Landscape painting has rarely seemed as much fun as it does in the new David Hockney exhibition at London’s august Royal Academy. In “A Bigger Picture,” the 74-year-old artist turns seemingly mundane subjects – the fields, forests and muddy lanes of his native Yorkshire in northern England – into riots of bold, infinitely varied color. Once you’ve looked at it, a walk in the woods will never be the same.
“The exhibition is about pleasure – about visual pleasure, about communicating with nature,” exhibition co-curator Marco Livingstone said. “Even a 6-year-old coming fresh will have the delights of visual sensation. It is not an intimidating exhibition.”
In fact the show, which opens Saturday and runs to April 9, looks set to be a blockbuster. The Royal Academy says demand for tickets has been huge.
“I think the computer has already crashed several times,” academy president Christopher Le Brun said.
The London run will be followed by a tour to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, from May to September and Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, from October to February 2013.
The popularity is not surprising. Hockney is one of Britain’s most famous living artists – and, many believe, the greatest.
This exhibition assembles more than 150 of his works, created between the 1950s and a few months ago. But both Hockney and the curators stress that it is not a retrospective.
When work on the exhibition began in 2007, it was intended to focus more on Hockney’s earlier work. But, Livingstone said, “he carried on making new work at a fevered pace.”
There are glimpses of the early work in the exhibition’s opening rooms, where grey English landscapes, drawn when Hockney was an art student in the 1950s, give way to vibrantly colored American landscapes.
Hockney left dull Britain for the intense light of southern California in the 1960s and stayed for more than three decades, painting the scenes of sun and swimming pools for which he’s best known.
There are a couple of the photo collages from the 1980s and iconic American scenes including “Pearblossom Highway” and a shockingly scarlet Grand Canyon.
Most of the works on display were created after Hockney moved back to England in 2004. He lives in the seaside town of Bridlington and finds artistic inspiration in the surrounding area, known as the Yorkshire Wolds.
“I didn’t plan to stay at all,” Hockney told the BBC this week. “[But] I began to realize there was a very, very good subject here – the landscape itself, which I felt quite strongly attached to.
“What this show is, really, is my excitement at a period in my life when I’d gone to a place I thought was familiar [and] found it refreshing.”
It is not one of Britain’s more dramatic landscapes; the main elements of the paintings are fields, hedges, trees, low hills and sky. Yet Hockney makes it seem inexhaustible with his close attention to the passage of the seasons and the play of light and shade.
One room contains nothing but paintings of hawthorn in blossom, capturing the drama of the one week a year when the plant blooms brilliant white.
Another room contains just one work – “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011” – made up of 51 prints and one giant painting showing the same patch of woodland over several months, from January snow to May wildflowers.
Bold colors prevail. Timber and tree stumps have seldom looked as vibrant as they do here, rendered in vivid purples, yellows and oranges.
The show concludes with several images of Yosemite National Park in California – an arresting landscape of peaks and swirling mist – followed by modest Yorkshire scenes showing a forest floor studded with wildflowers. They are equally dramatic.
The overall effect is both bold and playful – the work of a supremely confident artist having fun.
Livingstone said the exhibition sought to capture Hockney’s restless curiosity. “His constant reinvention of himself is a big part of why I think he is such an amazing artist,” Livingstone said. “He has never repeated himself.
“He would be a much richer artist if he just carried on painting swimming pools for the rest of his life.”
It is also a show that embraces the old-fashioned and the newfangled. Hockney is as likely to use an iPad as oil paint – some of the pictures in the show were drawn on tablet computers before they were blown up and printed on paper.
The technique helps to explain the Hockney iPad cover for sale in the gallery gift shop, part of a range of merchandise that includes a Hockney-branded glasses case and an ashtray. The artist is both a spectacles-wearer and an unrepentant smoker.
Another example of Hockney’s multimedia work is a series of videos, shot with nine cameras assembled in a grid in order to give a multi-perspective viewpoint.
He is also traditionalist, a painter inspired by the Old Masters and the Impressionists who believes artists should create their own work.
Earlier this month he took a shot at shark-pickling conceptual artist Damien Hirst, who uses assistants to create his blockbuster installations, and criticized a lack of craftsmanship in some contemporary artists.
“I used to point out, at art school you can teach the craft; it’s the poetry you can’t teach,” Hockney told the Radio Times magazine.
“But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.”