By Mike Collett-White
LONDON (Reuters) - A major new show of British artist David Hockney's recent landscapes is a homecoming of sorts, rooting the 74-year-old in his native Yorkshire and far from the swimming pools of Los Angeles for which he is most famous.
"David Hockney: A Bigger Picture" features more than 150 landscapes, many of which are vast in scale and vibrant in color. Most date from the last eight years barring a few earlier landscapes going back as far as 1956.
"Winter Timber," for example, is a 2009 work over six meters (yards) long and, like all of his larger paintings, made up of several smaller panels.
The stump of a dead tree is deep purple, the felled logs next to it orange and yellow, the grass a vivid green and the avenue of tress receding into the distance bright blue.
Curators of the blockbuster show, which runs from January 21-April 9, said the picture showed how Hockney tended to give himself freer rein when painting from memory, as he did here, than directly from observation.
Asked why he had decided to return home and devote so much time to landscape paintings of Yorkshire in northern England, he replied: "I knew the landscape was rather subtle and lovely there ... If you're my age and you find an exciting subject, you stick with it."
He told Channel 4 News in an interview that his three decades in California, where he made his trademark swimming pool series, had affected the way he saw his homeland.
"It does make you see ... England a bit differently," he said. "That's partly what it's about. Simply the changes in the seasons, because you'd been in California, they became a bigger event here for me than for somebody who's here all the time."
The opening room of the 13-gallery exhibition contains four large paintings of the same trees, each depicting a different season, a theme that runs throughout the show.
The idea is developed on film in one work that features 18 screens displayed as one large grid, each section slightly out of synch with the next and capturing the same scene but at different times.
In the room "Sketchbooks and iPads," his traditional sketchbooks are displayed next to a series of works on iPad, which Hockney uses increasingly as a drawing tool.
"At first you think it's a bit of a novelty," he said of using the iPad for his art. "It took me a while to realize it's quite a serious tool. I've no doubt it's a marvelous new tool."
But it is not simply out with the old, in with the new for Hockney.
The influence of past masters like Vincent Van Gogh are clear to see in some works, and he dedicates an entire room to 17th century French artist Claude Lorrain's "The Sermon on the Mount" which he saw in New York in 2009.
He was so fascinated by its spatial effects that he made his own, monumental version, which again injects bright colors to the biblical scene.
The run-up to the exhibition was briefly overshadowed by remarks Hockney made that were portrayed as a swipe at fellow British artist Damien Hirst for not painting his own canvases.
Hirst's spot paintings are currently the focus of a series of shows at Larry Gagosian's galleries around the world.
The artist painted only a handful of the 1,400 or so works himself, leaving assistants to execute the rest, yet Hirst has no hesitation in calling them his own.
Subsequently the Royal Academy issued a statement saying Hockney's remarks had been taken out of context.
"The Royal Academy wishes to make it clear that ... David Hockney has not made any comments which imply criticism of another artist's working practices nor are there any words to this effect on the poster promoting his forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts."
Reviews of Hockney's show have been mixed.
Adrian Hamilton of the Independent called it an "absolutely stunning exhibition," while Adrian Searle wrote in the Guardian:
"It is clear Hockney is excited by these variations and difficulties. But all those splodges and patterns, smears and dapples and churnings get very wearying. I just can't wait to get indoors and kick the gumboots off."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)