Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1 March to 26 April 2019
This exhibition promises to be the first to explore the common ground between Van Gogh and David Hockney, the latter being greatly inspired by the former, and sharing a love of nature.
On entering the exhibition one is met by a video which goes to lengths to explain the link between the two artists. The focus is on their connection with nature, and use of bright colours to depict it. The video draws out the comparison through Hockney responding to quotations from Van Gogh’s letters. Hockney does not seem to reveal a love of Van Gogh any greater than any other artist’s, but his responses give an insight into his own way of working. He notes that with photography, ‘you’re not really looking’, and that painting makes you see more than a photograph could capture. This compares nicely with a letter displayed elsewhere in the Museum, where Van Gogh writes of the ‘dead’ quality of photographs, and how they never really capture the person they depict. Hockney picks up on the fact that painting itself was therapeutic for Van Gogh, and cuts through some of the more morbid biographical readings: ‘Van Gogh was mad and miserable, but he wasn’t mad and miserable when he was painting’. There is a sense that this reflects the joy Hockney himself feels when painting, as much as his reading of Van Gogh’s life. He touches on the popularity of Van Gogh’s paintings, and puts it down as much to his technique as their subject, ‘people love them because you can see how they’re done’. This is perhaps a slight disservice to the technical complexity of some of Van Gogh’s work (the dense brushwork of the Sunflower painting on show upstairs in the Museum comes to mind), but it does get across that it is in some way the visual simplicity of Van Gogh’s work that is appealing, and perhaps relates to the apparent simplicity of his own paintings. He speaks of Van Gogh’s use of perspective quite perceptively, saying that Van Gogh ‘saw space very clearly’, and differently to others. He feels that perspective does not make space, but strangles it, forcing certain ways of depicting, rather than freeing the artist to create.
The video offers an interesting jumping-off point for looking at the works that follow. It presents the exhibition as one that will very much focus on Hockey himself, almost applying Hockney’s thoughts to Van Gogh’s paintings. None of the paintings in the exhibition are direct responses to Van Gogh’s work, but are rather chosen to show that there is almost a philosophical link between the two artists.
The exhibition focuses on works created by Hockney when he returned to Yorkshire in the early 2000s, staying there for nine years. These bright, large works, each made up of panels of canvas, are hard not to be drawn in by. The bright colours and broad strokes capture the mood of their scenes, without a strenuous focus on realistic reproduction. They are accompanied by labels that point to the stylistic comparisons between his and Van Gogh’s works, which at times seem tenuous, in that most artists after Van Gogh will have experimented with them. But pointing these our can make one look afresh at the Van Gogh works.
A work I was particularly drawn to was More Felled Trees on Woldgate, 2008. There is an interesting use of contrasting colours, of which Van Gogh would probably have approved, coupled with childlike simplification which gives the work a refreshing feeling. It is as if we are looking at it through the eyes of someone thoroughly enjoying the experience of being there. This is displayed in the first room, the ‘Four Seasons’ room, which compares Hockney and Van Gogh’s treatment of different natural scenes in their works. It is hard to think of anyone who could make Van Gogh’s works look dull, but the bright purples, oranges, and greens Hockney uses in some works do make Van Gogh’s look a little drear by comparison. For instance, The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital (Leaf Fall), 1889, captures a rather sad and grey image of autumn, contrasting with the exuberance of Hockney’s treatment.
Hockney’s Woldgate Woods series most clearly draws links between the two artists, and beautifully captures the mood of the four seasons, without the sentimentality this subject can draw out. The moving photographs displayed in the room, four facing, each depicting a different season, is somehow less successfully, in that it is too familiar. Reminiscent of a BB4 ident, it is difficulty to take seriously alongside the monumental, expressionistic paintings.
We move round the corner and up the stairs, to ‘The Intimate Landscape’., starting the second half of the exhibition. A wall of small-scale watercolour landscapes greets us, suitably charming for depictions of Yorkshire countryside, and varied in their technique. While some show the clean canvas and sparse strokes of some of Van Gogh’s landscapes (such as View of Auvers, May-June 1890), for the most part these seem to owe as much to Ravilious as they to do Van Gogh.
Moving on we return to oil paintings, with works such as Kilham to Langtoft II, 2005, which is compared to Van Gogh’s The Harvest, 1888. Both images evocatively capture the sense of place, but Hockney is unable to match Van Gogh’s originality of technique. Round another corner, we are met with The Arrival of Spring, 2013, a series of beautiful drawings which are contrasted with a handful of Van Gogh’s drawings on a different subject. It is at this point in the exhibition that the contrasts with Van Gogh start to be left aside, as Hockney’s use of new technology, such as the Ipad, comes to the fore. In a way this is fitting in that it show that Hockney too is trying to explore new ways of depicting nature, standing alongside Van Gogh’s own explorations. Van Gogh’s seem less to be about new technology (the brighter colour, chemical pigments, mass-produced canvases and so on had been more influential on his close predecessors the Impressionists, than it was on Van Gogh himself), and more about a new way of responding to scenes; more about his own vision than what technology was making possible. Hockney is playing with new ideas and modes of working, so in a way his representations are brought about by the advances, rather than the advances being used as a way of expressing something he already felt. However, this is not the deny the ingenuity of his works; they undoubtedly express the ‘joy of nature’ that people so keenly sense in his works. One of the final works in the exhibition is ‘In the Studio’, created in December 2017 by compiling 3D photographs in a photographed space. The piece is extremely realistic, and echoes Van Gogh’s self-portraits, which welcome you into the museum’s permanent collection. The work recalls Willem van Haecht’s Apelles painting Campaspe (c.1630) and its like, as well as more recent precedents like Matisse’s The Red Studio (1911). It is a fun exploration of the artist’s oeuvre, and a demonstration of his continued interest in new ways of depicting the world around him.
The exhibition is interesting, if not quite thought-provoking, and certainly gets across the ‘joy of nature’, at least in Hockney’s works, if not quite in Van Gogh’s. You will notice that I have made little reference to the Van Gogh works included in this exhibition. The small number of small-scale works chosen for display in the exhibition are overshadowed by the larger, brasher Hockneys. Perhaps, from a pragmatic point of view, they did not with to ‘waste’ Van Gogh works on a show that fewer people would see.
The comparison between Hockney and Van Gogh is not a strained one, but neither is it the most obvious. The more apt comparison, at least in terms of personality and biography (a subject the exhibition does surprisingly well to avoid), would seem to be between Hockney and Monet. Both experimented with the use of new technology, use of colour, and experience of light; both gained considerable success and wealth in their own lifetimes. Hockney brings a post-Impressionist emphasis on emotion, but otherwise his tendencies seem more in line with that of Monet.
Having said all this, it is no bad thing to introduce a new way of looking at an otherwise familiar artist, and Hockney’s interest in the rejuvenating quality of nature suitably echoes Van Gogh’s own thoughts, even if their creative responses are a little further apart than the exhibition’s curators might have hoped.
The exhibition is open until 26 April, and tickets can be bought online at the Van Gogh Museum website.
*I hope you enjoyed this review, and I’d love to hear your comments if you’ve visited the exhibition. Unusually for a British person, David Hockney is not an artist I am hugely familiar with, so it was exciting to get an chance to see so many of his works on display in one place. His work certainly appeals to the sense of wonder and joy one can feel in the countryside.
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