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1999 The Bigger Picture

Explore the 1999 catalogue

This year, for the first time, a gallery space was given over to the work of a single Academician, an exhibition within an exhibition, to celebrate their work. In the Burlington House Courtyard, three gargantuan bronze sculptures by Tony Cragg—Taurus, Ferryman, and Turbo—dominated the space. Inside the Royal Academy, the work of David Hockney, an Academician since 1985, filled the restored Mori Lecture Room. Both Cragg and Hockney, along with Anslem Kiefer, Patrick Caulfield, Mick Moon, Alsop & Störmer Architects, and Rose Wylie, were shortlisted for the Academy’s 1999 Charles Wollaston Award. Hockney won the £25,000 award for the most distinguished work and stole the show with his mammoth paintings of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The Hockney room comprised six paintings of the Grand Canyon. Two panoramic views of the canyon, previously exhibited in the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, were included: A Closer Grand Canyon painted on eighty-four adjoining canvases and A Bigger Grand Canyon (Fig. 1) on sixty adjoining canvases. In these two paintings from 1998, the multiple small canvases abutted one another in a way similar to the photowork joiners Hockey had made previously. Composite Polaroid works such as Kasmin, Los Angeles, 12th March 1982 or Gregory Swimming, Los Angeles, March 31st 1982 may be smaller in scale than the Grand Canyon paintings but they grapple with questions of space in a similar manner. Hockney, who had made repeated visits to the Grand Canyon, had seen the Grand Canyon IMAX movie and felt it lacking. He expressed the view that painting was a better medium than film with which to explore space:

You can’t have a sense of the space from a camera on a helicopter. The only way to do it is to sit in one place and do the moving in your mind. A painting shows much more about how you feel about space.1

In the Grand Canyon paintings, and the Polaroid compositions, Hockney used multiple individual “frames” to create a coherent and composite whole for the viewer. The huge panoramas of 1998, measuring around 7.5 metres in length, each convey something of the splendour, scale, and intensity of the Grand Canyon. Exhibited in the 1999 Academy Summer Exhibition, Hockney required a large mirror to be hung in each of the four corners of the gallery so the intensely coloured landscapes would be reflected back on the visitors, who could then see themselves immersed in the scene and experience something of the American landscape as Hockney conveyed it; the spectator is engulfed by a painting of this scale and doubly so when mirrors come into play. The mirrors placed the gallery visitor as actors or subjects in paintings where the handling of space was reminiscent of that in theatre or opera set design—something that Hockney had been involved with since 1966. The art historian, Chris Stephens, suggests that set design work “freed up his painting, prompting a more intense concentration on issues of space, illusion and artifice.”2 Furthermore, the use of a steeply inclined foreground and deeper space behind, so central to set design, is clearly evident in the Grand Canyon paintings.

While Hockney’s Grand Canyon panoramas attracted a great deal of attention, not everyone was pleased by the colourful intensity of his depictions. For some critics, there were just too many bright colours and they were deemed crude or even garish. The Sunday Times critic, Cosmo Landesman, was particularly unimpressed claiming: “A Closer Grand Canyon is awash with oozing oranges, shimmering purples and burning Day-Glo browns. They have more in common with the brash neon lights of Las Vegas than the subtle shades of the Grand Canyon.”3

The Summer issue of the Royal Academy Magazine featured the Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition and Hockney’s place in that. Yet rather than focus on Hockney’s Grand Canyon paintings as every other magazine and newspaper had done, the issue featured an exclusive article on his exploration into how artists use optics, and especially the use of the camera lucida (Fig. 2). Having first come across them while an art student in Bradford, Hockney had long been fascinated with drawings by the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867). In January 1999, he made repeated visits to an exhibition of Ingres portraits at the National Gallery in London. Then, studying the exhibition catalogue, he began to ask how Ingres might have achieved such accuracy and small scale in the drawings. His own investigations and experiments led Hockney to conclude that Ingres must have used a camera lucida, a small prism mounted at the end of a metal arm through which an image can be refracted, to produce such small and precise drawings. He spent a year experimenting with a camera lucida and produced hundreds of portraits, including one of the Academy’s Exhibitions Secretary, Norman Rosenthal. The seriousness with which Hockney approached this exploration of optical tools in artmaking was marked in the autumn of 1999 when he participated in the international symposium “Ingres and Portraiture” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and delivered a talk to the art history department at Columbia University, New York. Two years later, in 2001, his research culminated in the publication of his thesis in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters,4 bringing together his research and his experience as a practitioner.

In one sense, these small, precise, and directly observed camera lucida pencil portrait drawings from 1999 represent a counterpoint to the vast canyon landscape paintings, produced in 1998 in the studio from drawings and memory. Even their appearance in the Royal Academy Magazine that year—something to be read privately—is at odds with the experience of the paintings in the public space of the gallery. Their arresting intimacy may seem opposed to the overwhelming scale and colour of the Grand Canyon paintings. And yet, Hockney’s insistence on mirrors in the gallery engendered a more embodied spectator, a very particular experience, despite the scale and just as acutely personal as the viewer’s engagement with these small portraits.

  1. David Hockney quoted in Tim Adams, “Hockney’s Final Frontier”, The Observer, 30 May 1999, 83.↩︎

  2. Chris Stephens, “Play within a Play”, in Chris Stephens and Andrew Wilson (eds), David Hockney, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate, 2017), 21.↩︎

  3. Cosmo Landesman, “Another Fine Mess”, The Sunday Times, 6 June 1999.↩︎

  4. (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001).↩︎

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Explore the 1999 catalogue