David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, Royal Academy of Arts, London

Someone should have stood up to Hockney over this uneven show full of wonders ... and horrors

Most weeks, choosing the armchair lady to put at the top of this column is easy enough, exhibitions being consistently good, bad or so-so. Not this week. No armchair lady exists who could encompass the horror of some works in David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, and the wonder of others. Given that our designers might struggle to devise a figure throwing streamers with her left hand while putting a gun to her head with her right, I am going to award this schizophrenic show two armchair ladies, one standing and clapping, the other slumped in despair; the first time I've done so in 13 years as a critic for this paper.

The problem is one of power. As artists get older and more established – Hockney is 75 this year – so their position becomes less assailable. If England's greatest living painter wants to put 200 works in his Royal Academy retrospective, rather than, say, 50, who will tell him not to? This is especially problematic because Hockney's fame rests on his fecundity.

Once upon a time, there was Hockney, the painter of Speedos. Now, there is Hockney the set designer, Hockney the returned Yorkshireman, Hockney the iPad doodler, Hockney the film maker and a number of other Hockneys, each jostling to make their voices heard. The artist himself is clearly of the view that each of these voices is worth hearing. I am not.

Let's start with the good news. As you walk into this show, you find yourself outside the Wolds village of Thixendale. Hockney has painted a stand of three trees four times, in spring, summer, autumn and winter. Seeing this quartet in reproduction does not prepare you for the beauty of its parts. There are times when Hockney's mania for large-scale painting – note the title of this show – has seemed a bit of a con, when the size of his landscapes has allowed him to coast. Not with the Three Trees.

Each picture is roughly two metres high by five wide and is made up of eight canvases, two deep and four long. The joins between them impose a grid on the work's surface, suggestive of Modernism but also allowing us to take in a vista that would otherwise be too large to see. More than this, the gridded surface of the Three Trees pictures places a distance between us and the landscape, so that seeing becomes remembering, an act tinged with loss. The trees themselves have the Englishness of Constable or Rudolph Ackermann, a love of place made urgent by Hockney's having once misplaced it. And his talents as a colourist, as a painter of coded forms, come to the fore in this quartet. Up close, the ploughed field of Autumn dissolves into dots, some of them in a very un-Yorkshire shocking pink. And yet the feel is absolutely that of a field in autumn, a time of day.

A quick dip into the adjoining room of vintage Hockneys shows that this ability to evoke rather than replicate has always been his strong suit. In student works such as Fields, Eccleshill (1956), he paints in the fashion of the day. By his early twenties, though, Hockney has found his own way of encoding landscapes in shapes and colours that have nothing to do with reality but are entirely recognisable as real. No Yorkshire house has ever been the Jaffa-orange of the ones in The Road to York through Sledmere, and yet the colour resonates in the way that red brick does in the long-shadowed late afternoon. It is more than just prettiness. Hockney's look is decorative for sure, but then so was Matisse's.

So much for the standing, clapping lady; now for the slumped one. I do not know if Hockney used an iPad in making the works in the section called "Watercolours and first oils from observation", and I do not care. The pictures, a great many of them in a very large space, have the bleached look of a computer screen in an over-sunny room. They have none of the genius – not too strong a word – of Hockney's charcoal drawings of the winter timber that gives its name to a vast painting with a Symbolist palette.

I can see why Hockney would be fascinated by Claude Lorrain, who, like him, invented a light that was more real than real. But his computer-cleaned takes on Claude's Sermon on the Mount are just appalling: it is as well that the dead cannot sue.

The film wall is tacky, as well as misleading. It gives the impression that Hockney's multi-part canvases are just a bit of fun, which they are not. Had this show been better edited, we might have come away from it thinking of him as the pre-eminent painter of our day. As it is, I wonder if it will not damage his reputation. After those years in California, Hockney of all people should know that bigger does not always mean better.

Royal Academy of Arts, London W1 (020-7300 8000) to 9 Apr

Next Week

Charles Darwent moves on to Migrations at Tate Britain

Art Choice

The Italian Abstract Expressionist Alberto Burri proves a neglected master at London's Estorick Collection (to 7 Apr), while Graham Sutherland: An Unfinished World does much to rehabilitate the British Modernist at Modern Art Oxford (to 18 Mar). Or go dotty in London with Damien Hirst's spot paintings at the Gagosian Gallery (to 12 Feb).

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas