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January 03, 2006

Hockney and Derain at Somerset House - Christie Davies is bored by Hockney's watercolours and excited by Derain's bright colours

Posted by Christie Davies

Watercolours by David Hockney - Midsummer in East Yorkshire 2004
Gilbert Collection, Somerset House
17th November 2005 - 19th February 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (last admission 17.15pm)

André Derain the London Paintings
Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Somerset House
22nd October 2005 - 22nd January 2006
Daily 10am - 6pm (last admission 17.15pm)

Hockney is boring, watercolours are boring and East Yorkshire is boring. Watercolours by Hockney of East Yorkshire are boring cubed. There are thirty-six of them arranged in a six by six matrix clumped on a single wall that are presented to the viewer as a single unit and to be assessed as such.
Total boredom = six squared times boredom cubed = 62B3.

Hockney is only sometimes boring. Watercolours are only occasionally boring. East Yorkshire is always boring. A flat hard landscape inhabited by flat hard people speaking flat hard English. There are no mountains, only woldymorphs. Grass stubble grass stubble grass stubble. That is the way East Yorkshire rides. Mud asphalt mud asphalt mud asphalt. That is the way East Yorkshire rides. There is a welcome sea but it is welcome because when you get there, you know that east Yorkshire has come to an end. There is no midsummer in East Yorkshire except in the technical sense that on the day the sun is overhead when seen from the bottom of a well in Syene in Southern Egypt, in East Yorkshire you still feel as if you are at the bottom of a well but the sun lurks slightly less low than before or after.

The curators tell us that the landscape is:

tinged for (Hockney) with nostalgia and memories of family and friends no longer living. These pictures acknowledge mortality while glorifying the persistence of life.
No doubt if I had grown up in East Yorkshire, I would feel that way about it but I didn't and neither did most people. The watercolours do not in any way convey these feelings and they are all we have in front of us.

Matters are made worse by a continuously playing series of shots of Hockney painting in the open air presented as a video. Here are loving images of his faithful car parked in a lay-by and here comes the man himself in his white flat cap, no doubt worn to keep the paint out of his floppy hair. It is the ultimate in obsessive and irrelevant artist worship. Here is the hand that holds the brush that daubs the paint that makes the picture that goes to London to hang in a gallery close to the Thames. Genuflect twice and once more from the top!

The shots reminded me irresistibly of a "Pop" (in those days "pop" meant the pater rather than unmusic) cartoon by John Millar Watts from an old Daily Graphic The Pop Annual owned by my father, which I puzzled over as a child. The stout and bald headed Pop is daubing away with paint brushes in a field while two rustics look over his shoulder at his efforts.

"That green bit, Jarge, must be the trees".


"And that brown bit must be the field".


"And that little pink bit in front – why dang me it's the old buffer hisself".

Pop attacks them with his easel. Rustics flee.

We can see what is wrong with Hockney's watercolours from the few instances where he gets it right as in Harvest with Farm Equipment, 2004. The blue mechanical object breaks up the monotony of grain and green on a dull day. Likewise Road and Farmhouse East Yorkshire, July 2004 is saved by the red human speck of the farmhouse in a wasteland of green and tarmac. I presume the machine and the house just happened to be there. But why could Hockney not have invented and inserted a similar, bright, contrasting coloured object in his otherwise dull landscapes. Constable would have done so. Even a suitably discreetly placed imaginary fat lady in an outfit made of bright discarded floral curtains would do. Schmattery fields for ever.

Sometimes too Hockney is rescued by the sense of pattern that is the basis of his other works' success as in Harvested Wheat East Yorkshire, 2004 and Field of Bales East Yorkshire, Grey Day, 2004. There are few things more tedious than stubble on a dull day. It is not where you would choose to go for a walk unless you are a twitcher in search of the rare Buffery's triple-headed corn-crake. But Hockney makes the bales magic – ancient monuments or even a game of bowls by giants using millstones which now lie in irregular rows, some upright, some tilted.

Nonetheless you will be better off if you sprint across the courtyards of Somerset House to see Alan Derain – The London Paintings at the Courtauld.

Here a different cartoonist's humour is appropriate namely, H. M. Bateman's Where Ignorance is Bliss, 1933. A caricature female artist in sunhat sits at her easel watched by a classic rustic in gaiters, leaning on a crooked walking stick. Underneath the cartoon James Ferguson (Fergy) has written:

The young lady was painting – sunset with blue streaks and green dots. The old rustic – at a respectful distance – was watching.

"Ah!" said the female artist looking up suddenly and pretending that she hadn't known he was there all the time, "perhaps to you, too, Nature has opened her shy pictures page by page? Have you seen the lambent figure of dawn leaping across the vivid east? Have you seen the red-stained sulphurous islets floating in the lakes of midnight, black as raven’s wings, blotting out the shuddering moon?"

"No, mum," replied the rustic shortly. "Not since I gave up the drink".

No doubt many feel like this about Alan Derain the London paintings. They are wrong. Alain Derain came to London from Paris in 1906, hoping to emulate the success of Monet, whose capture of the dirty, foggy city had entranced everyone. Where there's muck, there's Monet-money thought Derain. But there is no fog in Derain's London. He managed what even the Clean Air Act has failed to do, to hit London with a bright Mediterranean light. Indeed he did more. Derain took his initial sketches back to Paris and recreated the river, the bridges, the wharves, the Houses of Parliament in bright wild colours that run from mauve to Fauve. What you see is just the outline of Tower Bridge or shipping on the river, cranes and railway bridges, their vividness of colour is but a means of bringing out their shape.

The best way to look at them is from a distance of eight paces back. The blobby detail disappears but the image is clear. If you stand too close, it is like looking at a photograph blown up until it is blurred. Standing back works best for the landscapes. It doesn't help with the street scenes such as Regent Street, 1906-7. By the time you are far away enough for it to look right, you can’t see it properly. Stick to the landscapes.

Look out (from the right distance) for Westminster, 1906, for the green river cut by a swathe of sunlight and the outline of its windows against the blue blocks of Parliament. There are skies like a firework display, what used to be called a "Golden Rain" in Waterloo Bridge, 1906-7. What would H. M. Bateman and Fergy have made of it? Yet there is something Batemanesque about Derain's Victoria Embankment 1906-7. A green road curves round with the embankment between pink trees and pavement past a familiar blue skyline against a yellow sky. Edwardian trucks and taxicabs get up so much speed as they roar round the arc that they have to lean into the bend to get round it. One can imagine Bateman's drivers with manic heedless competitive faces clinging grimly to their steering wheels. The entire city is going round the bend.

In The Thames and Tower Bridge, 1906-7 the bows of red ships with green funnels seem to leap at you from the river. The unmistakable outline of Tower Bridge stands out in blue behind them. In The Pool of London, 1906-7 you can look down at the deck of a freighter that is a clutter of colour. Derain has captured the excitement of being in the port and capital of the world's largest, richest and most varied empire where ships came into the very heart of a city that was at the centre of a web of free trade and of the world's first globalisation.

London deserved Derain's bright colours showing how the power of trade pointed towards the power of Parliament. It is the brightness of high noon before the sun begins to sink. Now that we are falling through the dusk of Blairdom into a Cameroonian black hole from which there is no escape, it is good to look back at a time when there was light in England.

Go and enjoy Derain and give old Hockers' photies a miss.

Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002 and The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2004 both published by Transaction.

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Isn't it obvious that Hockney and Alan Bennett are the same person? I mean, have you ever seen them in the same room together?...

Posted by: yorkshire tyke at January 4, 2006 08:38 AM

dear Sir
Most of your comments about E Yorks are true. I grew up there and go back there sometimes.

In July / August the countryside to the East of the Bridlington for 20 miles inland area just before harvest and during harvest is really outstanding and criss crossed with deserted roads through rolling fields.
My favourite road is the one between Scarborough and Carnaby via Cayton, Hunmandby, Rudston to Carnaby crossing one of D Hockney's subjects "woldgate" then on to the beach at Fraisthorpe for kite sailing and winsurfing best at harvest. Just before, staying Fraisthorpe if weather good for evening sky.

Posted by: steve at September 3, 2006 07:39 PM

Christie is obviously a soulless Yorkshirephobe, but anyone who can call Derain's work Batmanesque doesn't really deserve comment

Posted by: marilyn Gaunt at July 6, 2009 12:54 PM
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