Riding High: David Hockney's Yorkshire Landscapes Show That Figurative Painting - Whether on an iPad or 32 Joined Canvases - Is the Most Humanly Involving Visual Form

Article excerpt

The cover for the January/February 1977 issue of the New Review was a black-and-white, nude photograph of David Hockney and his friend the painter R B Kitaj. Hockney's studio can be glimpsed beyond the edges of an improvised white cardboard background. Hockney's pe1vis has a female breadth. Ron Kitaj is stockier. Hockney is wearing his owlish spectacles, Kitaj a coloured wife-beater, dark socks and gym shoes. Hockney's uncircumcised penis is a slump of tallow. Kitaj's penis is circumcised, a chunky chip-shop vinegar dispenser.

It was a provocation. The witty strapline across the bottom right-hand corner was "A Double Issue". It did not improve the magazine's minuscule circulation. Many newsagents were reluctant to stock it.

The two painters were protesting the displacement of the human figure by conceptual art and abstract expressionism. A dialogue inside asserted the importance of tradition-of a Seurat responding across 300 years to Piero della Francesca. Hockney: "I can't understand why anybody would think it was a ridiculous thing to do, but there are people who'd say, 'You can't do that now." Both painters favour skill in drawing and the centrality of representation in art. There is a reactionary tincture that might then have excluded Picasso, one of Hockney's heroes: "It's harder to paint people like they are than to do them like Quasimodo."

Francis Bacon, another manhandler of the human figure, felt the same way. This is Hockney in conversation with Martin Gayford: "Francis Bacon was the first intelligent painter I met who dismissed a lot of abstract art. He quoted Giacometti, who used to say a lot of abstraction was 'the art of the handkerchief'--C'est l'art dii mouchoir' - covered in stains and dribbles ... I was rather impressed that Francis had the confidence to say that kind of thing at that time. Loads of people would have howled him down."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was ever thus--newfangled fashion and old-fashioned tradition. And now? There are no human figures in Hockney's new landscapes at the Royal Academy (until 9 April), though there is a Range Rover, captured with great freedom and exactitude on an iPad. But the concern with current fashion remains. This is Hockney talking to Marco Livingstone in Enitharmon's excellent My Yorkshire: "Even if you say, 'Painting landscape is an old-fashioned thing to do', I didn't think that. I knew, 'Oh no, it's not.' I would argue with anybody."

He would, too. Hockney is a brainy painter, widely read, thoughtful, restless, whose exceptional intelligence is secured by his insider expertise. His mind is intimately aware of what an artist's hand is likely to decide. Secret Knowledge, his print and TV narrative of the artistic use of mechanical aids (lenses, mirrors, camera obscure, camera lucida) long before the official "invention" of the camera, is completely persuasive, despite the reservations of art historians. He takes an Ingres drawing and notices a discrepancy--the head is marginally too large for the body: "if Ingres had moved his camera lucida to get in the clothes, a slight change in the magnification would have occurred, explaining the difference in scale". He then observes a technical parallel between Ingres and Warhol, who certainly used a projector.

This show of landscapes is fuelled by a similar innovative thesis--Hockney's sense that the camera isn't the end of painting, that photography's hegemony is finished. Figure, landscape--his abiding concern is with the nature of representation. In literature, this was the argument about realism. Art is never reality. Art is merely realistic--an imitation, a simulacrum. All representations of reality are constructs, conventions, which undergo continuous adjustment, major and minor.

For Hockney, the camera is only a near equivalent of the way we experience reality. And now we are bored: "visual magic tends to wear out when it is based on the photographic conception of space which immobilises the viewer, distancing him from the view". …