Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken,’ 1916
“The paintings [Hockney] has made of the Wolds between 2005 and the end of 2008 are in purely technical terms—but also in their observational accuracy and evocation of space—the most commanding he has ever made.” Marco Livingstone in Exh. Cat., Schwäbisch Hall, Kunsthalle Würth, David Hockney / Nur Natur / Just Nature, 2009, p. 188
“Around Bridlington, I was painting the land, land that I myself had worked. I had dwelt in those fields, so that out there, seeing, for me, necessarily came steeped in memory.” the artist in conversation with Lawrence Weschler in Exh. Cat., Venice, California, L.A. Louver Gallery, David Hockney: Hand Eye Heart, 2005, p. 45
An extraordinary feat of painterly triumph, David Hockney’s Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 is remarkably vast in its ambition and purely resplendent in execution. Here, Hockney tranforms the bucolic North of England into something visionary: an Edenic panorama of chromatic wonder that radiates with pure ebullience. Rising from a densely speckled ground of golden amber leaves, Hockney’s richly painted trees erupt with lush green foliage beneath a crisp blue sky, intensely conjuring the physical sensation of being in the beloved landscape the artist has known since his youth. The significance of this key work has been repeatedly recognized through its inclusion in several of Hockney’s recent major exhibitions, including the pivotal survey of his landscapes, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, at the Royal Academy in London in 2012 (which later travelled to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Museum Ludwig in Cologne) and David Hockney: Nur Natur/ Just Nature at Kunsthalle Würth. Painted when Hockney was entering an unprecedented period of creative re-invention to coincide with the seventh decade of his life, Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 reflects a painter at the very height of his artistic confidence. Indeed, Hockney’s renown as Britain’s greatest living painter will only be further cemented with the opening of his comprehensive career retrospective at the Tate Britain in February 2017.
Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 belongs to a group of nine monumental six-panel paintings of the same vista, captured in its varied appearance over the course of the changing seasons. The Wolds is a vast pocket of agricultural land between York and the seaside town of Bridlington; not obtruded by industry or development, and always used exclusively as farmland, Hockney refers to this landscape as “the least changed bit of England that I know.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Schwäbisch Hall, Kunsthalle Würth, David Hockney / Nur Natur / Just Nature, 2009, p. 182) Hockney first came to know this small pocket of Yorkshire when he was around fifteen years of age, having spent his summer holidays of 1952 and 1953 collecting corn on a local farm between the villages of Wetwang and Huggate. Less immediately spectacular in appearance than West Yorkshire—a region visited and painted by the great landscape painters of the Nineteenth Century such as J.M.W. Turner and John Varley—the agrarian undulating knolls always held a special attraction in Hockney’s heart. Although Hockney remained fond of these gentle hills and dense forest coves, it was not until his sixtieth year that he came to study them with a renewed vigor and interest. It was the tragic combination of his mother’s advancing age and the ill health of his close friend Jonathan Silver that drew Hockney back to the Wolds. Every three months he would return to this small area of East Yorkshire and take his mother for long drives across the countryside, magnifying his intense affection for the landscape. In the summer of 1997, Hockney embarked on a small group of oil paintings that were driven by the accumulated sensations of these habitual journeys. Although vivid enough to be evocative of direct observation, these works made recourse to the overarching simplifications and generalizations of memory, and are very different to his most iconic and celebrated Yorkshire landscapes that he commenced nearly a decade later in 2005. Entirely undisturbed by time, the landscape of the Wolds is one that has remained changeless since Hockney’s youth; it is this long-term stasis of the land that made the cyclical changes in climate and season all the more poignant for the artist.
Hockney returned to easel painting in March 2005, following several years of painting his favored East Yorkshire landscapes solely in watercolor. Invigorated by the far greater possibilities of oil painting, Hockney set up his easels en plein air and sought to displace a photographic way of looking for a more straightforward representation of the real space stretched out before him. Hockney’s method of using multiple canvases allowed him to work on an ever-greater scale outdoors. With these pictures, he strove for an immediacy and intensity of capturing the world. Marco Livingstone explains, “His immediate success and the speed at which he increased the scale and complexity of the pictures in diptychs then in paintings that unfold fluidly over four, six, eight or even more separate conjoined canvases, was the product of a lifetime’s experience: a cumulative history of painting and drawing, of looking at nature and of scrutinizing the art of his predecessors.” (Marco Livingstone in Exh. Cat., Schwäbisch Hall, Kunsthalle Würth, David Hockney / Nur Natur / Just Nature, 2009, p. 189) While the vast scale and chromatic glory of Hockney’s Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 convey a sense of majesty, the present work is in fact reflective of a more private voyage of life, love, and discovery for the artist. Having nearly avoided painting his native England until this point, prior to the late 1990s Hockney’s investigations into landscape painting were dominated by sunny views of his adopted home, Southern California, his journeys through the great American West, Europe and to more exotic lands such as Japan, Mexico and Egypt. It was staying for extended periods of time in the Bridlington house once occupied by his mother and sister that allowed the artist, in a way, to remain close to his past and relive his memory.
In 2006, the same year he painted the series of Woldgate Woods oils, Hockney saw the major exhibition Constable: The Great Landscapes at the Tate Britain. Hockney studied intensely the ‘six-footer’ landscapes begun by Constable in 1818-1819, and only shown for the first time together with their full-size sketches in the 2006 exhibition. Seeing the remarkably scaled sketches together with their final versions energized Hockney; that it would be difficult to paint on such an expansive scale outdoors only strengthened Hockney’s interest in doing so. The vitality and force of their loose application in many instances exceeded the polish of the more photographic, complete paintings, and anticipated the Impressionist ideal of the genre. Hockney explained his own turning back on a naturalistic depiction of nature: “In the position I now find myself in, realizing that two hundred years ago Constable would have thought the optical projection of nature was something to aim for. I now know it is not – so stand in the landscape you love, try and depict your feelings of space, and forget photographic vision, which is distancing us too much from the physical world.” (the artist cited in Exh. Cat., Venice, California, L.A. Louver Gallery, David Hockney: The East Yorkshire Landscape, 2007) Hockney interested himself in portraying the transitory experience of nature rather than a photographic representation. Utilizing palette and brushwork in a manner reflective of the vivacity of Monet, Van Gogh, and Fauve painters such as Matisse, Derain, and Vlaminck, Hockney’s Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 is boldly colored and lushly painted, capturing the very feeling of standing before the thicket of forest atop crinkling leaves as the air turns cool with the advance of the winter season. The tactile application of paint in Vincent Van Gogh’s later animated paintings of the countryside surrounding Arles and St Rémy can further be discerned within the thick impasto of the present work’s paint surface and the swirling curves of the brushstrokes. Also in 2006, Hockney made the first of many subsequent visits to the newly renovated Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris to see the recently re-installed Nymphéas by Claude Monet arranged in two oval rooms. Completely enveloping the viewer, this installation similarly conveyed the intensity that Hockney imparted in his own paintings, invoking a sensorial response to a particular place under specific conditions. Furthermore, Monet’s predilection for serial imagery—exploring the same landscapes and motifs in various weather conditions and times of day—influenced the artist as he embarked on the Woldgate Woods cycle.
Hockney’s careful studies of the changing light and natural forces altering the face of the land over the seasons share the character of his human portraits—a cautious observation of time and the effect of its passing. In contrast to the relatively stable, unchanging nature of the climate in California, the changing seasons and active landscape of East Yorkshire became more apparent to Hockney the more time he spent there. For the artist, the landscapes came with a sincere level of familiarity and emotional affection, observing the fluctuations of the seasons with the same tenderness with which he painted portraits of his friends over their lives. In a career shadowed by death for the previous three decades, Hockney’s loving portrayal of the East Yorkshire landscape privileges a defiant celebration of life while acknowledging a sense of mortality. Lawrence Weschler described, “The seasons had been something [Hockney had] nearly come to forget in Southern California (since in Los Angeles, famously, there hardly are any), and their passage week by week now constituted for Hockney one of the special savors of this return to his boyhood haunts. Indeed he came to feel that it wasn’t until you’d seen a tree winter-bare and all dendrite-spread late in the fall—and preferably across two or three such falls—that you could ever hope to capture its true essence come the following leaf-full blowsy summer.” (Lawrence Weschler in Exh. Cat., San Francisco, de Young Museum, David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition, 2013, pp. 36-37)
With the Woldgate Woods paintings, the passage of time itself began to occupy more of Hockney’s subject matter. Hockney’s portrayals of East Yorkshire foreground an individual, subjective perspective of nature, displaying a keen temporal sensitivity—his Woldgate Woods cycle describes one’s own looking, appreciating, and experiencing the land. Capturing the same viewpoint over cycles of growth and regeneration allows Hockney to investigate the ever-changing complexity of the natural world, heightening the sensation of actually being in the landscape by evoking the air, smells, and sights through his vivid colors and emphatic brushstrokes. As the size of his canvases grew, so did the dynamism and boldness of his brushwork. Using larger brushes, Hockney’s movements became more expressive and confident: “As he scaled up the dimensions, so he used more and more of his body: the elbow, the shoulder and then the swing of his torso, all intensifying the sense of identification with the landscape, the sensation of physically moving within it and the vibrant physicality of marks by which it is called into being.” (Marco Livingstone in Exh. Cat., Schwäbisch Hall, Op. Cit., p. 194) However, the increase in monumental scale of the Woldgate Woods paintings miraculously produced a greater intimacy, enveloping and submerging the viewer into its three-dimensional space, transporting us to the moment of its execution.
Perspective and the representation of space in two dimensions has remained a crucial interest and curiosity of Hockney’s since the early 1960s. In Hockney’s Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006, the artist frames an ambitiously exaggerated, widened vantage point, wrestling with the authority of one-point perspective. A prolonged foray into photographic collage begun in 1982 decisively fractured Hockney’s reliance on traditional European one-point perspective, instead rendering space in a Cubist-inspired mélange of perspective points. With his passion for Polaroid collages, the artist broke with realism in order to expand the scope of his vision and capture the true experience of being in the landscape. The picture would no longer be a static window presented to the viewer; instead, the viewer would be faced with multiple entry points in which to enter the space, experiencing the image rather than understanding it as a representation of physically real space. In its arrangement of six individually framed canvases, Hockney’s Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006 mirrors his photo-collages; while seemingly converging at a single vanishing point in the center of the wood, instead Hockney’s image destabilizes traditional perspective. Hockney painted the nine six-canvas Woldgate Woods paintings from inside a canopy of trees at the junction of three paths, therein providing the viewer with three unique vantage points—all equally appealing and powerful to the mind’s eye. Hockney offers a depiction of the world as it is actually experienced—letting the viewer’s eyes travel across various openings within the same image. In the simple gesture of framing each canvas individually, moreover, Hockney emphasizes the fractured parts rather than the whole and breaks down any facile single entry point into the landscape.
Hockney’s years painting landscapes in idyllic Bridlington came to an abrupt close in March 2013, when once again tragedy struck the artist’s life; the suicide of a young studio assistant left Hockney in a deep depression and precipitated his return to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles Hockney began again a series of portraits of friends, family, and acquaintances, which formed the subject of his recent exhibition at the Royal Academy. Easing the transition from Yorkshire to Los Angeles, Hockney’s portraits recall the landscapes in their seriality—each painted the same size, in the same time frame of three days, and each showing the sitter in the same chair against a brilliant blue background—reflect ing the intense contemplation, warmth, and immediacy of the vast Woldgate Woods, 24, 25, and 26 October 2006. Surveying Hockney’s significant output over the past four decades, the Woldgate Woods has in fact become one of his greatest portraits. The East Yorkshire landscape is like a sitter that he has known for the longest period of his now eighty-year life; the face of the land and its ever-changing complexities, as masterfully interpreted by Hockney, personifies the artist’s career-long fascination with lived human experience.
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