09 Jul, 2009

David Hockney’s hinterland

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

The tradition of open-air painting celebrated in the National Gallery’s Corot to Monet show is still alive in the hands of David Hockney

You’d have to have a heart of stone if you weren’t moved, just a little bit, by the prospect of an elderly painter standing in a wide open east Yorkshire landscape, touching clouds and sky and trees into a second existence on a canvas that is blowing in the wind. It’s a scene that has stayed with me from Bruno Wollheim’s recent film about David Hockney for the BBC’s Imagine series.

I found myself thinking about the film, which showed last week, when I went to see the fantastically intelligent new exhibition Corot to Monet at the National Gallery the other day. This sensitive (and free) survey of French landscape art in the decades before impressionism begins with a room full of open-air paintings, by artists who made the pilgrimage to Italy in the 18th century. It’s not confined to French painters but also includes Thomas Jones’s A Wall in Naples; it seems the light and space of Italy inspired artists very early on to get out of their workshops and mount their canvases in the open.

Wollheim’s Imagine film shows Hockney continuing this tradition. He drives around the east Yorkshire landscape, finds a spot, and starts painting by the side of the road. There’s something very magical in the sequences that capture the fragility and vulnerability of the canvas mounted in the open air.

Hockney’s experiment is courageous. I don’t think all his Yorkshire paintings come off, and a lot of them together make me want to go and see a video installation, quick. But then the seriousness and honesty of them hits you, and you start to look closer. The fact is that when it works – when the light is right and his eye is right – he has produced some enduring landscapes. Remote from fashion, apparently remote from his own history, they glow with an emotional light. Wollheim’s film does a real service by recording how they were made.

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