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Words: Steffie Shields
Featured in the April 2012 issue

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Steffie Shields’s reflections on spring in the landscape of the Wolds, thanks to Hockney

No fast broadband, true, but we are lucky to live in a rural shire. In my humble opinion, it is far more important to stay connected, to be rooted to land, watching the changing season up hill and down dale. Recently I was fortunate to visit the Royal Academy’s blockbuster exhibition ‘A Bigger Picture’ by David Hockney RA. His paintings bring East Yorkshire’s countryside and skies, calming green and burnished gold patchworks of striped fields, and much-loved childhood haunts, to the heart of London’s wired and concrete metropolis. The intense vibrancy, the scale of his looking and his boundless creativity left me shell-shocked.

After five years of planning, dreaming, toiling and rising to the challenge to fill the entire august space of the Royal Academy, the show offers moments of high drama and emotion. No surprise there; landscapes, whether real, painted, or even photographed, have the power to move us all. Suddenly, ambitiously, amidst all his vivid, verdant canvases, Hockney stretches the Grand Canyon from one side of the gallery to the other, halting onlookers in their tracks, confronting them with blood red and orange strata and the enormity of this vast, bottomless and empty chasm. The artist has also created an equally memorable tour de force in the biggest, most elegant and light-filled gallery. Fifty-one pictures that are enlarged prints of paintings digitally painted on his iPad, together with thirty-two canvases combined to form one giant, orchestrated oil painting. ‘The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate East Yorkshire, 2011, (twenty-eleven)’ unites, in a harmonious symphony, a majestic spring chorus.

There are no clichés. Hockney has been watching, drawing and painting these shifting scenes for seven years. Having embraced and mastered new technology, he decided to record almost daily, at speed, the ever-changing light of last year’s spring; significantly, after one of the worst winters in living memory. In views along ten miles of one single-track Woldgate road, a Roman road from Bridlington to Kilham, he highlights evolving colours of trees and unfolding ground cover, from snow, through gloom and rain to brilliant dappled sunshine; from awakening barren trunks to pure white blackthorn blossom and floating, lime-green leaves dazzling against shade. Here are dandelions, wild garlic, Queen Anne’s lace.

All the settings are devoid of people; only the odd suggestion of a car here, a telegraph pole there, a road sign or wall. Yet the road, whether straight or gently curving over the horizon, relates to every one of us, the journey we take – we know such views, these views belong to us. Hockney reminds us about our landscape. He uplifts us with its rhythmic form, its textured, patterned fields, the warp and weft of country lanes. He makes us look afresh at the reassuring, familiar, annual drama that is Nature, makes us consider its invigorating power and scale, and somehow slows the speed of change affecting all our lives, by showing us how the longed-for season fills our days with light, movement and colour.

‘A bigger message’ commands the next room, by exploring the use of space, light and colour of one seventeenth century painting by Claude Lorrain, ‘Sermon on the Mount’. One wonders, in examining its deeper, spiritual meaning, if Hockney is now challenging us with Christian conviction. There is more to life than Nature. Then again, as he says ‘seeking the sublime’, showing his most recent works before visitors depart, Hockney returns to America’s West Coast, specifically Yosemite National Park. These canvases capture an essence of eternal grandeur, seemingly unchanging rock faces and towering, evergreen firs; a marked contrast to his series of paintings, ’Bigger Trees’, that first greet the public on arrival: three veteran deciduous field acers against Thixendale slopes; a generous, Yorkshire welcome; a glimpsed, ever-changing, subliminal ‘Trinity’ for every season.

My thoughts keep revisiting the rainbow tree tapestry covering the end wall of the biggest room, his climactic ‘Arrival of Spring’. Why did Hockney write, in addition to the numbered date 2011, the words ‘twenty-eleven’? Was this, for someone who has lived many happy years in California’s bright light, a subtle reminder, a gentle nod back to the dark American tragedy, 9/11? I hope, in time, critics will view this work as being a masterpiece, comparable to Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Could ‘The Arrival of Spring’ be Hockney’s celebratory antidote to monumental grief?

As I write, I eagerly await spring 2012. I will look out for Hockney’s daring colours in this, his ‘purple period’. As much as swathes of daffodils trumpet spring, he has added sunshine to our lives. Something tells me that many more people will now take an annual pilgrimage to contemplate the serene East Yorkshire Wolds, perhaps trying to spot his three majestic trees. Though it must be said, we Lincolnshire residents do not need to go there! Here we are blessed with just the same gently undulating wolds, the same skies and fields, trees and Roman roads; the same dappled feasts to the eye in wood, hedgerow and verge. As we get out and about this Easter, let’s celebrate the uplift that is spring, the bigger picture.

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