AMSTERDAM — Entering Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature at Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum is like walking into a painted fantasy forest. Tree trunks are rendered in red, blue, pink, purple, yellow, electric green; leaves are hinted at with quick brushstrokes, or cartoonishly outlined. In the galleries upstairs, we come out of the trees into a countryside idyll, with blue-boundaried fields, waving corn and the occasional electricity pylon or hay wagon.
This exhibition brings together works by David Hockney and Vincent van Gogh that focus on rural scenes, and the two painters’ shared themes and approaches are made immediately apparent, at least on a surface level. The line of influence is clear: van Gogh’s use of color, brushwork and spatial construction evidently left a deep impression on Hockney, from his very first encounter with van Gogh as a teenager through to some of his most recent pieces.
“The world is colorful,” Hockney is quoted as saying. “It is beautiful, I think. Nature is great. Van Gogh worshipped nature. He might have been miserable, but that doesn’t show in his work. There are always things that will try to pull you down. But we should be joyful in looking at the world.” This is the “joy” reflected in the title of the exhibition. However, the curation of works creates an illuminating tension, as the juxtaposition of Hockney and van Gogh serves to show that the latter’s paintings are not as “joyful” as many would automatically assume.
Although van Gogh is an undisputed master of color, his palette is far more muted than Hockney’s almost psychedelic hues. The most striking example can be found in van Gogh’s beautiful 1889 work “The Garden of Saint Paul’s Hospital (‘Leaf-Fall’).” Winding paths and wind-bent trees are depicted in autumnal browns, greens and blues, with dabs of ochre paint capturing the essence of falling leaves. This work was painted when van Gogh had been institutionalized in a secure hospital for mental patients, and there is certainly a feeling of entrapment and confusion at play. Although his painterly style is radically free, the tree trunks that rise up in the foreground are reminiscent of bars at a window, blocking our view of the path, which itself disappears into nothing well before the expected vanishing point: a road to nowhere.
Hockney’s belief that van Gogh’s misery doesn’t show in his work is undermined here, as the painting is tinged with a distinct note of sadness, a melancholic strain that features in many of the van Gogh works chosen for the show. Although painting (and painting nature in particular) offered van Gogh creative freedom, it never allowed him to escape the burden of his deteriorating mental health.
Hockney’s brightly colored wood paintings, on the other hand, encapsulate escapism. Most of the Hockney pieces are drawn from the nine-year period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the artist returned to his native England from his adopted home of Los Angeles. During this time, he created numerous depictions of Woldgate Woods in East Yorkshire in pencil, video, iPad drawing, and monumental oil works.
Like van Gogh, Hockney experiments with perspective, famously employing multiple vanishing points across his vast canvases or video works such as “The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods” (2010-2011). The exhibition catalogue tells us that, “to Hockney, linear perspective symbolizes the curtailment of artistic freedom and imagination, of the potential to explore new frontiers and discover new worlds. That freedom is, to him, the essence of art.” Too large to take in with a single glance, Hockney’s works force the viewer’s eye to rove across them. His expansive vistas of trees leading away in every direction suggest a world of possibility, movement and openness.
Although these works were also made at a difficult time in Hockney’s life — he returned to Yorkshire to care for his ailing mother and was prompted to make the paintings by his terminally ill friend Jonathan Silver — there is little evidence of difficulty in these technicolor multi-paneled marvels. Perhaps unwilling to see the evidence of van Gogh’s misery in the older master’s works, Hockney also refuses to reveal darker emotions himself.
Hockney’s love of escapism was also highlighted in a press conference held before the opening of the exhibition, where he told journalists he had no plans to return to the UK and instead would be spending the next few months in a house in northern France: “It is surrounded by trees, it is going to be marvelous for me because I’ve got a new location and I’ll draw it. I can’t think of anything better in life than watching the spring happen in Normandy in 2019, I mean what better thing can I do?” His specific reference to the year presumably alludes to the difficult — and, to many, unpalatable — political situations in the US and UK, which he wishes to avoid.
Perhaps for both artists, nature offers an alternative to the mundane realities of the world, in addition to offering a means for exploring vision, perspective and the materiality of paint. However, what we see in this exhibit isn’t nature as wilderness, nor as dramatic grand vista. This is well-ordered, agricultural, post-industrial nature. Hockney’s woods are presented as plantations, not as ancient woodland — the trees are uniform, and there are neatly stacked felled logs piled by the roads and tracks that run through the forest. Similarly, van Gogh’s “nature” is the agricultural landscape of Provence, with its workers, crops, hedges and wagons. Alternatively, the natural world is seen in the form of the gardens of the institution where he had been incarcerated — well-ordered nature intended to cultivate a well-ordered mind.
Although he is now more than twice the age van Gogh reached in his tragically shortened career, Hockney is still as committed to producing work as ever, and his visual confidence remains striking. Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature traces an inarguable line of influence across the careers of two titans of painting. Both artists remind us that the world is beautiful, as long as we are prepared to look at it for long enough; but the tensions inherent in this exhibition may force visitors to question where the lines can be drawn between reality and truth, freedom and escapism.
Hockney – Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature, curated by Edwin Becker, is on view at Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam through May 26th, 2019.
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