It was the week between Gent-Wevelgem and de Ronde. Last week we experienced sunshine so bright it made one’s eyes ache; this week snow is forecast. Spring is here, entertainingly unpredictable. The pastoral landscape of Flanders gives us bright green fields, light, and shadow, flowers that pop along the roadside. Standing on the roadside the wind brings the stench of fertilizer to our noses.
Like Flanders, Yorkshire is famous for its rugged hills. To the east of the county, however, the countryside is gentler. Mile after mile of fields rolling to the North Sea coast. Ten years ago, David Hockney put on a blockbuster exhibition called A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy in London. Comprising painted works, iPad pictures, and video montages, the collection of work was geographically focused on the East Yorkshire landscape with which Hockney was familiar. He grew up in Bradford and in the 1950s, like so many other young men, simply used bicycles as a means of transport to get to work.
In a radio interview, he said, “I worked on a farm. I cycled around here for two summers. I used to cycle up to Scarborough, Whitby, a long way actually. You get to know it, and you know it’s hilly if you’re cycling. I was always attracted to it. I always thought it had a space. One of the thrills of the landscape is that it’s a spatial experience.”
After studying at the Royal College of Art, Hockney moved to California in 1964. He was to stay for three decades, and his art became suffused with vivid light and color. And while he divided his time between Hollywood, Malibu, Paris, and London throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties, he regularly returned to visit his mother at her home in Bradford then Bridlington, on the coast.
Roads are a recurring theme in the paintings from A Bigger Picture. They carve through the landscape, their grayness accentuating the deep hues of the hedges and woods and meadows beyond. And they are empty; which is surely how Hockney remembers them from his youth. Some lanes run straight, away from the viewer, disappearing into a tunnel of trees. Others bend enticingly. Sometimes Hockney presents the same scene in different seasons, just as the cyclist rides a local route through the seasons, noting the subtle changes in color and atmosphere.
In the autumn of 2021, the Royal Academy put on another big Hockney show, The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020. Painted at his home in Normandy during the global pandemic, the 116 pictures (printed on canvases far bigger than the original screen of his device) capture the same intensity of color, and love for the natural world. Hockney began using the iPhone for painting in 2009, followed soon after by the iPad, and since then the technology of both the apps and the printing has increased exponentially. One of the primary benefits of using the iPad is speed; during the spring of 2020 Hockney sometimes did as many as three paintings a day. The iPad allows him to capture the light very quickly, then fill in details later. Like his 2012 visions of Yorkshire, these are joyful and bucolic visions of the countryside. Technology, and the built environment, have not encroached. Hockney’s paintings are a reminder of the beauty of the natural world around us, and a statement of how precious it is.