So, what is all the fuss about? David Hockney’s status as National Treasure, Britain’s favourite living artist, Grand Old Man of Art, and most influential British artist of the 20th century, has grown and blossomed since other contenders fell off their perches. This artist has never stopped innovating ways to convey his art to the public, having experimented with printmaking, including etching, lithography and silk screen, photography (including his novel use of Polaroid prints as ‘joiners’), painting (involving oil, acrylic and watercolour), montage, cut-outs, theatre set design, photocopies, writing, poster design and now computers. On a more vulgar level, in terms of wealth, Hockney is estimated to be worth $40m, which is less than the $50 attributed to fellow British artists Anthony Gormley and the evasive Banksy, which in turn pales in comparison to the late Welsh artist Andrew Vicari, who became the favourite of the Saudi Royal family, to the tune of $142m, but nowhere near the astonishing $1billion racked up by Damian Hirst. Not that this will matter a damn to the likeable Yorkshireman, who has found peace and quiet in rural northern France, and who spent the lockdown drawing the world around him on an iPad.
One welcomes a bigger splash of colour to brighten up these uncertain times, and Hockney has done that in spades with his 116 iPad drawings of Spring, blown up to 1.5m x 1m prints and framed in black. It was quite overwhelming to walk into the Main Gallery and be confronted by dozens of brightly-coloured prints. To be honest, those, mainly green, colours don’t really appear in the Norman natural landscape. They may appear as the skin of an Amazonian tree frog or feathers of a parrot, or even a green mamba, but rural France does not support grass or leaves the hue of acid green, neon green, or fluorescent light green lime, which is what predominates in his iPad paintings. There is something almost childlike about their brightness, but one can appreciate what the artist is trying to celebrate, namely the slow transition from bare trees in February, through the appearance of cherry and pear blossom, to full leaf by the end of May. He was genuinely excited by watching Spring unfold, imprisoned as he virtually was within the “four acres of land with this Seven Dwarfs house in the middle and a little river at the bottom, just hedges on either side, rather big trees at the top by the road, and I’ve never left it much at all.” The most successful prints are the ones with water in them, one with water lilies, possibly as an homage to Claude Monet, whose Giverny estate was just up the road. The other depicts raindrops, reminiscent of his lithograph and screenprint entitled Rain, 1973, from his Weather series, printed by Ken Tyler in California at Gemini GEL studios. After all the speckled blossom, leaves, grass and hedgerows, it was almost a relief to find a couple of prints depicting his timber-framed house, with a treehouse in the background. The landscapes by moonlight are the least successful, and (dare one say it?) redolent of those kitsch paintings on the railings done on black velvet of wild horses splashing through the spume in the Camargue by moonlight.
He is obviously a sensitive and passionate man, full of enthusiasm and wonderment for nature and her seasons, and being in lockdown, he was impelled to look at Spring properly in Normandy as a gentle slow reveal, something he was never able to do when living in California. His dedication to recording the emergence of Spring on an almost daily basis for over three months is remarkable, but perhaps he could have heeded Robert Browning’s observation from his poem about the High Renaissance Florentine painter, Andrea Del Sarto: “Less is more.”