyone in the art world agrees: the factor that has by far the biggest impact on the success of an exhibition is the fame of the artist. This is probably why Marc Sands, director of Tate media and audiences, can't help smiling broadly as he talks about Damien Hirst's first UK retrospective, opening at the Tate Modern in April. "It will be the most talked-about show of the year," he predicts. "The name recognition couldn't be much higher. I've never met more people with a view on an artist. Largely it tends to be more on the artist, whom they have probably never met, than it is on the work that many of them have never seen."

The 46-year-old Hirst will always polarise opinion, Sands concedes, but he hopes visitors can suspend judgment until they see the work, dating from 1988 to the present day. "The divisive nature will only make the discussion, the debate, the interest more prickly and more alive," he says. "I already know what some newspapers will say, but the public should decide for themselves."

For the curator, Ann Gallagher, Tate's head of collections, the exhibition started with a single work: the 14ft tiger shark suspended in formaldehyde or, if you prefer, The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Someone Living from 1991. "For obvious reasons, it's a piece that everyone would want to see," she says.

Most of Hirst's most notorious pieces will also be among the 70-odd works: there are spot and spin paintings, medicine cabinets and the £50m platinum and diamond skull, For The Love Of God, will be displayed in the Turbine Hall for the first 12 weeks. There's also a room devoted to the works he sold for £111m at Sotheby's in September 2008, the day before Lehman Brothers disintegrated. But Gallagher is keen to draw attention to lesser-known exhibits. She is particularly excited by the reconstitution of 1991's In And Out Of Love, which fills two rooms with hundreds of tropical butterflies, some of which are spawned from canvases on the wall.

There is no room in the exhibition for Hirst's recent, little-appreciated skull paintings, but there will be at least one new piece. Gallagher, however, remains tight-lipped as to what form it might take. "You have to leave something as a surprise." There has already been controversy earlier this month with reports – subsequently denied – that David Hockney had criticised Hirst for his over-reliance of assistants. For the Tate, he has been a model collaborator: "Damien's very involved, he's very busy, but he has a good team," says Gallagher. Sands has found him "hands-on, but with an incredibly light touch".

Any rivalry between Hockney and Hirst is likely to be settled after the summer by visitor figures. Sands is quietly confident. "If you come to London as a tourist, you're likely to go to Buckingham Palace, Tate Modern, the British Museum and Camden market," he says, "not necessarily in that order." Gallagher has a much simpler ambition: "I'd like people to come and actually look at Damien Hirst's work," she says. "Whatever they may have heard about him previously, just look at the work."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1, 4 April-9 September


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January 13 2012

David Hockney: a life in art

'The iPad is like an endless piece of paper that perfectly fitted the feeling I had that painting should be big'

David Hockney is lounging on a sofa in the studio on the top floor of his beachside house. On the wall in front of him are 18 television screens, all showing films he shot of the landscapes near his home. Does it conjure images of an unchanging blue Californian sky?

If so, think again. For the last few years Hockney has been based in Bridlington, where he has been obsessively exploring the always changing climate of rain, winds, snow – and sometimes sun – of the trees, plants, fields, lanes and light of the East Yorkshire Wolds. Throughout his career, Bradford, the city of his birth, and LA have provided a fruitful creative tension, with a Yorkshire sensibility being applied to west coast mores. (When his mother first visited him in LA, her first question was to ask why no one had their washing out in such nice weather.)

The process has been somewhat reversed in recent years. "Bridlington may be physically isolated, but it's not electronically isolated. The technology is as good here as it is in LA. Making these films, we've started to call it Bridlywood. And while the subject is a very local one, I think my essential interests – in images and how they are made and viewed – have been pretty consistent no matter where I work."

The bank of screens will form a spectacular ending to Hockney's new exhibition of paintings, films and work made on an iPad, which opens next week and takes over the entire Royal Academy. On them will be screened multi-camera, super-high-definition footage of the unfolding Yorkshire seasons as well as interior films including a choreographed dance piece by his old friend Wayne Sleep. It is highly unusual for a show of this scale not to be a retrospective, and it is made more unusual in that much of the work was not even made when the show was planned four years ago.

"When we first talked about it I'd never even heard of an iPad, let alone worked with one," Hockney says. Today he is rarely without his iPad, with its bespoke wooden frame, which functions as sketch pad, full-sized canvas and convenient device for firing off letters to the Guardian on subjects that detain him. "It's like an endless piece of paper that perfectly fitted the feeling I had that painting should be big. I see now that a lot of the argument in the late 60s was not that painting was dead, but that easel painting was dead. Easel painting means small painting. The moment I got a very big studio, everything took off."

Hockney now works in a huge warehouse on a Bridlington industrial estate that can accommodate work varying from the large to the enormous. So big is the floor area that he has bought a fleet of wheelchairs for him and his team to scuttle around on. He calculates how long he has been back in the UK by the fact that he has "observed seven springs. I've watched them extremely carefully and have tried to capture as much of it as I could. One year we missed the hawthorn flower because we were away for a week in May. Another time we were supposed to go to LA in June and the hawthorn hadn't arrived before we left. So this year I refused to leave Bridlington even for a day." His commitment to the locality is reflected in the way he has hung the show. "There are also some iPad works of Yosemite in California, but the obvious grandeur of Yosemite will be in smaller rooms than the less obvious grandeur of Woldgate. I like that."

Hockney was once quoted as saying he couldn't return to Yorkshire because the days are too short in winter. "I first realised I was missing the seasons when walking through Holland Park every morning while sitting for Lucian Freud. It's a great subject for artists, but how do you record it? It is too slow for movies, but too fast for a single picture, so it takes quite a few pictures to show the changes. But that's true of most things. And it's been a remarkable discovery. I wouldn't have thought this was a subject even three years ago. But when I found it I realised straightaway it was something that could be developed."

It is a strategy that has seen Hockney, now 74, finding himself routinely referred to as the UK's greatest living artist, after a career that started with pop art and went on to define a Californian aesthetic, trail-blazed the use of gay themes, included design work for opera and ballet, made innovative use of new technologies, questioned art-historical certainties about Old Master technique and continues to display a restless energy. His popularity is reflected in a rash of new books: the lavish RA exhibition catalogue, A Bigger Picture, comes with contributions from Margaret Drabble and Hockney himself, there is a book of conversations with the art critic Martin Gayford, A Bigger Message (both Thames & Hudson) as well as Hockney, a semi-authorised biography of the first half of his life by Christopher Simon Sykes (Century).

Last week Hockney twice made headlines: first for supposedly insulting Damien Hirst by stressing that all the work in the RA show was "made by the artist himself, personally". "It was just a light-hearted thing and I'm not going to pursue it." And then being appointed to the Order of Merit. He had turned down a knighthood in 1990, but says he agreed to accept this time after the Queen's private secretary telephoned him to explain that the OM is from the Queen and not the government. "So I had to be gracious, as I think I am a reasonably gracious person."

But it is a grace that is combined with a combativeness about the issues he cares about, from renaissance optics to the smoking ban. "I did come from a pretty independent-minded family." His mother was a devout Methodist and his father a socialist activist, first world war conscientious objector and eccentric campaigner who bombarded newspapers – and world statesmen – with letters about his causes, just as his son does today. "He died just before the invention of the fax machine which he would have loved, let alone computers and blogging and all that."

Hockney says his own political views were set by his early 20s into a "sort of anarchism that took from both the left and the right. Personal responsibility is sort of a rightwing thing that anarchists would support, and so do I. Looking after your neighbour is a leftwing thing, and again I would support that. Ultimately, I'm about liberty and I think you have to defend it. This whole anti-smoking thing just doesn't add up. The anti-smokers have to deal with the fact that I am still here with a lot of energy. What are they going on about? Some of my colleagues, Picasso, Monet, Renoir, all lived to a ripe old age smoking. My friends have died of alcohol. And it is also terribly bad manners. Smoking is legal, we pay tax and still we're treated like children. Actually, my father was vehemently anti-smoking, and there's a film of him trying to take a cigarette out of my mouth, but friends and people who knew him will tell you that we are fairly similar to each other."

Hockney was born in Bradford in 1937, the fourth of five children. As a precociously talented young artist, his interests didn't lie with landscape or the countryside – "though I did collect frog spawn and things like that" – but more with the advertising, posters and signwriting he saw around town. As a teenager he won second prize in a national newspaper competition to design an advert for a watch – years later he learned that the young Gerald Scarfe had come first – and he transferred from grammar school to Bradford School of Art. Following in his father's conscientious objector footsteps, he worked as a hospital orderly rather than do national service. In 1959 he went to London and the Royal College of Art, where fellow students included RB Kitaj, Allen Jones and Patrick Caulfield. He says his upbringing had instilled in him a certain confidence – "certainly enough not to bother when they mocked my accent: 'Trouble at t'mill, Mr Ormondroyd' and stuff like that'." And success came immediately. As a student he exhibited in important shows and sold work. When he left the Royal College – having been awarded its gold medal – he was taken on by the fashionable dealer John Kasmin and quickly became one of the best-known figures in what was turning into swinging London. But he still felt the city was only a staging post.

"I arrived in September 1959, but by the summer of 1961 I'd spent a few months in New York" – resulting in an early set of etchings updating Hogarth's Rake's Progress. "As soon as I got there I realised that this was the place for me. It was a 24-hour city in a way London wasn't. It didn't matter where you were from. I absolutely loved it, and then when I went to LA I liked that even more. So when swinging London was going on, for most of it I was actually in California. And I never thought London was that swinging when I did come back. It was for a few people, but in LA it was for the many, which I preferred. In LA in 1964 there were enormous gay bars. There wasn't anything like that in London, or even in New York."

By the mid 60s Hockney had embarked on some of the paintings with which he will forever be most associated – of the swimming pools, the boys, the blue skies and beautiful people. Works such as A Bigger Splash and the large double portraits of subjects such as Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy not only crystallised his artistic vision, but also California's vision of itself. And he says it was not coincidence that this work emerged while he was living at the heart of the film industry. "I caught the end of the great period of Hollywood, which ran from 1920-1970. They made some masterpieces, and whether they thought they were making art or not, they were great picture and image makers."

Hockney was friends with the director Billy Wilder – "directors are much more interesting than stars. Billy used to say 'show me a bright actor and I'll show you a bad one'" – who introduced Hockney to "old Hollywood. But Billy has now gone and there won't be people like him again. Quite a lot of the little worlds I knew well have now gone: Christopher Isherwood's, Tony Richardson's, the world around Joan Didion. So when I go back to LA now it's a little different. Because my hearing has gone I can't socialise like I did, but I still like LA and America is still an energetic place. It's gone overboard with the anti-tobacco thing and they are all a bit doped up with antidepressants since they stopped smoking, but it can still be an incredibly creative place because it is still free and it will always benefit so long as it stays free."

Hockney's deteriorating hearing contributed to the premature end of his career as a designer for ballet and opera that began with his now much-revived Rake's Progress at Glyndebourne in 1975. But, characteristically, it has also prompted a few theories. First that his visual perception has actually improved as his hearing has declined. "Someone who can't see locates themselves in space through sound. If you can't hear you locate yourself visually. And as someone attuned to the visual world it is very noticeable. I see more." The second theory concerns his hero, Picasso, who once said that music was the only art in which he couldn't tell which were the masterpieces. "So he was obviously tone deaf. But while he couldn't hear tones, he obviously saw more tones than anyone else because his grasp of chiaroscuro was stunning, as good as Rembrandt." Hockney never met Picasso – "too in awe of him. Why would I waste his time?" – but he remains for him the greatest artist of the 20th century. "Not only was he the best painter, he was also the best sculptor. I still don't think we've fully grasped what he achieved, and, of course, he would have absolutely loved something like the iPad."

Hockney makes the point that both a paintbrush and an iPad are "technology", but he has been a determined early adopter since the mid 60s when he started to use a camera as an aide-mémoire. By the early 70s he was making his first "joiners" – large assemblages of photographs that produced an almost cubist effect – in response to his dissatisfaction with the distortion of wide-angle lenses and was quickly aware of the possibilities of office-quality photocopiers and the fax machine. He has also made art-historical investigations into image making that have taken in the study of Chinese scrolls, has conducted a long critique of photography and engaged in a prolonged study of the use of optics by Old Masters that culminated in his 2001 book, Secret Knowledge.

He argues that his own multi-camera work is not that far away in essence from what Caravaggio was attempting. "Caravaggio had the equivalent of nine cameras. They are collages. By the time you get to Vermeer it is one camera, like we have today. With nine cameras your eyes watch in a way they don't with just one. You continually scan and you look much harder. And in a way it is more like drawing. There are questions of composition and infinite ways to do it."

His interest in the creation and the power of images also informs another theory. "Art history feels as if it has stopped because it doesn't know how to deal with photography and therefore how to sort out today. But if you just look at the history of images then it becomes much easier. For 500 years the church had social control because it was the main supplier of images. You can point to Darwin, but social control moved with the control of images in the early 19th century to what we now call the media: newspapers, then Hollywood and television. There is now another revolution and the images are moving to individuals. Mr Murdoch will lose his power just as the church did. It might cause terrible chaos. What happens when authority leaves? We don't know. But we do know that nothing is for ever. Even though I'm hidden away in Bridlington, which I like a lot because it is hard for people to drop in and you can get a lot of work done, I can watch it all."

Hockney had regularly returned to the area to visit his mother, who died in 1999. He now lives, with his partner of over 20 years, John Fitzherbert, in the large converted guesthouse he bought for her. "I lived in LA so long I'll always be an English Angeleno, but to me now the big cities are less interesting and sophisticated than they were. To get something fresh you have to go back to nature. When they say the landscape genre has been done, that is impossible. You can't be tired of nature. It is just our way of looking at it that we are tired of. So get a new way of looking at it."

Soon after returning to Bridlington Hockney completed the giant – 40ft x 15ft - painting Bigger Trees Near Warter for the 2007 Royal Academy summer exhibition and the following year donated it to the Tate. It is an indication of the scale of his recent productivity that it is not part of the RA show. He says that after the show opens he has planned one of his regular trips to take the waters at Baden-Baden. "I can go in on my knees and come away dancing. But if I'm honest, the work itself keeps me going as much as that does. My theatre colleagues would always slump after a show opened. But I am always on to something else." He says his rediscovery of landscape and new ways of capturing it is "as fascinating and exciting as anything I've ever done. Even after the Royal Academy I'm not going to stop with this work and so I don't really have time to do low. It's been wonderful to find a place like this where I am pretty much left alone to do what I want. When my friends in LA ask me what I am doing, I say I'm on location. They understand that, even if it has proved to be rather a long shoot. But you get to a stage of life when that's what you want. Monet stayed out at Giverny, Cézanne was in Aix, Van Gogh stayed in Arles. You might need a big city when you are young, but there comes a point when you need somewhere else. I've found it here."


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January 03 2012

Hockney and Hirst go head to head with solo London shows

Hockney makes dig at Hirst's use of assistants in notes for Royal Academy exhibition

A small note on the posters for David Hockney's forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy contains a sly dig at another superstar artist about to launch a major exhibition. The note reads: "All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally."

In an interview with the Radio Times, Hockney confirmed that he had in mind Damien Hirst, whose £50m diamond and platinum skull will be the centrepiece of a Tate Modern exhibition in April, the first solo show of his work in a UK museum.

Hockney, who at 74 is creating enormous landscape paintings based on the fields and woods of his native Yorkshire, agreed that he had Hirst in his sights, adding a criticism of art schools.

"It's a little insulting to craftsmen," he said. "I used to point out, at art school you can teach the craft; it's the poetry you can't teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft." He quoted a Chinese proverb that to be a painter "you need the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won't do."

"The other great thing they said – I told this to Lucian Freud – is, 'painting is an old man's art'. I like that."

Like the Hirst exhibition, David Hockney: a Bigger Picture covers decades, though the artist says, firmly: "It's not a retrospective. When they came to me three or four years ago, many of the pieces that are in the exhibition did not exist."

The Hirst show will include pieces made by assistants including the taxidermists who worked on the famous pickled shark – The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – and the cow and calf, Mother and Child Divided.

Hirst once said he employed assistants to make works such as his scores of spot paintings because "I couldn't be fucking arsed doing it".

The platinum and diamond skull, For the Love of God, became the most expensive modern work sold – albeit to a consortium that included the artist and his White Cube gallery. It was made by the London jeweller Bentley & Skinner, and a proud photograph of it can be seen on the wall in the firm's Piccadilly window.

Despite Hockney's reservations, the practice of artists employing production lines is ancient: as the National Gallery exhibition shows, Leonardo da Vinci used many assistants, some of whom became celebrated artists in their own right. And in the 20th century, artists including Andy Warhol embraced the slick, mass-produced look of multiple copies.

When Hirst has picked up his own paintbrush, the results have not been universally admired. An exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London of paintings inspired by Francis Bacon was hammered by the critics, including the Guardian's Adrian Searle, who called his work "amateurish and adolescent". The pieces will not feature in Hirst's Tate show.


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January 01 2012

David Hockney joins Order of Merit

Artist who refused to paint the Queen or accept knighthood is appointed to the exclusive royal order

He was the 1960s radical who turned British painting on its head, but on Sunday the Queen sealed David Hockney's transformation into national treasure by appointing him to the Order of Merit.

Buckingham Palace announced that the 74-year-old Bradford-born painter and photographer would join the select group of individuals who have achieved distinction in the arts, learning, science and public service.

Hockney's appointment follows the death in 2011 of his friend Lucian Freud, the only painter in the order – which has no more than 24 members at one time.

Hockney's selection appeared to confirm the establishment view that he is now seen as the leading British painter of his day. Augustus John and Graham Sutherland were previous members of the exclusive order, which has its own insignia featuring the crown, a laurel wreath and the words in gold lettering "for merit".

Hockney, a smoker who has campaigned for smokers' rights, responded to news of the honour yesterday with a self-deprecating joke. "No comment," he said. "Other than it's nice to know they are not prejudiced against the older smoker."

He recently turned down a request to paint a portrait of the Queen, saying he was too busy painting landscapes, and in 1990 he rejected a knighthood.

"I do not think life is about prizes," he told the Bradford Telegraph and Argus in 2003 when asked about his decision to refuse the KBE. "I put them all in the bottom drawer and leave them there. I don't value prizes of any sort. I value my friends. Prizes of any sort are a bit suspect."

Members of the Order of Merit gather periodically for lunches at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, which are attended by the Queen as well as Prince Philip and Prince Charles, who are both OMs.

Hockney joins the playwright Tom Stoppard, former Speaker Lady Boothroyd and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, who are already members of the order of merit.

Other OMs include the wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, the financier Lord Rothschild and Lord Rees of Ludlow, the astronomer royal. Appointments to the order, which was founded in 1902 by King Edward VII, are in the sovereign's personal gift and ministerial advice is not required. Non-Commonwealth honorary members have included Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa.

Buckingham Palace announced that John Howard, the former prime minister of Australia, has also been appointed to the order.

Hockney is back living in Yorkshire, but produced some of the most celebrated images of his career in Los Angeles, including what became known as his swimming pool paintings, the most famous of which was A Bigger Splash in 1967.

Other famous works include Mr And Mrs Clark And Percy – a picture of the fashion designer Ossie Clark, his then wife Celia Birtwell and their cat. In the 1970s Hockney was commissioned by the Glyndebourne Festival and Metropolitan Opera in New York to design the backdrops for operatic productions.

Hockney is preparing a major new exhibition at the Royal Academy in London called A Bigger Picture, which will feature his vast new landscape paintings and an innovative moving image collage, which harnesses multiple cameras to capture views of the countryside around his home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, where he went to live in 2005. It was this project that Hockney gave as a reason for not being able to paint the Queen.

"When I was asked I told them I was very busy painting England actually. Her country," he told the BBC last year. He said she would be a "terrific subject" but "I generally only paint people I know, I'm not a flatterer really."

As well as producing huge canvases, Hockney has produced a series of images drawn using a painting programme on iPads and iPhones. Hockney has said recently that he has more energy now than he did a decade ago.

"I draw flowers every day on my iPhone, and send them to my friends, so they get fresh flowers every morning," he told Martin Gayford, an art historian who last year published a book of conversations with Hockney called A Bigger Message. "And my flowers last. Not only can I draw them as if in a little sketchbook, I can also then send them to 15 or 20 people, who then get them that morning when they wake up."

Gayford said Hockney would have no problem "gelling" with other members, calling him a brilliant conversationalist "incapable of saying anything boring".

"He has always had an inner certainty that gives him the confidence to challenge orthodoxy about anything he feels strongly about," he said. "That has shown through in his career, including in his decision to take on landscape painting. People said landscape painting was over and he took that as a challenge, as can be seen in this new exhibition."

The order of merit

Duke of Edinburgh 1968

William Owen Chadwick Religious scholar 1983

Andrew Huxley Physiologist 1983

Frederick Sanger Biochemist 1986

Margaret Thatcher Politician 1990

Michael Atiyah Mathematician 1992

Nelson Mandela Politician 1995 (honorary member)

Aaron Klug Chemist 1995

Norman Foster Architect 1997

Anthony Caro Sculptor 2000

Roger Penrose Mathematical physicist 2000

Tom Stoppard Playwright 2000

Prince Charles 2002

Robert May Scientist 2002

Jacob Rothschild Banker 2002

David Attenborough Broadcaster 2005

Betty Boothroyd politician 2005

Michael Howard Military historian 2005

Robert Eames Former Anglican primate 2007

Tim Berners-Lee Internet pioneer 2007

Martin Rees Astro–physicist 2007

Jean Chrétien Former Canadian PM 2009

Neil MacGregor Museum director 2010

David Hockney Artist 2012

John Howard former Australian PM 2012


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December 29 2011

The arts in 2012: visual arts

Adrian Searle picks his highlights of the year ahead

Damien Hirst: The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011; Tate Modern retrospective

Fancy a world trip? All Gagosian's 11 galleries, from London to Hong Kong, will be filled with Hirst Spot paintings in January. This dotty explosion is a mere aperitif to Tate Modern's retrospective in April. How much of what he's done over the last quarter decade really makes the grade – and how much is hype? The Complete Spot Paintings, Gagosian, London, 12 January to 18 February. Details: gagosian.com. Damien Hirst, Tate Modern, London SE1, 5 April to 9 September. Details: tate.org.uk

David Shrigley: Brain Activity

Shrigley's cartoons, photographs and animations are painful, violent, nihilistic, appalling and very often hilarious. Frequently emulated but never bettered, his humour is as dark as it gets. Hayward Gallery, London SE1, 1 February to 13 May. Details: southbankcentre.co.uk

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture

Returning to Yorkshire, Hockney has swapped the sprinkled lawns and sunny pools of southern California for muddy fields, stands of beeches, and plain-air painting on brisk northern days. He is a great draughtsman and his art can be very atmospheric, sexy and sophisticated. I am more curious than hopeful about his later work. Royal Academy of Arts, London W1, 21 January to 9 April. Details: royalacademy.org.uk

Gillian Wearing

Wearing's photographs and films dig under the skin of everyday life. She is much more interesting than the confessional humiliations of reality TV, conflating a mania for self-exposure with a lightness and human touch, deft humour and a sense of life's pathos. Whitechapel Art Gallery, London E1, 28 March to 17 June. Details: 020-7522 7888. whitechapelgallery.org

Tino Sehgal

Dancing gallery attendants, art-history kisses, conversations with precocious children: Sehgal's art is one of live confrontation and surprise. The Turbine Hall commission goes to an artist whose work is as social as it is theatrical. Tate Modern, London SE1, 17 July – 28 October. tate.org.uk

Yoko Ono

How substantial an artist Ono is remains a question, though her impact on contemporary art has been described as "enormous". Her delightful small gestures, vulnerability and benign silliness can get overlooked. She'll be uploading smiles from around the world for a new work here. Serpentine Gallery, London W2, 19 June to 9 September. Details: serpentinegallery.org

Lucian Freud

More than 100 portraits by the painter, who died in 2011. The subject of many exhibitions, Freud continues to surprise and bewilder, however familiar many of his paintings may be. The longer you look, the weirder and more impressive he gets. National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, 9 February to 27 May. Details: npg.org.uk

Documenta 13

This five-yearly keynote show of contemporary art worldwide, held in the German town of Kassel, is like sticking a wet finger in the air to check the wind. Polemical, political, always controversial, Documenta depends on the strengths – and weaknesses – of its invited curators. This time the team is led by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Kassel, Germany, 9 June to 16 September. Details: d13.documenta.de

Glasgow international festival

A corrective to Cultural Olympiad madness, this always impressive festival features Richard Wright at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, "performed installations" at Tramway, and Transmission's show of works by anonymous artists. More than 130 artists will show in 50 venues around the only British city outside London with a distinctive scene of its own. Various venues, 20 April to 7 May. glasgowinternational.org


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December 09 2011

Critical eye: book reviews roundup

Hockney: A Rake's Progress by Christopher Simon Sykes, The Sea Is My Brother by Jack Kerouac and Lives of the Novelists by John Sutherland

"Hockney: A Rake's Progress bounces along as the rebellious, eccentric, funny artist discovers sex, then London, and so on to fame and fortune, via California." Geordie Greig in the Evening Standard pointed out that what's new about Christopher Simon Sykes's biography is the author's "broad access to the letters and diaries of Hockney's friends and family"; the book is also "more warts-and-all than anything before, and certainly the most moving and amusing account of the most popular British artist of the 20th century." For the Spectator's Jane Rye, the book "combines a serious account of Hockney's upbringing and artistic development in a fluent narrative with a light touch and an obvious enjoyment of the many remarkable, exotic and sometimes disreputable characters, both celebrated and obscure, with which the story is richly populated". But Jackie Wullschlager in the Financial Times complained at the absence of discussion of the important paintings: "Sykes is a biographer, not an art historian, but in ducking analysis of such major works in favour of banal narrative he squanders a signal opportunity."

Jack Kerouac's first novel, The Sea Is My Brother, until now unpublished, is "a slight affair … The plot is minimal, and in both style and construction the novel betrays Kerouac's immaturity as a writer." Such was the conclusion of David Barnett in the Independent on Sunday: on the other hand, there are "wonderful bursts of Kerouackian jazz-prose which break through the strictures of the conventional novel, and even then his ear for dialogue was sharp and naturalistic." Olivia Laing in the New Statesman was less charitable, describing it as "didactic and spectacularly tedious", and identifying a "rich and unattractive seam of misogyny". The Spectator's Patrick Skene Catling decided that Kerouac wrote "fast, enthusiastically and sloppily" and "made no apparent attempt to disguise autobiography … the book is worth getting as a literary curio of value for anyone interested in the decline of civilisation."

Opinions differed wildly on John Sutherland's Lives of the Novelists. For Michael Prodger in the Evening Standard, a "heavy book offering 294 biographical essays on the lives of assorted novelists from John Bunyan to Ian McEwan does not sound too promising. This is, though, the funniest book I've read all year. From the first entry on John Bunyan … to pretty much the last, on Patricia Cornwell – who, on being diagnosed as bipolar, 'at first thought it was a reference to her sexuality' – it is a riot." But Stuart Kelly in the Scotsman was perplexed: "The omissions are so glaring – and in some cases, omitted in favour of such dreadful writers – that a defence of personal whim seems inadequate … Sutherland has a penchant for bloke-ish fictions of the gumshoe and bang-bang persuasion, and when he writes about his enthusiasms, he is charming. But please, someone, give him an advance of sufficient size that he can write something deep and significant again." Jonathan Bate in the Daily Telegraph broadly agreed that the book is "heavy on biographical anecdote … but distinctly light on literary analysis".


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David Hockney: the East Riding tourist trail starts here

Artist collaborates with Yorkshire tourist board to link sites of his recent paintings. But Brid may not be included, to safeguard his privacy

David Hockney, the godfather of modern British art, is about to start work in a new medium that he has been famously dismissive of in the past. Tourism.

Bridlington-based Hockney is in the process of creating an official tourist trail to a number of sites across his home county of Yorkshire, with a particular focus on those places he has painted in the East Riding's Yorkshire Wolds as part of the Royal Academy exhibition which opens in January.

The move represents a change of heart by Hockney who has been reluctant to promote Yorkshire in the past as he famously does not like crowds of people. This is one of the reasons he settled in Los Angeles, because of the lack of the celebrity-chasing that he experienced in Britain and then Paris in the 1970s.

Even at the press conference to launch next year's Royal Academy exhibition he expressed concern that his paintings might result in an influx of people to the Wolds altering its atmosphere and appeal, especially to him.

However, he is a pragmatist too and he recognises that the David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture exhibition will put the Yorkshire Wolds on the global map for artists as well as tourists as the bulk of the landscape and film works being exhibited were done in this quiet corner of East Yorkshire.

It is already being talked about as Hockney Country in the art world, just as Suffolk is recognised as Constable Country.

So Britain's most popular living artist has agreed to work with the county's tourist board, Welcome to Yorkshire, to create an official tourist trail, rather than allow unofficial versions or websites to identify incorrectly the sites at which he has worked.

It is not yet known whether he will actively promote the trail himself or just lend his name and copyright to it.

Sites likely to be featured would include the village of Warter where he painted Bigger Trees (which were subsequently chopped down) and Bigger Trees Near Warter (which still exist). Although it will not be part of the Royal Academy exhibition, Bigger Trees remains one of his most famous works from the Wolds, a giant painting made up of 50 canvases measuring 40 feet in width.

Other areas pencilled-in would be Garrowby Hill and Sledmere, both of which inspired re-imagined workings of the landscapes he knows so well, rather than ones painted in the open air such as those at Warter.

The steep valley village of Thixendale, where he has painted Three Trees through the Seasons might also be on the trail, as well as Woldgate Woods, outside the village of Kilham, both of which have a role in the coming exhibition.

However, Bridlington, where he now spends most of his time rather than in Los Angeles, is less likely to be featured, just in case the trail inspires Hockney Hunters intent on finding the ultimate spot on the Hockney Trail. His studio.


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December 07 2011

When Freud met Bacon – in pictures

A new exhibition, The Mystery of Appearance: Conversations Between Ten British Postwar Painters, looks at the personal relationships between artists from Freud to Bacon to Hockney



November 06 2011

London 2012 festival: 'It's going to be amazing'

Two years ago the Cultural Olympiad was floundering. Has new boss Ruth Mackenzie turned it around? She talks mass bell-ringing, Barenboim and beaches with Charlotte Higgins

Last year, when Ruth Mackenzie was appointed director of the Cultural Olympiad, the very concept was at a low ebb. No one seemed to know exactly what it meant. The early planning seemed bogged down in impenetrable jargon about Olympic "themes" and dead phrases such as "celebrating youth and diversity". While worthy, these had the kind of committee-speak tang that is the enemy of good art. As one commentator put it, after attending the glossy, self-congratulatory launch in 2008, "it felt like we were all bathed in a warm vomit of inclusivity".

Mackenzie was the cavalry, brought in to give the Cultural Olympiad – which, should you still be in the dark, is the arts programme that will accompany the games, and which has been running, in various forms, since 2008 – a fresh start. She would have to be a sprinter: the opening ceremony might have been two years away, but that was still a hideously short time frame in which to pull together a coherent cultural programme for 2012. Mackenzie's appointment was greeted with relief, however: if anyone could pull it off, it was this former boss of Scottish Opera, Chichester Festival theatre and Manchester international festival. Like her or loathe her (and the arts world seems split, her nickname in some quarters being The Childcatcher, after the villain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), she is regarded as effective.

"Did I have time to spend two years doing research, which any director of any festival would expect?" she says crisply when we meet at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. "No, I didn't. But there are merits in being decisive. There was no time to linger."

And in many ways – judging from the launch on Friday of her London 2012 festival – Mackenzie does seem to have pulled it off. The festival, running from 21 June to 9 September, will be the climax of the Cultural Olympiad. If all goes well, it will bring some much-needed focus to a rather inchoate programme that has risked lacking a binding identity.

To create the festival programme, Mackenzie and her team examined the work already in development, extracted the good stuff (such as Big Dance week, which saw 1.2 million people dancing in London last year) and quietly dropped the rest. She also opened her contacts book, inviting major international artists to make work that would form the high points of the festival; she cherrypicked projects being run by other institutions and drew them into the festival programme. For example, Tate Modern's regular Turbine Hall commission, which next year is by the Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal, will be regarded as part of the festival.

The problem, perhaps, is that the definition is still somewhat baffling. The festival is not the same as the Cultural Olympiad – there are plenty of Cultural Olympiad events that will happen next summer that are not part of the festival. Nor is the festival, despite its title, a London thing: it will be UK-wide. Some events that are part of other festivals – such as the Southbank's festival of the world – will also be included in Mackenzie's London 2012 festival. Confused? Don't worry, says Mackenzie. London 2012 festival events will be identifiable through branding, a pink ribbon, that she says will give them the imprimatur of quality. "We encourage people to feel that if there is a pink ribbon on it, it's like a critics' pick: trust us, it's going to be amazing."

Wisely, she has ditched the idea of connecting the programme too closely to the sporting events. The only two Olympic "themes" she has dreamed up are the idea that the artists are "exceptional, gold-medal talents, capable of producing something that's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity"; and the notion, as a loosely applied metaphor, of the Olympic truce, which in the ancient Greek Olympics was a downing of weapons between the frequently warring Hellenic nations for the duration of the games.

And so, bound together by Mackenzie's curatorship, the London 2012 festival does now have a certain coherence. It is recognisably her taste, whether originated by her or not. She has a bracing (and to my mind commendable) penchant for the European avant garde; there is serious work of all stripes; and contemporary music that is anything but lowest-common-denominator. So Birmingham will see the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey's new epic choral work Weltethos, under Simon Rattle; there will be a strand devoted to the work of composer George Benjamin; Daniel Barenboim will bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms; theatre-makers Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw will create a series of installations on Britain's beaches; and there is the already announced Pina Bausch/Tanztheater Wuppertal retrospective planned for the Barbican in London.

Offsetting all that is more populist fare: David Hockney at London's Royal Academy, a celebration of Alan Ayckbourn in Scarborough and Chichester; and, presumably, the pop and comedy elements of the festival, which are to be announced next year. Skirting between the two extremes are some intriguingly eccentric works, such as Martin Creed's Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. (Yes, Creed wants everyone in Britain to ring something – church bell, bike bell, doorbell – simultaneously to celebrate the opening of the Games.) Mackenzie hesitates to sum up the "tone" of the festivities but, if anything, she says, they will have a certain humour and wit: "There's something about the surprise and quirkiness of them – about being funny as well as touching."

Will the London 2012 festival feel like a festival? As Mackenzie herself says: "Most festivals are in fields or cities; this one is in an entire country." Good festivals involve audiences sharing a stream of thought or experiencing a sense of place. They create a feeling of "festiveness" and a certain camaraderie between audiences and artists. Mackenzie has worked to disperse London 2012 into all parts of Britain, from Shetland to Cardiff, from Enniskillen to Gateshead to Margate. But that geographic generosity could cost her the coherence she wants, as most people are unlikely to get to any but a few events.

Mackenzie counters: "One of our offers is, we bring the events to you: we make sure there are amazing events all round the UK. You will feel a festive spirit in quite a few of our major cities. There is no doubt that there will be a critical mass of cultural events in London, and it's going to feel like it's absolutely at the centre of a festival – that goes for Edinburgh, Derry/Londonderry, Belfast, Birmingham, Stratford, too. What you can't do is have one festival club, you can't, and that's a sadness for us. Would it be easier if it was all in one city? Yes. But if we're to offer 10m free tickets or free places at events – well, you just couldn't do that in one city."

Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen

And what – to use a dreaded piece of Olympics jargon – does Mackenzie want the legacy to be? It's partly, she says, about using the strength and power of the Olympic brand to tempt audiences to take a punt on events they wouldn't normally go for. "I don't want to sound pious, but I believe in the quality of these artists. I believe that if you have the chance to see David Hockney or Robert Wilson's Krapp's Last Tape in Enniskillen, I think you will be amazed. I really do. I think you'll remember it; I think it will shape the way you think."

There are more tangible ends in view: the government, for example, has set targets for increasing cultural tourism to Britain once the games have finished. Mackenzie is also keen to raise the cultural stakes for subsequent Olympics, not least Rio in 2016. "If we are lucky, we will change the way future Olympics see their cultural festivals. I don't mind if Rio is better than us: I would like us to be the best yet, but I would be pleased if they were better than us."

The sheer scale of it all prompts more questions. At the latest count – and new projects are still being added – there were more than 1,000 events in the London 2012 festival, and many times that in the Cultural Olympiad as a whole from its 2008 inception. Will there be enough audiences to go round? And will 2013 be a terrible cultural letdown, arts organisations having exhausted their energy and budgets on big Olympic projects? One thing's for sure: far from there being nothing much to see next year, the UK is going to be awash with big ticket arts events. The danger, perhaps, is not cultural impoverishment – but cultural overdose.


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October 14 2011

A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford – review

The artist talks about trees and landscape

This book is a celebration of trees and bigger trees and some of the biggest landscape paintings in art history. It is about much more than that, but trees are at its massive, strongly beating, very English heart, and David Hockney's discovery of them is an invitation to us all to look better, see better, enjoy more.

The beautifully illustrated (and very fairly priced) volume takes the form of conversations with Hockney's art historian friend Martin Gayford (they are designated on the page as DH and MG). MG prompts DH to talk about his move from California to Bridlington, his preparation for his forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, his views on the differences between painting and photography, and his ongoing love affair with new digital techniques.

Hockney loves trees, he loves gadgets, and he loves to paint. The combination of these enthusiasms is producing, in his 70s, some huge works on an epic scale of mind-changing colour and glory, as well as some miniatures drawn on his iPad. These domestic sketches – the view from his bedroom window with a street light, his bedroom curtains, a bowl of flowers, a cactus, an ashtray – appear as if by magic nearly every morning in the inboxes of his friends. This man is blessed with great gifts, and he shares them with great generosity. He says he has found a new lease of life. "I would never have expected to be painting with such ambitions at this age. I seem to have more energy that I did a decade ago, when I was 60." His work rejuvenates him, it rejuvenates us all. DH is very inclusive.

Trees are long-lived, they become old friends and then they outlive us. DH claims "they are the largest manifestation of the life-force we see. No two trees are the same, like us." MG includes in his commentary Constable's description of the "young lady" ash tree on Hampstead Heath, together with a reproduction of Constable's 1821 Study of the Trunk of an Elm Tree, with its extraordinary details of bark, and he also quotes from Colin Tudge's The Secret Life of Trees, a book both he and Hockney admire. Trees are "like human figures in the landscape, vegetable giants, some elegant, some heroic, some sinister ... but they are also remarkable feats of natural engineering, capable of holding up a tonne of leaves in summer against the forces of gravity and wind". This observation draws Hockney on to speak of the spatial thrill of trees and their capturing of light – a winter tree helps you to sense space, a summer tree in leaf is a container of light – and also to the theme of the changing of the seasons and the changing light of every day.

Hockney has learned to watch the seasons acutely since he moved back to his native Yorkshire. He knows when to catch the hawthorn in bloom, and gets up early with his nine-camera team to film leaves turning colour in the autumn and bare trees decked with snow. He films and paints the same deeply familiar tunnel of trees and bushes and notes how the position of the sun changes through the year – a natural phenomenon he'd never noticed in California. (Maybe it doesn't happen in California: Bridlington is, as he often points out, quite a long way north.)

MG, on a 2010 outing to Glyndebourne with DH to see a revival of the 1975 production of The Rake's Progress with Hockney's original sets, remarks as they sit in the grand and formal Sussex gardens on a perfect summer day that the landscape is a "huge natural theatre that is being lit by the sun and the weather in an infinity of varying ways". DH assents, but is soon drawn back to the subject of his humble tunnel on a misty morning: "You get a marvellous range of greens, more detail in the cow parsley. If it had been a sunny day, it would have been a little flatter ... a morning like that is a great rarity." More detail in the cow parsley: that's so English, that's so good.

The landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds is modest, unspectacular, unfrequented, and despite his long absence Hockney says he is now learning to know it as thoroughly as Constable knew East Bergholt and Dedham – he has gone back to his roots. But he hasn't gone to Earth. He is remains deeply interested in the work of his predecessors, and full of lateral thoughts about them. His response to one of the fathers and masters of the outdoor landscape, Claude Lorrain, is fascinatingly quirky: he is full of respect for Claude's trees and the delicacy of his foliage ("It probably isn't that natural, but it looks it") but at the same time he is determined to apply revolutionary photographic Photoshop techniques to "restore" and recreate one of Claude's larger and lesser known paintings, The Sermon on the Mount from the Frick Gallery. Although I have had the good fortune of a an early view of his vast and colourful version, then in his huge rented warehouse on a Bridlington industrial estate, and entitled (like this volume) A Bigger Message, I was too over-excited and over-awed to take in what was happening there. I understood in my ancestral bones the Yorkshire trees and the shady tunnel, but this strange vision in vivid reds and green and blues was like nothing I had ever seen before. "It's not oil paint," as he explains to Gayford, but what is it? It is a virtual Claude, revealing, as the Frick version did not, "the lame and the blind in a pit".

The weird combination of ancient landscape and new gadgetry is exhilarating. Hockney will try anything. He speaks with the greatest admiration of Van Gogh's human vision, his fine draughtsmanship, the speed and energy of his brush strokes, his northerner's joy in the clarity and light of the south (similar to Hockney's own youthful delight in California), his ability to transform the dullest subject, his love of the nondescript, his letters with their little sketches like drawings of drawings – "Van Gogh could draw anything and make it enthralling ... a rundown bathroom or a frayed carpet." Van Gogh distrusted photography, would never pose for a photographer, but his fellow artist DH claims confidently in one of his frequent texts to MG, he would have gone for the iPad. "Van Gogh would have loved it. He could have written his letters on it as well ... Picasso would have gone mad with this."

And so Hockney goes on sketching in his old-fashioned, comfy, hi-tech seaside home. He draws the washing-up in the sink, his own bare foot with its slipper by its side, his cloth cap, just as they happen to catch his eye. And in the warehouse on the estate, the bigger trees and the bigger message grow and grow.

Margaret Drabble's The Millstone is published by Penguin.


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October 12 2011

Museum of masterpieces

From Kristin Scott Thomas's Parisian scene to Philip Pullman's much-loved Monet, celebrities and big names in the art world talk us through their favourite works



September 07 2011

Teaching Hollywood: Hockney moves into film

Hockney's multi-camera films of the east Yorkshire countryside 'could save cinema', according to the artist

Seven years' worth of David Hockney's work are to be exhibited in a major show at the Royal Academy next year, including, for the first time, film.

The artist has some valuable pointers for television and Hollywood. "It has occurred to me that it could save cinema," Hockney said, outlining plans to exhibit his landscape films, in which he used nine cameras to create large moving images across multiple screens.

"I'm going to show these to friends in Hollywood in a few weeks.."

The films show the same landscape in each of the four seasons and were taken when he lived in Bridlington, capturing the changing beauty of the east Yorkshire countryside.

They will be among 150 works in Hockney's show, which will include paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and drawings made on his cherished iPad.

The show stems from an approach the RA made to Hockney in 2004, putting much of its grand gallery space at the artist's disposal.

"It did give me a terrific boost," he said. "I thought, they're giving me wonderful great big walls that were made for big paintings right in the middle of London. I think we've risen to it."

Hockney has managed to make east Yorkshire his landscape, much as Constable did with Suffolk.

"Nobody directed what David was going to do for this exhibition," said co-curator Marco Livingstone. "He had the galleries at his disposal and he made the work that he wanted to make."

Livingstone said the technical skill, the brushwork and the confidence in the works were all of the highest order. "I think the paintings he has made since 2005 are the most impressive body of work he's made in his life."

Did Hockney agree? "Any artist will tell you that the work he did yesterday was the best," he said.

Hockney, a regular Guardian letter writer as well as reader, used the launch to get a few longstanding gripes off his chest. It's not two thousand and twelve, for example, it's twenty twelve. He also held forth on smoking, of course. He has cigarette packet warning signs all over his house saying "death awaits you even if you do not smoke". And while he was there, he bemoaned the wrongheadedness of Hollywood in thinking 3D was the way forward: "A big error, a mistake," that is only good for pornography, he said.

Filming in east Yorkshire was straightforward because nobody interfered or interrupted, he said. "In LA it would have been permits, all kinds of things."

Using so many cameras exposed the comparative limitations of TV, he said. "You notice how pokey the television picture is, actually. It's always edges, edges. We're moving the edges now. You move the edge by putting a great deal more in the middle of the picture."

After devoting so long to landscapes, the 74-year-old Hockney thinks he will now return to portraits. "That's normally what happens," he said.

The show is not a retrospective, but will include works from the 1950s to the 1990s, to allow his new work to be seen in context.

The stars of the show may well be multi-canvassed depictions of east Yorkshire, which Hockney painted after driving around the countryside with a chair in the boot of his car, then sitting and smoking and looking.

"Most people glance or scan but don't look," he said. "I love looking, I get intense pleasure from my eyes. There's a lot of blindness. I'm not sure television has made people look very hard. I always thought television couldn't show you the beauty of the landscape because it can't show you space that well. The enjoyment of landscape is a spatial thrill."

The show will be part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme. Ruth Mackenzie, the programme's director, said one of her first acts after being appointed had been to approach the RA and beg them to allow the Hockney show to be part of it.

As the Hockney show was scheduled for January to April and the London 2012 Festival is in June, Mackenzie had to think creatively. "We decided to invent a category of 'countdown' events and countdown events are in honour, really, of David Hockney."

David Hockney: A Bigger Picture will be at the Royal Academy between 21 January and 9 April.


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August 24 2011

Peter Duggan's Artoons – David Hockney

When it comes to Robert Smithson's land art, David Hockney is no longer cool by the pool. As imagined by cartoonist Peter Duggan



July 22 2011

Freud: the best of the web

Following Lucian Freud's death, sitters, critics and fellow artists from Sue Tilley to David Hockney have paid tribute to a great portrait painter … and a 'frightening' driver. Here's a selection

Lucian Freud was a fundamentalist in his belief that thoughts of the artist should never be allowed to interfere with their art. They should appear "no more than God in nature", he once wrote. So it was probably as well that he seldom gave interviews, because there was certainly a lot to talk about. Freud was famously gregarious, and loved the good life, including expensive food and cars. (His regular table at the Wolseley was said to be set with a black cloth last night.) And "it is thought", in the cautious words of this BBC profile, that he fathered "dozens" of children.

The legends about his ramshackle (some would say disgusting) studio were also true – as you can see from the dirt and paint that cakes the walls in this extract from Tim Meara's film Small Gestures in Bare Rooms. For a fuller profile, the best film available online is Jake Auerbach's Portraits (2004), made up of interviews with his friends and family. Part one includes, among other things, the memory of his friend, the novelist Francis Wyndham, being taken to the River Cafe in Freud's glamorous car. "You know how frightening he can be as a driver," Wyndham says. In the second part, fellow artist David Hockney remembers sitting for Freud, and is full of praise for his work. "I think they're as good portraits as have been done by anybody, actually," he says. The third part is here.

Among critics, the London Review of Books art writer Peter Campbell made a superbly detailed study of Freud's technique, following his visit to Tate Britain's 2002 retrospective. There is also this film on YouTube, which is far from slick – indeed it's annoyingly shoddy – but it does give a good summary of Freud's influences and development.

The Today programme this morning carried a clutch of interviews, including with Sue Tilley, the subject of several of Freud's portraits. Most notable among them was Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, which became the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold when it was bought for £17m in 2008, reportedly by Roman Abramovic at the instigation of his girlfriend, collector and millionairess Dasha Zhukova.

Tilley also spoke in more depth to BBC Breakfast this morning, revealing that the famously protracted process of sitting for Freud was not exaggerated – taking "three days a week for nine months" in her case. "You'd think he was a very serious person," she adds, "but his excitement when he met Kylie Minogue beggared belief."

Perhaps his closest literary counterpart, when it came to documenting the grotesque glory of the human body, was John Updike. And maybe it's a fitting way to say goodbye to one of the greatest British painters ever to read this short poem, in which the writer pays tribute to Freud's work.


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June 11 2011

The 10 best summer paintings

The Observer's art critic Laura Cumming selects the paintings that best evoke the exhilaration and the languor of summer

1 Claude Monet Poppy Field (1873)

This is the summer you look at in winter, reproduced on millions of sitting room walls, the painting that transports you to the drifting, buzzing heat of those waist-high French fields through which pretty women stroll with parasols. The nearest poppies are disproportionately large to get across the impact of such intense red and parts of the painting hover on the verge of abstraction. The mother and child are probably Monet's wife and daughter. He showed the work at the first impressionist exhibition in 1874 and it's now one of the best-loved paintings in the world. See the painting here

2 Pieter Bruegel The Harvesters (1565)

Towering wheat, plump peasants, comic stooks: you wend your way through this fabulous late summer landscape like a roving peasant yourself, spotting ripe pears, scattering birds, noticing the distant monks bathing naked. The scythed path leads the eye into the faraway distance. The first modern landscape in western art is the claim for Bruegel's Harvesters – all reality, no allegory – from the Seasons cycle. It really puts you on the spot, makes you feel the soporific weight of all that warmth. It is, like the rest of the cycle, democratic, affectionate, atmospheric and almost proverbial. See the painting here

3 Edward Hopper Second Storey Sunlight (1960)

This is the dark side of summer – strange goings-on in broad sunlight, longing and isolation even in the heat. The house is typical Hopper, white clapboard, pitched roof, presenting itself silently against the cobalt sky. Sun strikes the old lady in black and the young girl waiting for someone or something. But between them is a lonely void. What is their relationship? Why is the house turned to the sun as if watching for something too? The trees gather menacingly behind the building and inside looks starkly empty as the sun hits the back wall of the room. See the painting here

4 Christian Kobke Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle (1834)

The marvellous Danish artist Christian Købke has climbed to the rooftops to take the summer view by surprise. Here is the dark ridge, the cool blue water beyond, the landscape repeating these horizontals in ever-hazier stripes beneath a motionless sky that fills three-quarters of the picture. It is a hymn to summer light and immense panoramas, the kind of thing no photograph can quite contain. And it's all witnessed by strange surrogates: a solid brick chimney and an elaborate spire turned gold and silver in the sunlight face the view amazed, like something out of Edward Hopper. See the painting here

5 Isaac Levitan Summer Evening (1899)

It would be hard to think of a more beautiful image of summer evening light turning field to fire than this delicately luminous painting. The parched road begins among the cooling foreground shadows, implicitly where we stand, and stretches across the still-warm field to the trees in the distance. It feels like the cusp of autumn, certainly the end of summer's lease. Levitan was master of the "mood landscape", which catch the understated beauty of provincial Russia with a tinge of melancholy. Close friend and favourite artist of Chekhov, he was dead months later at the age of 39. See the painting here

6 David Cox Rhyl Sands (1854)

A summer's day on the French coast, as painted by Boudin or Monet – that's what this picture looks like. And it never ceases to amaze that the subject is actually a day at the artist's favourite resort on the Welsh coast, that David Cox is English and that the picture was painted around 1855, before impressionism was a glimmer in the eye. The sweep of beach, so fresh and breezy it looks as though the sand might have caught in the paint, stretches away in that blurry miasma of light, air and liquid motion that so perfectly captures a day at the seaside. See the painting here

7 David Hockney A Bigger Splash (1967)

Which other living painter has created such a potent image of high summer, of a day so hot the only escape is to plunge into a cool pool? Hockney's swimmer has vanished into the depths, leaving only scattered water in his wake. It is a stunning diagram of 60s California, of blazing noon and pristine pool, of liquid blossoming into frozen chaos. "It took me two weeks," Hockney wrote, "to paint this event that lasts two seconds." Few works of British art have so completely entered the public imagination. See the painting here

8 Bridget Riley To a Summer's Day (1980)

Sky blue, rose, violet and sunshine yellow: stripes of summer colours twist this way and that, ribbon-like, across the horizontal canvas. The motion is somewhere between wave and shivering cornfield. And each fluctuation produces a slightly different optical hit and temperature. The whole painting vibrates in the mind and eye, which is very much the spirit of Riley's art, echoing the truth that nothing in the seen world ever stays still. Her title alludes to Shakespeare's sonnet, suggesting only a comparison with summer. Her picture presents an analogy with the exhilaration of summer. See the painting here

9 Paul Gauguin Tahitian Landscape (circa 1893)

Everyone knows the legend of the stockbroker turned artist who abandoned his family and took the banana boat to Tahiti for free food and sex, painting super-fertile scenes of sultry girls, primitive statues and strange fruit. But Gauguin also celebrated the landscape around him with an unrivalled intensity of colour that would inspire the fauves. Here, the path turns red-gold in the heat as it runs between viridian trees towards a mountain of sun-baked rock. Up close, the paint is inert, dry and pressed flat into the canvas. But stand a few inches away and the image bursts with brilliance and graphic power. See the painting above

10 Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin Basket With Wild Strawberries (1761)

Not just a heap of summer fruit, but a whole glowing mountain of pleasure. Chardin's great masterpiece of wild strawberries is full of latent heat, his paint mimicking the warm, soft flesh of the berries as miraculously as it conjures the silvery condensation on the glass of cold water. His brush smooths round and round the peach, round the cellophane-bright cherries, shaping the fruit with circular relish. Chardin loves what he paints and makes you love it too. Diderot called him "the Great Magician". Proust revered him for bringing inanimate objects to life "as in The Sleeping Beauty". See the painting here


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April 09 2011

The 10 best watercolours

As Tate Britian reviews the history of the watercolour the Observer's art critic selects her 10 favourite paintings in the medium

1 David Hockney Self-Portrait with Red Braces (2003)

Leaning in close to the mirror, peering over the top of his glasses, Hockney stares so hard at himself his eyes are nearly glazed with looking. He is painting himself literally in the act. The brush, which he cannot see at this precise moment, is forming a line out of the very watercolour from which it is made. A blot of black has escaped. Hockney, virtuoso draughtsman, great technician in every medium from oil to print to coloured crayon, is challenging himself with quick-drying, no-corrections watercolour. The picture is almost life-size. Hockney is putting himself on the spot.

2 JMW Turner The Burning of the Houses of Parliament (1834)

Turner's sequence of watercolours, made as the Houses of Parliament burned down right before his eyes, is one of the great wonders of the watercolour world. An immense conflagration lighting up the sky, reflected in the Thames below, struts, towers and windows fleetingly visible among the flames, it's all dashed down in the heat of the moment. A contemporary described Turner 'pouring wet paint on to the paper till it was saturated, he tore, he scratched, he scrabbled in a kind of frenzy.' The brush movements are violent, the colour contrasts sudden: it's action painting, with the trickiest medium, long before the 20th century.

3 Arthur Melville The Little Bullfight, "Bravo Toro!" (c1892)

The Scottish painter Arthur Melville was one of the supreme watercolourists of his age, specialising in wet-on-wet paintings in brilliant melting colour. But sheer range may have stymied his reputation. Venetian nights, desert days, cabbages in Greenock, he moves widely in both subject and style. His quickfire watercolours of Parisian cabarets presage abstract expressionism, and here he focuses in and out of the scene like a cinematographer. High detail in the audience fades to a lacuna where the frenzy of death is taking place. Over and again, Melville seems like a real one-off.

4 William Blake The Judgment of Paris (1811)

The Trojan prince Paris is forced to judge a beauty contest of goddesses. Fatally, he picks Aphrodite over Hera and Athena. Blake shows the moment at which he hands her the golden apple. Eros streams into the air, apparently elated, but above him black Discord unfurls with flames in his hands. The bodies are lithe, liable to levitate with their transparent limbs. Shape-shifters, sky-divers, wraiths, Blake's figures are always superhuman. The look is strenuous, yet each figure is airy, a figment of outline and wash that lives in the page. This is a rare watercolour; most of Blake's images became prints.

5 Eric Ravilious The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes (1935)

Any watercolour by Eric Ravilious deserves its place here, but this one shows what a world the medium can make in and of itself with transparent colour and a sheet of paper. Ravilious's greenhouse has the atmosphere of a dream. Everything is in perfect order, yet there is no sign of a gardener, unless perhaps God? Door opens on to door, on to door. The perspective is pristine, the painting so clear, light and symmetrical in both form and content, the white paper burning through the foliage like sunlight. It is the greenhouse from paradise. Ravilious is the lost genius of British art: his plane crashed over Iceland during the second world war. His body was never found.

6 Alexander Cozens A Blot: Tigers (c1770-80)

Colour suspended in water: potential for endless accidents as the water seeps or spills or the brush is overloaded. Alexander Cozens found form in these mishaps. Out of accidental blots, random images would begin to emerge which Cozens would then develop using grey or brown wash. Mostly these messes resolved into imaginary landscapes, but here he saw powerful animals, crouching, dormant, their force momentarily contained. Others might have seen something else. The power of Cozens's art lies in its inchoate shapes and energies, its multiple possibilities. The artist was said to be the illegitimate son of Peter the Great.

7 Samuel Palmer Cornfield by Moonlight (c1930)

Palmer's "moonlight" paintings all look as if they must be visions, with their radiant moons and glimmering stars, but in fact they are intensely particular about reality. The man with the smock, dog and staff is pausing among avenues of sheaves cut sharp as straw, with the rolling hills around Shoreham in the distance. Light is the main protagonist, binding landscape and man snugly together, and the atmosphere is reverential; look close and you will see a tinier world of detail praised in the rich surface. Palmer was inspired by Blake, among others, and founded an early avant-garde movement known as the Ancients.

8 John Sell Cotman Greta Bridge (c1807)

Cotman had been staying at Rokeby Hall (once home of Velázquez's Venus). The bridge across the river Greta was in one corner of the park, and Cotman drew it over and again. But in watercolour he gives it an almost ethereal beauty. Everything is held still and in perfect equipoise – the sky above, the river below, the bridge a pale platonic ideal over the silver water. Nature as abstract, geometric, all detail omitted, the painting is a feat of control and tonal delicacy. Cotman's colours got brighter, and he would later enrich them with rice paste, but this picture, made when he was 25, is surely his greatest work.

9 Gwen John Girls in a Church (c1920)

Gwen John moved to the village of Meudon outside Paris in 1911. There she began to go to church services at a local convent. The watercolours she made of children and nuns, and of the relationships between them and the words of the service, are some of her most sensitive and private paintings. This one is a hazy moment of youthful concentration, the girls as soft and mute as the air around them. John usually sat at the back sketching in pencil, washing in the paint afterwards in the studio, but this one is entirely formed of watercolour. She painted in this church for 20 years.

10 Isaac Oliver A Man Against a Background of Flames (c1600)

What a concept: the living man against a wall of death, his mind (and desires) on fire. The sitter's identity is not known, but his character is all there in the acute face, the tousled locks, the shirt open to the waist as he presents his locket, and his feelings, in the heat of passion. Painted by the French-born Oliver on a piece of vellum no bigger than a baby's palm, using squirrel-hair brushes delicate enough to describe the finest stubble, this watercolour is far bigger than its scale. A fiery keepsake, condensing portrait and love poem, it's the equivalent of an Elizabethan sonnet.


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February 11 2011

Picture this: the week's art shows

From David Hockney in York to Douglas Gordon in London, find out what's happening in art around the country



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