With David Hockney I’ve got previous. Alas, I wasn’t poolside in L.A. for The Bigger Splash. And it was Ossie Clark not me with the white cat on his knee in Mr & Mrs Clark and Percy. That was the Sixties when the bottle-blond, bespectacled Bradfordian forged his artistic legend. I enter the story only a decade ago outside Bridlington, getting lost in a quest to find a certain Woldgate.
That was the 10-mile straight, single track unmetalled (probably Roman) road linking the slightly shabby East Riding resort with its rolling hinterland, the Yorkshire Wolds. If it weren’t for Hockney swapping his Californian exile in search of a different landscape and quality of light, Woldgate would have remained an afternoon drive cherished by locals, its woods left to foxes, woodpeckers and tinkers. We finally got directions to this “woodland tunnel” from a local pub, The Old Star, where we’d spotted a picture of the artist and pals on the wall. Before the smoking ban excluded his compulsive pastime he was apparently a regular there.
We admired the immense, understated beauty of the landscape that the artist, then well into his seventies, captured in paint and iPad image for his show, The Bigger Picture. Not everyone was a fan. An old acquaintance of mine, Brian Sewell, art critic of the Evening Standard ,wrote: ”My predominant response to David Hockney’s exhibition of Yorkshire landscapes at the Royal Academy is ‘Why?’. Why is there so much of it? Why is so much of it so big, so towering, so vast, so overblown and corpulent? Why is it so repetitive? Why is everything so unreally bright, so garish, discordant, raw and Romany? Why is the brushwork so careless, crude and coarse?”
Make your own mind up. All those Wolds images are in situ at Salt’s Mill, Saltaire. But they are no longer the prime Hockney reason to visit this former textile mill, now an art gallery, upmarket household boutique and restaurant complex at the heart of the model village created by 19th century philanthropic industrialist Sir Titus Salt. Hockney super-fan Jonathan Silver bought the building, once the largest factory in the world, in the Seventies and created a showcase for his art.
Silver died of cancer in 1997, but his ghost would surely relish the current big draw in the vast open top floor space – David Hockney: A Year In Normandie. At 90.75 metres long this is David Hockney’s biggest ever picture: a vibrant, joyful frieze recording the changing seasons in and around the artist’s garden in Normandy, where he sat out Covid lockdown.
The house Hockney immediately fell in love with lies just outside the picture-perfect village of Beuvron-en-Auge, ten miles south of Cabourg and 40 east of Bayeux with its 70 metre long embroidered Tapestry that sets the benchmark for pictorial ambition.
Beuvron is a picturesque tangle of historic timbered and half-timbered buildings at the epicentre of the region’s main apple growing area, the fruit used for cider and Calvados. This rustic backdrop is reflected in the frieze – from the overflowing blossom of spring to the gaunt, bare orchards in winter. All recreated via pinning together in one continuous length most of the 220 paintings Hockney created on his iPad and printed onto paper. The enormous attic space with its own aged beams feels like gallery come barn, which is just perfect.
This is the first time this work has been seen in the UK; previously it was on display at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. Hockney, now 85, traces its genesis back to when he first laid eyes upon a 30 metre long Chinese scroll painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1983, which he recalls as “one of the most exciting days” of his life.
Spoiler alert, not everyone’s excited about Normandie. The critical opprobrium is led by Observer art critic Laura Cummings: “A graze of parallel lines stands for a leaf or cloud; dots of different density are used for seeds, flowers or rising suns; grass comes ribbed, knitted or in sharp little toothpicks. Ready-made motifs proliferate. Blossoms are arrays of danish pastry whorls, both ugly and unpersuasive. Even the innately beautiful structure of a tree is undermined by the stick-figure lines, which lack all eloquence or fluidity. The register is as false and fudged as an electronic signature.”
I think that verdict is harsh. OK, the content is readily transferable into notebook, calendar of souvenir mug for. Yet, the colourful, pastoral positivity is a pick-me-up after all we have endured and are enduring. As Voltaire advises: “Il faut cultiver son jardin”. Vicariously, in this case, through the vision of Monsieur Hockney of Beuvron and Bridlington.
Do make your own mind up about this genuine magnum opus. Normandie is on at Salt’s Mill & 1853 Gallery until Sunday, September 18, 2022. Entry is free and there’s lots else to occupy you in this World Heritage Status enclave.