David Hockney Loves Van Gogh. This Exhibition Shows Why.

David Hockney Loves Van Gogh. This Exhibition Shows Why.

AMSTERDAM — It’s easy to miss the Vincent van Gogh paintings at “Hockney/Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature.”

In the Van Gogh Museum’s blockbuster spring exhibition, which runs through May 26, Mr. Hockney’s dazzlingly vibrant multi-canvas paintings — like “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011” — are hung like murals across the gallery walls. Van Gogh’s much smaller landscapes appear here and there on pillars, somewhat like punctuation marks to Hockney’s effusive sentences.

And if you imagine that the link between the contemporary British painter and the 19th-century Post-Impressionist is the use of bold, contrasting colors — purples and blues set against mustard yellows — you will quickly think again. The brilliant palette of Mr. Hockney’s 2008 “More Felled Trees on Woldgate” looks psychedelic next to van Gogh’s subdued cobalts and azures in “The Garden of St. Paul’s Hospital (‘Leaf Fall’)” from 1889. Van Gogh was one of early modernism’s most radical colorists, but Mr. Hockney has taken the ball and run with it, far, far down the field.

Scale and color may not be the things that tie these two major art figures together, but it is clear from “Hockney/Van Gogh” that Mr. Hockney’s admiration for van Gogh is far from incidental. There are drawings in the exhibitionthat could have been ripped from van Gogh’s sketchbook.

“Midsummer, East Yorkshire” — Mr. Hockney’s 2004 series of 36 watercolors on paper — is a direct homage to van Gogh’s Provence landscapes, with their wheat fields, wheel-like haystacks, stocky clouds and high horizon lines. Squint a little and one can easily mistake Mr. Hockney’s 2005 oil painting “Woldgate Vista” with its layer-cake structure of wild grass, farmland, hills and sky, for van Gogh’s “The Harvest” of 1888.

Mr. Hockney said he believes that the main link between him and van Gogh is not color, brushwork or subject matter — though both men clearly have a fascination with nature: “It’s clarity of space, I think,” he said in an interview. “Van Gogh could see space very, very clearly.”

In the exhibition catalog, he elaborated: “Somebody once said that my work has a graphic clarity, and I suppose it does. But if that’s true, van Gogh’s work has a double graphic clarity.”

“Hockney/Van Gogh” is neither a side-by-side comparison nor a Hockney retrospective — he had three of those in 2017, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Tate Modern in London and Centre Pompidou in Paris. Instead, it is a selection of about 60 works by Mr. Hockney, and eight paintings and three drawings by van Gogh. The bulk of the Hockney works are landscapes created from about 2004 to 2011, created in the Woldgate Woods in northern England.

Edwin Becker, chief curator of exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum, said that van Gogh’s influence on Mr. Hockney started after the artist visited a van Gogh exhibition in Manchester, England, in 1955. “It lingers on and on and on,” Mr. Becker said. “Sometimes it’s more direct, and sometimes it’s more subconscious.”

About half of the exhibition is devoted to depictions of Woldgate Woods — particularly of a path through tall, slender trees captured across the seasons in different media. Some are oil paintings made “en plein-air” — outdoors, as many 19th-century painters did, including van Gogh — over three or four days. Others are digital video compositions and drawings made with an iPad.

For the video installation “The Four Seasons, Woldgate Woods” from 2010 to 2011, Mr. Hockney mounted nine cameras on a moving Jeep to simultaneously film the path in the woods from multiple perspectives. Here, they are presented as clusters of nine monitors on four walls, each presenting the same view in different season: winter, spring, summer or fall.

With each camera pointed in a slightly different direction, the viewer is forced to look at the scene as a composite of multiple perspectives. “I know it makes it more interesting because you have to look at each one, and to do that, you have to make space in your mind,” Mr. Hockney said.

In the spring of 2011, Mr. Hockney revisited the woods with his iPad, creating the series “The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire” in the electric greens, pastel blues and hot pinks of the device’s palette.

Mr. Hockney, now 81, has actively embraced digital technology, especially in his recent work, and is one of the few artists of his generation to have done so. Mr. Becker, the curator, said he saw this as another important similarity between the two artists.

“Van Gogh was constantly on the search for new ways of working, from naturalism, to Impressionism to Post-Impressionism, to add to his own style,” Mr. Becker said. “The same goes for Hockney, because he embraces new techniques, new developments — be it the Polaroid, the Pentax camera, the video camera, the iPad.”

Mr. Hockney said there was a pragmatic reason why, late in life, he learned to work with new technologies. At first, he said, “I realized that with the iPad I could draw without moving from my bed.”

“The first things I did were lots of sunrises from a window,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday. “And I didn’t have to get up to get paint or water or a brush or pencils.” He made 70 or 80 pictures this way, “always in this same window, but every day it was different: different colors, no two sunrises are the same.”

This approach (minus the iPad) resonates with van Gogh’s practice of exploring the same view or subject from multiple perspectives, in changing light, in different seasons.

Mr. Hockney, who continues to work from early morning until evening (with the help of a midday nap, according to Mr. Becker), said that van Gogh put all of his energy and love into his work.

“He put some beans on his fire when he went out in the morning, and he painted all day — eight hours, nine hours — then he’d come home and eat the beans,” Mr. Hockney said of van Gogh. “Then he’d converse with his brother for two hours by writing letters. The only time left for him was to sleep.”

This, he said, is perhaps why van Gogh’s work has such enduring popular appeal — as does Mr. Hockney’s.

“People have always been very attracted to van Gogh’s paintings: Since they were first shown in 1906, people have flocked to them,” he said. “He’s a great artist, still. It’s contemporary; if it’s speaking to you now, it’s contemporary.”

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