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Review: David Hockney at the Royal Academy; Hockney, Shakespeare and the English Pastoral tradition

It is only recently that more people in the world came to be living in urban communities than in the countryside. This represents a profound shift in our relationship with the natural world. We are less rooted. The pattern of our daily lives is less marked by the rhythm of night and day and the passing of the seasons. We have lost the slow pace of the countryside, exchanged for the fast life of our cities.

David Hockney’s great exhibition A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy, London, invites us to pause; to view the world in old, slow time; to find beauty in the incidental or nondescript. Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in 1937 Hockney regularly visited Bridlington on Yorkshire’s east coast as his mother lived there for the last thirty years of her life. He began a series of Yorkshire landscapes at the suggestion of a friend in 1997 and came to live and work in Bridlington some years later.

Since 2004, he has produced a monumental quantity of work in oil, watercolour, charcoal and digital media, often returning to the same locations to document the landscape. One such series, Tunnels, features an unremarkable farm track lined with straggly trees. Painted at different times of the year, working directly from nature on a series of canvases which fit together to create a composite picture, he transforms this seemingly drab scene into a world of startling conjunctions of colour, unexpected pattern and extraordinary beauty. The farm track in each of the paintings is placed at the centre of three canvases, leading on to the middle canvas of the three above where it disappears from view, suggesting new worlds of colour and vibrancy beyond.

By working direct from nature, Hockney’s work has freshness and immediacy. His delight, both in the landscape and the act of painting is everywhere manifest. He obviously works at speed without preliminary drawing and is happy to leave bare patches of canvas, sketchy lines or blobs or splashes of paint that have spilled from his brush. He wants us both to be aware of the physical process of painting as well as to share his delight in a natural world constantly in change from the wild, joyful pulsing of life in spring to the skeletal, leaflessness of winter.

By placing himself in the landscape, scrutinizing and recording it, charting the progress of the seasons, he is teaching us how to see. As we stand in front of each painting, looking at each canvas in a series, noting changes from one image to the next, we are observing his process of observation. His lesson is simple; beauty is everywhere, even in the apparently banal, but to find it one first has to look. And one has to look not with hurrying, restless, urban eyes, but with the slow, patient gaze of the natural world.

As the work of Hockney’s friend Lucian Freud, also on show in London at the National Portrait Gallery, makes clear, it is the act of looking that is paramount. Freud’s intent, intense, unsettling eye concentrated mostly on the human form. Hockney found his subject almost by accident, his massive series of landscapes placing him firmly in a tradition which links Gainsborough and Stubbs in the 18th century to Samuel Palmer, Constable and Turner in the 19th to John and Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious in the last – along with countless others.

It’s clear that Hockney sees himself working in this tradition and one gallery is given over to his re-interpretations of Claude’s Sermon the Mount. It’s not the strongest work in the exhibition, but is a homage to one of the painters who, though not English, helped shape English landscape painting and who directly influenced one of our greatest landscape painters – JMW Turner.

This tradition of landscape painting is of course echoed in literature in a line which includes modern poets such as Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes back through Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas, to Wordsworth, Keats and John Clare back to Andrew Marvell, Shakespeare and beyond. Often (as with the painters), an idyllic, unspoilt rural world is contrasted with the corruption and ugliness of the urban world. In William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c1360-87), the ploughmen are seen to be hard working and honest,

Summe putten hem to the plough, pleiden ful seldene,
In settynge and in sowynge swonken ful harde

while townsfolk are depicted as idle, vain and pampered. This has parallels with Chaucer’s ploughman who in the Canterbury Tales, General Prologue (c1380-1390) is described as,

A trewe swynkere and a good was he,
Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee.

This opposition between town and country is deeply embedded in our language. Thus the word ‘urbane’ derives from the Latin word ‘urbs’ (meaning ‘city’) from which urban also springs and ‘civilized’ from the Latin ‘civilis’ which in turn is related to ‘civis’ meaning ‘citizen’ and ‘civitas’ meaning ‘city-state.’ ‘Villain’ by contrast, originates from the Latin ‘villanus’ which simply meant ‘farmhand’ while ‘rustic’ meaning ‘uncouth, boorish or rude’ derives from the Latin ‘rus’ meaning ‘country’. Put simply, our vocabulary associates the town with polish and style and the countryside with all things crude and backward while our poets have typically viewed the town as a place of iniquity and the natural world as a haven of peace and good living.

This polarisation is evident in many of Shakespeare’s plays such as As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream where characters leave the complications of life at court or city to find their true selves (and their true loves) in a forest. In the comedies, the natural world is safe and restorative. For the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as for Bottom who might be speaking for them, their night in the forest was ‘a most rare vision… a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was,’ while for Duke Senior and his ‘brothers in exile’ in As You Like It, life in the woods is ‘more free from peril than the envious court.’

For the duke, the ‘churlish chiding of the winter’s wind’ is benign, however chill, and serves to ‘feelingly persuade me what I am.’ Lear finds no such comfort. In his madness in the ‘pelting of this pitiless storm’ on the heath he came to see the injustices of his society with a terrible lucidity and cries,

Take physic pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them.

Despite gaining self-knowledge, Lear’s universe is bleak with the possibility of redemption seemingly denied. By the later plays, nature is once more bountiful and healing, Ceres promising Miranda and Ferdinand, ‘Earth’s increase, foison plenty/Barns and garners never empty.’ In The Tempest the corrupt political world of Milan is contrasted with the simplicity of life on Prospero’s ‘poor’, if magical island. Transformations are hard won, yet absolution ultimately granted – and according to Gonzalo ‘all of us’ found ‘ourselves/Where no man was his own.’

Shakespeare’s world was obviously greatly different to our own. In 1600 London was already an enormous city by contemporary standards, yet only numbered about 200,000 people. Even into the 19th century town dwellers still kept poultry, pigs and occasionally cattle; distinctions between town and country were less defined than they are today.

Growing up in a largely rural England, references to nature are found everywhere in Shakespeare’s work – from the ‘bud of love’ that Juliet hopes will ‘prove a beauteous flower’ to Duncan’s assurance to Macbeth that ‘I have begun to plant thee and will labour/To make thee full growing.’ The late plays are full of pastoral imagery. In the funeral song in Act 4 Scene 2 of Cymbeline, Guiderius laments that,

Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Commentators have noted that ‘Golden lads’ was a Warwickshire name for dandelions, the vivid yellow flowers that grow like weeds in fields and hedgerows and that ‘chimney-sweepers’ is an illusion to the same plant when it’s gone to seed, its head a light feathery ball that looks like a chimney-sweep’s brush. I have no idea of the truth of this. Before modern times I thought chimneys were cleaned either by dropping a live chicken down from above or forcing children up from below, but the flowery explication is so poetic and apt that I hope it true.

Implicit in almost all pastoral verse is the notion of change, death and decay. Wilderness and rural idyll carry echoes of the Garden of Eden and our inherently fallen nature. Death intrudes. This links back to the Hockney exhibition, because for all the wild exuberance of his paintings of hawthorn blossom there are reminders of mortality in the piles of stripped timber or the chopped trunk of a dead tree he painted and drew many times and named the ‘Totem’. Yet he doesn’t labour the point. The piles of logs have their own curious life and form part of a landscape rich with colour and movement.

If this is death, it is not chilly and macabre. And the dominant tone of the show is celebratory and affirmative, ending as it does with a huge evocation of spring and several smaller (but still large) paintings on the same theme. It invites us to look, take risks and find the beauty that is all around us whether in town or country.

There is not much of the town in A Bigger Picture, and few enough people apart from those in The Sermon on the Mount series and some dancers in the video installation that drew spontaneous applause from those viewing it. Yet I don’t think he’s making a political point, opposing town and country or advocating green politics or anything else. In part he chose his subject because he has become deaf and finds noisy, crowded places difficult. If the show is about anything, it is about observation – and one can look closely in town or country, whether studying people or trees or any other subject.

Inevitably, not all the work is equally successful. There are some wonderful charcoal studies that show his vast talent as a draughtsman and the incredibly powerful video display produced by nine cameras mounted on the front of a vehicle and shown on a bank of eighteen screens, but I thought many of the studio paintings more contrived and heavy than those painted outside. And although several of his i-pad drawings were very beautiful the majority seemed a little bland, especially the large, later images of Yosemite. I don’t imagine he cares what anyone thinks. Failure is part of the game. And he is constantly experimental, constantly intelligent, constantly at work. He is clearly still fired with energy. Long may it continue.

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