Hockney's New Show

For the second time within a few days, I am writing about an exhibition I haven’t seen. There has been much speculation about Hockney’s stature since the opening of his landscape show at the RA. Is he our greatest living painter as some have claimed? Andrew Lambirth on the contrary, suggests in The Spectator, that ‘this exhibition abundantly demonstrates, Hockney is not a great painter.’ His former teacher laments that he has become a decorator.

What is greatness anyway? Some time ago, a journalist suggested that Hockney was not a Mozart, more of a Cole Porter. Well. Taking his music and lyrics together, Cole Porter is great in my book: his songs have survived the outdated musicals with a life of their own. And if we are to have ‘a greatest living painter’ what is the opposition? Lambirth suggests Kossoff and Auerbach who use ‘paint in an inventive and interesting way’. The last thing I would attribute to this duo is inventiveness. I agree with John McEwan who called them Bombergian pretenders whose ‘heaps of paint, the thickness meant to indicate the depth of their feeling, merely disguises their conventionality.’ It is Hockney, throughout his career, who has been notably inventive, depicting the modern world as no painter has done previously. If not a Mozart, he may be more of a Stravinsky. In a recent production of that composer’s opera, his sets, designed some time ago, were said to have stolen the show.

I do have some doubts about what I have seen reproduced from Hockney’s latest show. I tend to think that some of the work is over-scaled. The subject Wolgate Wood, which might not be best as small as Hobbema’s famous Avenue, would hardly seem to justify an assemblage of six largish canvasses. The words garish, gaudy and even ghastly have come to mind about some of the pieces. Is the crude colour only due to newspaper reproduction? But this one group of paintings is never going to affect the status of Hockney’s lifelong achievement. Charles Pulsford, who was the only inspirational teacher I came across during my time at Edinburgh College of Art, used to say that if you weren’t capable of producing a bad painting, you weren’t going to produce a good one either. What I think he meant by this maxim is that boldness and willingness to experiment is vital. One work I have seen printed, has assured me that Hockney hasn’t lost his former magic. It is entitled The Arrival of Spring in Wolgate and shows leaves coming out on a stunted tree. It is not fractured by being formed from several canvasses, so I assume it is not massive. I check the text to see if there is any indication of size and find it is an ipad drawing.

Assessing Edward Burra

Apart from making myself bankrupt, I wouldn’t get any work done if I insisted on travelling to every exhibition that I might want to see. An Edward Burra collection at the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, certainly interested me, all the more so since a TV presentation made me doubt the severe judgment I had made about this artist. This was that he had produced three superb works, one of which was in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, but that the rest of his work fell below this high standard.

I contemplated at the very least buying a catalogue of the exhibition. However, after the frustration of a few unanswered calls to Pallant House, I put off the purchase. When, a few days later, I was passing the Central Library I popped up to the fine art section to see if they intended to order the book. They did and I was offered the first borrowing.

The book is now with me and I am beginning to revert to my former opinion. The three works which I rate highly are: Issy Ort’s, the Scottish National Gallery, Silver Dollar Bar, York City Gallery and one of Burra’s rare oil paintings The Snack Bar, the Tate. What seems to me to go wrong in so many of his other pieces, is that he reverts to mechanical modelling and space-filling detail that brings him nearer to the likes of Beryl Cook. It’s a kind of laziness and it’s emphasised when a George Grosz watercolour is reproduced alongside Burra’s paintings. In Grosz’s German work, there are never lapses of technique or imagery.

Burra has paintings like Minuit Chanson and Zoot Suits that come near to his best. And the landscapes, many of which are new to me, have their successes. But here too. there are disappointments. One such work. English Countryside, shows a road going over low, undulating hills. There is a band of fields of bare earth of a red/orange hue in the middle of the work. Through this is a sequence of delicately formed light-coloured pylons. The flanking fields are either light green or of dark foliage. The tiny silhouette of a plane is seen rising from an airport over the horizon. This might have been a masterpiece if Burra had only put into the landscape the sort of sharp drawing that holds together William Gillies’ border landscapes. Similarly, Burra shows fine unexplored imagery in paintings of traffic-clogged country roads. Waldemar Januszczak in a favourable review of the Pallant House exhibition, alludes to Burra’s Thomas the Tank Engine lorries. It is an accurate observation and damning. Surely Burra could have found a better way to depict his heavy traffic.

In the end, I was glad I didn’t buy the catalogue. Instead of sitting down to the delight of leafing through reproductions of works that I could admire unreservedly, I would have feelings of frustration and sadness. I cannot think of any other artist that brings out in me these emotions.