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Exhibit Review — “The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020”

The Colby College Museum of Art doesn’t have much artwork by David Hockney. The 1980 piece “Lithograph of Water Made of Thick Lines and Thin Lines and a Light Blue and a Da,” is true to the famous British-born artist’s illustrations and his more recent work. Although it’s not on display, it is a dynamic work and a delight to look at. This image of a diving board reflecting its shadow through a deep pool has the sketch-like quality of a lithograph but an enticing freshness of color that makes it look relatable. 

Known widely for his paintings of people and his culturally aware covers for The New Yorker, Hockney is constantly creating images that comment on life and often works with an element of new technology too. In Hockney’s work, as well as the art world at large, technology and art are in constant conversation with each other. Conversations about how technology shapes art are commonplace, particularly as artificial intelligence becomes more mainstream. Increasingly, artists like Hockney who are willing to change the medium of their work as the times change are getting attention through exhibitions and reviews.

Hockney has turned to new subjects and modes of making art, especially since the pandemic. He has been “painting” on an iPad for over ten years, but not with as much consistency as his recent body of work, “The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020.” This exhibition was shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London through Aug. 2021, and more recently at the Art Institute of Chicago through Jan. 2023. 

I visited the exhibition on its last day open and walked through the gallery four times. It was packed, and I overheard other visitors chatting about their favorite paintings as if they were postcards of Normandy. The paintings appear smooth and vibrant because they are inkjet prints of digital iPad paintings made on an app called Brushes. 

As I looked at the exhibition, I did wonder how custom the app he painted with truly was, and how much practice it takes to translate painting skills to a stylus and screen. Can such art still be as great as traditional painting? Hockney thinks so. In several reviews, he said the iPad provides a new medium for experimenting, comparable to pastels or pencils. 

Some other patrons of the exhibit were wondering the same thing, but more people did not read the introductory wall label, which explained that Hockney painted all 116 pieces (and more) between February and May of 2020, and that he did it all en plein air on an iPad. This meant he painted very quickly and in all conditions; sometimes he even used an umbrella over his easel to paint scenes of Normandy in the rain. 

Some viewers were incredulous to find out that the images were drawn digitally. Other viewers and several critics emphasized the value of the artistic skill it takes to capture these vistas outside and in the moment, regardless of the medium.

The digital tool allows for a very consistent color palette. Each rectangular frame contains a tangle of neon colors and double rows of similar scenes line the gallery so the eyes can bounce from one piece to the next cohesively. I found the paintings charming and overwhelmingly colorful while incredibly simple in form. The repetition in color and limited subject matter makes it impossible to tell how much this collection of paintings was carefully formatted and perhaps reworked to look exactly this way.

The arrangement of the paintings showed persistent shapes and places across the collection, like the same fallen tree that appears in a grouping of four paintings. Stark and small numbers, which are the only information provided on the grounding navy blue walls, demonstrate the deliberate order of the exhibition. A wall panel labels each ordered painting with a date and the sequence in the entire series he painted in the spring of 2020. 

Security guards and docents were friendly but insistent on their policy, constantly saying, “no photos, please!” Hockney himself had requested that photos be prohibited in this exhibition. I wondered if this stipulation has to do with the security of digital media. The pieces appear to be difficult to produce, but photos would make it easy to reproduce. 

 The intensely vibrant walls would be hard to recreate, but an all-encompassing experience akin to the famous Immersive van Gogh show might top it. Hockney’s artistic details and stylistic choices continue to play with how a painting makes use of digital technology, with roots in the landscape tradition. Currently, a new show at Lightroom in London called “Bigger & Closer (not smaller & further away)” shows David Hockney’s artwork in an enlarged, light-projected format. In each of these shows, the colors surrounding visitors make a gallery walk through an exquisite experience.


~ Molly George ’23

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