The idea could not be more apt: the Royal Academy is the natural home for David Hockney’s latest works, after adored, money-spinning shows of new paintings in 2012 and 2016. How better to reopen after a wretched, ruinous year and a drab, torturous winter lockdown than with 116 iPad “paintings” capturing Spring’s arrival in Normandy last year?
But despite Hockney’s admirable enthusiasm to record dramatic seasonal effects, his embrace of new technologies and his sheer productivity, even amid the pandemic, this show is deeply unsatisfying. Hockney showed some iPad drawings of the same subject in his 2012 RA show. Then, this new medium seemed fraught with problems. These are no better; and there’s a whole exhibition of them.
Arranged loosely chronologically, the works show Hockney capturing the annual journey from bare trees, via buds and blossom to abundant green leaves at La Grande Cour, a 17th-century house, set in four acres, with fruit trees and shrubs, flower beds, a pond and barn and views across fields and a river to distant hills.
They’re done in the faux-naif, childlike drawing style and exaggerated colour common to Hockney’s output in the last decade, which suffers, in my view, in comparison with his great paintings and exquisite drawings of the Sixties and Seventies. But the new works’ weakness lies most in the inadequacies of the iPad itself.
Hockney uses the free app Brushes and you can easily spot his palette of tools: dots scattered in different densities and sizes; zig-zags in wintery skies; marks like watercolour and spray paint; pencils for finer details; a leaf motif in later works.
Hockney struggles to unite them. In a painting of an old pear tree with a tree house, branches are painted in different browns, but the colours don’t mesh coherently as physical paint does. They remain separate, and perform differently in pictorial space – twig-tips leap to the surface while thicker branches recede. Hockney doesn’t manage to convey the solidity or presence, let alone the distinctive materials, of the things he’s depicting, something he always does with paint.
There’s an ugliness in the digital marks: small clusters of dots attempting to convey grassy texture look like pawprints. Lines emerging from the sun don’t suggest majestic rays so much as hairs. A cluster of waterlilies looks like a solid plastic mat floating on the pond.
Grass never seems rooted to the earth. Trees don’t emerge from the ground; rather, they bob on it. Shrubs in meadows are like spinach balls floating in pea soup. So much is unmoored, in a spatial chaos. Only when describing the intangible – reflections on the pond’s surface, the infinite sky at night – do the pictures convince.
This is compounded by their enlargement. Seen on a handheld tablet their problems are less glaring; blowing them up to 1.5-metre prints exaggerates their incoherence. Hockney’s colour may be bright, but compare them with the backlit iPad originals and they lose all luminosity.
Ironically, given his undoubted fervour to capture a profound burst of vitality, Hockney’s iPad paintings are lifeless.
Royal Academy of Arts, W1, from May 23 to Sep 26. royalacademy.org.uk