Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Green Man

This is being a very long weekend, which began on Thursday evening with the reading by CBe authors Miha Mazzini and Beverley Bie Brahic at the greenhouse bookshop in Wapping, and many thanks to everyone who came along (there’d have been room in the greenhouse for perhaps one ear and half a leg more), and which has already included shifting paintings and books from one end of London to another and a long, languid afternoon tea on a rooftop terrace, and the Hockney exhibition at the RA on Friday . . .

Not for the first time, I’d got things wrong. I thought I’d got Hockney placed – I liked the spiky and witty early work, Royal College and maybe just after, and I liked the illustration work, but the larger work (I’d previously seen just one of the multi-parters, taking up a whole wall in one or other of the Tates) didn’t do anything for me (why so big, so brash, so many?), and besides, the media have swept him up, he’s become a commodity, the mildly eccentric Yorkshireman with strong views on art and smoking – and I wasn’t going to go. But I did.

It’s beautifully paced and organised, this exhibition. Some of the early, spiky work, and one or two California paintings. Then his lifelong friend Jonathan Silver, who bought Salt’s Mill near Bradford in 1987 and showed Hockney’s work there, becomes terminally ill, and Hockney, driving regularly from his mother’s house in Bridlington to visit him, becomes familiar with the north Yorskhire landscape and starts to paint it. At first in the same manner as the Los Angeles paintings. But then he gets out of the car and feels the wind and looks more closely (there’s a whole wall of smallish watercolours). He’s older now than he was, and he’s patient, but also, given that a lifetime is a finite thing, completely the opposite. And gradually – the flow of the seasons is important – he becomes immersed, and the landscape begins, almost literally, to take over; and as it does, weird, witchy shapes emerge, the stuff of folklore.

There are other things going on too – a surprise involving Claude Lorrain near the end; the iPad and other gadgetry, and a harking back to his theatre work; a finale to the sequence of film work that has people spontaneously applauding – but the above basic narrative, which involves a surrender to nature, negotiated with frantic energy, I found unexpectedly moving. And joyous.

All the reproductions I’ve seen of these paintings are reductive, of size obviously but of colour too and above all of process. And seen in isolation, many of these paintings might still leave me curmudgeonly, Yorshire-ish. Sequence, time, passing from one set of conditions to the next, or just passing on, is part of what they’re about, and the exhibition as a whole was a rare thing.

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