Art reviews: David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture | Lucien Freud: Portraits | Mondrian||Nicholson in Parallel

Technique, technology and a love of life combine to make Hockney a worthy heir to Cézanne, but can he stand alongside Turner? Perhaps not, but a new show makes it difficult to deny his talent

I HAVE never found myself moved by David Hockney, but his exhibition at the Royal Academy changed that. An enormous show, it is principally devoted to landscapes of his native Yorkshire painted over the last half dozen years. Given the whole suite of the Royal Academy’s exhibition rooms, he fills them comfortably and comes across as a brilliant and inventive artist. The sheer verve of some of his paintings fully justifies the snaking queues outside. There is a small group of earlier landscapes, starting with works from the 1950s in the flat, grey tones of the Euston Road painters. From the 60s there are such pictures as the National Gallery of Scotland’s Rocky Mountains with Tired Indians. Bright, flip and funny, they are very much of the period. They only engage with landscape at a symbolic level, nevertheless, already you feel he sees it, not as a static thing, but as something you travel through. This becomes more explicit in pictures of roads that he painted in Los Angeles in the 80s like Mulholland Drive, The Road to the Studio or Nicholls Canyon. (The former, too big to move from its home in Los Angeles, is represented by a photographic replica, but Hockney likes that sort of thing.) Like medieval maps, these pictures are built around the idea of a journey, a compound progression of incidents along a road rather than a description of a place. Even after Hockney started to paint from nature a few years ago, which is the central theme of this show, although he often sits in front of his motif, he never pins himself down to a single image. His pictures are still always compound, either built up from multiple canvasses, or assembled in great walls of separate pictures and multiple viewpoints.

In his book, Secret Knowledge, Hockney set out how he reckoned artists have always used whatever technology they can lay their hands on and challenges our suspicion that somehow it is not real art if they do. The first caveman to use a brush was probably frowned on for abandoning the authentic touch of traditional stick and fingers, but Hockney is on his side and cheerfully uses hi-tech cameras and computers to brilliant effect.

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Nevertheless, he doesn’t like what he calls the camera’s Cyclopean, single eye, or indeed, the single viewpoint of traditional perspective. These compound images are his way of overcoming its limitations and he uses all sorts of methods to create them. Most recently, he has made high definition, multiscreen films with nine cameras mounted on the front of a Jeep moving slowly through a verdant country lane in spring. The effect is quite beautiful.

Thirty years earlier, in Grand Canyon Looking North, Sept. 1982, he was already beginning to explore this additive approach to an observed landscape; the picture is a vast collage of a hundred or more photographs. Each has its own viewpoint, but collectively they also add up to a recognisable single image. It’s just one step on from Cubism, really, and characteristically shows him looking for inspiration in the art of the past, in this case the Panorama as well as Picasso’s Cubism, and also in modern technology, for he began these multiple viewpoint collages using Polaroid photographs. Developed instantly, he could see on the spot how the bits fitted together. Later he did the same thing using a combination of on-the-spot painting and Photoshop to create his gigantic 50-piece, single image Bigger Trees near Warter, or/ou Peinture sur le motif pour le Nouvel Age Post- Photographique, now in Tate Britain. The digital camera creates instant images and so frees photography from the slow business of chemical processing, hence the Post-Photographique subtitle.

In the late 90s, working in California, Hockney painted a number of big Yorkshire landscapes from memory. Garrowby Hill, for instance, and The Road across the Wolds are wide views of the lush Yorkshire landscape in summer. They are bold and summery and explore the high colour of Van Gogh, Matisse and the Fauves, but the result is just a little coarse. The real breakthrough, and the place where this exhibition takes off, came in 2004 when he turned, not to anything new and new hi-tech, but to the traditional procedure of watercolour, painting out-of-doors, sur-le-motif, sitting on his folding stool like any Sunday painter. The result is 36 lovely, fresh watercolours presented as a single work, Midsummer: East Yorkshire. He went on to paint a similar group of oil paintings and then big, compound paintings of Woodgate Woods and in 2006 and a series of lovely, mostly individual pictures of a country lane that follow its changes through the seasons. Because in summer the foliage overhangs the lane, he calls them Tunnels. These pictures are a celebration. So, too, are his paintings of hawthorn blossom at that dramatic moment in the spring when it covers the hedgerows in clotted cream and which he paints in a way that combines Samuel Palmer with Van Gogh.

Most startling of all is The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate East Yorkshire, a set of 51 vivid pictures drawn on an iPad and printed on a large scale. Following the spring from winter into early summer, they are hung together with one enormous, 32-part painting as a single work in the biggest gallery.

This approach to the drama of the turning year is as old as landscape, yet here it is as fresh as if he has rediscovered the spring fields of his childhood. Constable wrote of his native Suffolk: “Those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful.” Hockney could say the same. Like Turner before him, he also takes on the landscape masters who went before him. It is his marriage of that understanding with his bold grasp of the contemporary that makes this show so remarkable.

The comparison with Turner stops there, however. Hockney is good, but he’s not that good. Indeed, he is sometimes more miss than hit, but the overall impression is a delight and fully justifies those snaking queues.

The queues at the Portrait Gallery to see Lucien Freud were as long as at the Royal Academy, but where Hockney brings delight, Freud seems to load his brush with distaste for the human condition. Excepting his intense and moody early works, his painting is unrelenting and repetitive.

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Again and again he breaks a face down into the same coarse planes, renders flesh with the same heavy slabs of paint. Where Hockney emulates brilliantly the balletic lightness of Fauve colour and makes it his own, Freud plods a long way behind Cézanne, quite incapable of capturing the ineffable delicacy of a touch that says so much about how we must constantly reconcile the permanence in which we believe with the transience of all things which we know. That sort of thing was way above Freud’s head. For him it was all just too, too solid.

So it was refreshing to go along the road to the Courtauld Collection to see Mondrian||Nicholson in Parallel and how those two abstract artists did both make something new and austerely beautiful from that same inspiration.

The exhibition is one tenth the size of either Hockney or Freud, but small is beautiful. Its scope is limited to the years just before the war, when Ben Nicholson was instrumental in bringing Mondrian to London. Nicholson comes out very honourably from the comparison, too. That is more than Freud would do if you compared him with Cézanne. Seeing the wonderful group of Cézanne’s own works at the Courtauld is to be reminded how it should be done. Hockney has proved himself a worthy heir of that tradition. I can’t say the same for Freud.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture *****

Royal Academy, London

Lucien Freud: Portraits ***

National Portrait Gallery, London

Mondrian||Nicholson in Parallel *****

The Courtauld Collection, London

• David Hockney until 9 April, Lucien Freud until 27 May, Mondrian||Nicholson in Parallel until 20 May


There’s an app for the iPad that turns it into a sketchbook with a full range of colours, brush sizes and degrees of transparency. Hockney loves such opportunities and has used his iPad to make a set of 51 big, brilliant pictures of The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate East Yorkshire in 2011. Look closely and you can recognise their origin, but that is no limitation. They are as subtle and luminous as any painting. Hockney didn’t invent the app, but he has turned it into a wonderful new medium.