David Hockney – Moving Away from Photography

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There is a considerable buzz in London about the David Hockney exhibition, recently opened at the Royal Academy. As things stand at the moment, the show is sold out.

There has been tiresome burbling about how amazing it is that a man in his 70s can master an iPad.  It is more remarkable that the Academy offered him the show before most of the paintings in it were made, and that far from being a retrospective, it is in effect a huge new commission.  For sheer drive and the enjoyment of making pictures, this is what a major Academy show should be, a great gift to the nation. I want here merely to note one aspect of it which has not quite been given the prominence it deserves.

Hockney would not thank you for saying so, but he is in fact one of the most inventive and technically able photographers in Britain.  Not only that, but he has been a brilliant and inspiring theoretician of photography, too.  Nobody has been less scared of new technology.  He has made pictures in Photoshop, with faxes, on iPhones…  He even used the Bradford Telegraph and Argus (reckoning the particular rendering of the printing presses and newsprint gave their own feel to a piece distributed within the paper to its readers).  Until fairly recently, if you wanted to use new technology to make pictures, it would likely have something to do with the photograph.

For all that many of the new pieces are made on iPads, they are not made using photography. Hockney has certainly bent the technology to his will once again; his iPad has become a portable painting set, ideal for outdoor use.  But I sense that his pendulum has swung back from photography. In his book Secret Knowledge – for all the brilliance of its thesis, and for all the enthusiasm he plainly had for it –he had overstated his case for a certain kind of photographic way of seeing. Now he’s on the retreat from that.  The highlights of the Academy show are the series, 36 watercolours when he first came back to Yorkshire, then small oils, then the great Woldgate series of iPad drawings.  None of them owes much to photography.

When iPad work is exhibited on iPads, it appears backlit – a successful presentation which is on show at the Academy.  Although not much painting has been backlit since stained glass, it’s hardly a new discovery in photography.  Note that most viewers will be reading this on a screen, and therefore seeing the images backlit, too. But when iPad drawings are printed on paper, they appear on a surface which has no real merit of its own.  Those parts of an iPad drawing which have no marks somehow remain just space, inked as a wall can be rolled in a flat colour.  They don’t define the marked areas which adjoin them. They act as deadeners, areas that take some looking at but give nothing back.

You can see Hockney wrestling with this in the busy-ness of his work on iPads.  He is constantly adding new ‘layers’, working with many different shapes of splodge (can one really call them brush-strokes when no brush was involved?).  These layers are interesting in themselves, and viewed from distance, the tremendous liveliness of the iPad drawings is partly down to that very complex structure.  But move in close and all that vanishes.  The surfaces are matt, dull, unenlivened. They are printed on computer equipment designed to print photographs.  The surfaces of the simple papers used (are they Epson?) simply can’t hold the eye, and we are back where we started.  Although not photographs, these things fail to provide stepping-stones for the eye (and hence for the mind) just as photography so often fails to provide them.  For that reason  – and this makes it somehow worse – they succumb to precisely that problem that Hockney, perhaps more than anybody, had identified in photography and found solutions to in the joiners.

The great failure of the Academy show is the Yosemite series from iPad sketches. They’re mammoth prints, but with no sensation of space other than the natural perspective of the views.  They are made of six butted papers each – they must be twelve foot tall – but even that is just a residue, an evolutionary survival of the grids that Hockney has used so brilliantly in the past.  They’re printed on the same dull surface as all his other iPad works, only at this scale the dead surface of the plain areas of ink on paper shows up worse than ever, much more than in the Woldgate pictures, as a terrible underlying denial of the beauty of the lines and shapes of the artist’s own work.  In the iPad drawings from Yosemite, Hockney has pushed his new medium just that little bit too far.

By contrast, there is a sketch from a large sketchbook (Blossom, May 25 2009, pp. 7&8) which is a dark hedge, clearly of several different species, seen across a white field punctuated only by a few calligraphic lines.  Not only is it wonderful, it’s wonderful in the old-fashioned way that no camera could ever match.  This is quite telling.  The Grand Canyon photographed joiner, which is in the show, was a technical and imaginative miracle when it was made, in the mid 1980s.  But it’s obviously faded, now.  You can see Hockney pushing on so fast that even something as radically exciting as that, with its almost violently original treatment of space, is old hat to him. He may even wonder what all the fuss was about.

Now he’s making films by moving slowly through the landscape with nine cameras in a grid, sometimes acting in unison and sometimes in counterpoint. These are another real push forwards. They no longer have Hockney’s shriekingly over-bright colours.  The movement is no longer of the eye across from one frame within the whole to the next, as it was in the joiners, but a constant movement within the frame

As recently as his Annely Juda show in London in 2009, photography was still visibly behind much of the new work in East Yorkshire. In the entire Academy exhibition, there are fewer photographic elements than Hockney has shown for a very long time.  Yet even as he seems decisively to be moving away from photography, in these gridded films he has once again moved photography on another notch.

 

 

The images which accompany this are as follows:

David Hockney

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)

– 2 January

 iPad drawing printed on paper 

144.1 x 108 cm; one of a 52-part work

 

Courtesy of the artist

© David Hockney

 

David Hockney

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven)

– 12 April

iPad drawing printed on paper

144.1 x 108 cm; one of a 52-part work

Courtesy of the artist

© David Hockney

 

David Hockney

Nov. 7th, Nov. 26th 2010, Woldgate Woods, 11.30 am and 9.30 am

Film still

Courtesy of the artist

© David Hockney

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2 thoughts on “David Hockney – Moving Away from Photography

  1. A photograph taken with a Hasselblad, shown through the screen of a pc (a question of dpi) , is the same of another taken with an iPad. Thanks to the London Royal Academy for the exhibition. Without the precious commentary of Hodgson it is impossible to understand the difference between Hasselblad and iPad.. The experiments of Hockney are blind without a new policy of museums. We cannot understand what is going on today in the field of technology and art without a new knowledge of curators, experts, critics.

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