This is about perspective. In his landscapes, David Hockney, wants to challenge the ways people have learned to look at things. In the film which introduces ‘The Joy of Nature’, Hockney appears on-screen, a mixture of understated British chic and colourful Los Angeles ostentation, like a hipster Toby Jug. “In a way,” he muses, “Nature doesn’t really have perspective.” For Hockney, the spatial illusion of depth is a human construct - almost a screen. He wants to get it out of the way. In the film, he warms up to his point, eventually saying, “perspective is strangling space.”
So Hockney sets about reinventing the wheel, un-learning Brunelleschi’s invention of linear perspective, Masaccio’s perfection of the vanishing point. Hockney’s huge multipanel painting, ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire’ (2011), takes up one entire wall. Using a technique taken from Van Gogh, Hockney obscures the top and bottom of the trees, collapsing them into the foreground. The painting recalls Uccello’s ‘A Hunt in the Forest’ (1470). In Uccello’s early use of vanishing points, it’s easy to see what Hockney is getting at. The inexpert attempt at spatial depth really does seem to “strangle space.” Hockney is interested in deconstructing these learned truths of composition.
Part of the exhibition’s ground floor houses Hockney’s video-work, ‘The Four Seasons, Woldgate Wood’ (2011). Four walls each hold nine connected screens playing videos in which the camera slowly advances along the same road. Each film shows dramatically different weather, defining the seasons. The results are sheet beauty, the detail so high that it’s like putting on spectacles after years of not knowing you needed them. The screens don’t quite align, which defamiliarises the whole thing. It’s disconcerting at first, but quickly makes perfect sense. It’s like “looking,” but somehow better.
But there’s an unavoidable sadness. Such clearly delineated and varied seasons already seem like a monument to some idealised geological past. Climate change is polarising the weather and the lusciously varied palette of the world quicker than any of us imagined. Sander Rutjens, exhibition manager at the museum, recounts a conversation with Hockney this very afternoon. When making the films in 2010, Hockney waited for several winter weeks for the snowfall that would give him his dramatic image. There was only one day of snow that year.
Despite its title, ‘The Joy of Nature’ articulates a deliberate melancholy. Van Gogh’s natural world shimmers, either with brilliant light or nervous energy. Probably both. His short, impasto brushstrokes communicate an anxious intimacy with nature. These material gestures bring the whole world into the foreground of paintings like ‘Wheatfield’ (1888) and ‘Field With Irises near Arles’ (1888). Van Gogh’s techniques and vision translate neatly into Hockney’s childlike watercolour series ‘Midsummer: East Yorkshire’ (2004) and his excellent iPad paintings of Woldgate.
Another complex and sombre detail of the exhibition is the inclusion of the Van Gogh painting, ‘The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital (Leaf-fall)’ (1889). In it, a solitary figure moves through an autumnal scene. The canvas is elongated, narrow, highlighting the claustrophobia and loneliness of the individual. The slim glance of forest we’re afforded vibrates with falling leaves. Man and nature are in decline together. Van Gogh painted this through a window from inside Saint Paul’s psychiatric asylum, where he was a patient.
The exhibition concludes with an enormous example of what Hockney calls his “photographic drawings.” The painter himself appears in the centre of the composition, surrounded by his later works; riffs on iconography, lovers, winding roads, colourful fields and a generously-foliaged Grand Canyon. One poster-print leaning against the back wall declares that “perspective is tunnel vision.”
Our eyes return to the centre of the picture, to Hockney himself. His stance seems awkward, like he’s been discovered red-handed. But doing what? You look closer, interrogate. And then we see that the thumb of his right hand is poised above a cigarette lighter. Have we caught Hockney just before he indulges in a cigarette? He’s never been embarrassed about that habit before. And anyway, there’s no cigarette. More likely, he’s about to burn the whole thing down.
In the middle of all this plenty, there’s the potential for flame. Amidst the joy of nature, something immense might be coming to a more final end. What Hockney learnt from Van Gogh was the quiet, but huge immediacy of the natural world and its beauties - its needs. That is why he flattens our vision and brings nature right up to our faces. Lose your tunnel vision, Hockney seems to say, and really, really look at this. This is about perspective.