The old man and the tree. A story of spring

Rite of passage: David Hockney’s new works show May blossom arriving at his home in Normandy.

Can great art really be created on an iPad? Next week Britain’s greatest living artist will unveil stunning images of nature drawn with an app. But some critics miss the drama of paint.

It is spring, and the world is returning to life. Daffodils sprout through the moist green grass. Trees erupt in clouds of blossom. Even the mud is speckled with flowers, floating above the soil in rainbow colours.

Clad in a flat cap, teal cardigan and striped red tie, the artist David Hockney surveys these springtime scenes. Like generations of painters before him, he turns the landscape around him into striking, alluring pictures.

Unlike them, he has no paint, no brushes, no easel. Instead, his fingers glide across the smooth, flat screen of an iPad. Nearby, in his timber-framed Seven Dwarves house, a pile of spares sit charging.

Next week, Hockney’s digitally-created images will be revealed to the public at London’s Royal Academy.

The critics have already weighed in. Jackie Wullschläger in the Financial Times praised Hockney’s “rapid virtuosity”, while Jonathan Jones of The Guardian hailed it as “Hockney’s best exhibition in a long time, perhaps his most important ever”.

Yet for some traditionalists, Hockney’s new work is a travesty of painting. According to German artist Otto Dix, “painting is an effort to produce order”. A chaos of strange, smelly substances are transformed, through sweat, patience and genius, into something beautiful.

Painting is physically and mentally demanding. Rembrandt took three years to complete The Night Watch. Claude Monet spent three decades perfecting his Water Lilies. Hockney’s new works, though, were produced with the quick flick of a wrist over a screen. There is no sense of risk: each stroke can be edited and erased.

Even when printed out for display, digitally-created works lack physicality. When we look at a Rembrandt self-portrait, we see every agonised brushstroke made by his ageing hand. By contrast, Hockney’s is an art without human traces.

For others, these views are fussy and outdated. Art has always evolved with materials and technology. “Purists will quibble,” opines Daily Mail critic Robert Hardman of Hockney’s new work, “that this is not real ‘painting’ but… Leonardo might have said the same about acrylic.”

In his book Secret Knowledge, Hockney himself linked the redevelopment of Western art to devices such as the camera obscura and camera lucida. The iPad might be just another link in this long chain.

Our conception of what art can be has expanded hugely in the past century. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp signed a porcelain urinal and placed it in an exhibition. Art has widened ever since.

Andy Warhol, for instance, sold Brillo boxes. Ana Mendieta filmed herself lying in streams and puddles. And Anne Imhof won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale with a five-hour live performance featuring dancers and dogs.

Great art is about ambition and ethos as much as technique. According to Pablo Picasso, “painting is just another way of keeping a diary”. By casually depicting the passing of time as he experiences it, Hockney follows in Picasso’s celebrated footsteps.

Can great art really be created on an iPad?

Art attack

Without a doubt, claim some. Head to the Royal Academy, and stand in front of Hockney’s digitally-rendered trees, hedges and water lilies. Admire their vibrant colours and clear strokes. Feel the life pulsing through them. Sense the presence of an old man who has found such happiness in nature, even during a pandemic. If this is not great art, then what is?

Absolutely not, insist others. Go to Paris, and look closely at Monet’s Water Lilies. Absorb the delicate layers of paint, the extraordinary dapples of colour, the way the French artist captures the most minute shifts in light and shade. While Hockney’s work is slick, joyful and easy to enjoy, Monet’s expresses the true complexity and subtly of real life. That is what great art is all about.

You Decide

  1. Should the value of an artwork depend on the amount of effort it took to create?
  2. Can we judge a painting and an iPad image in the same way?

Activities

  1. In pairs, choose a famous painting. Create a new version of it using only computer programs, then compare your works.
  2. In groups, research a contemporary artist. Design and deliver a presentation illustrating their oeuvre, explaining why you believe it qualifies as “great”.

Some People Say...

“Painting from nature is not copying the object. It is realising one's sensations.”

Paul Cézanne (1839 — 1906), French artist and Post-impressionist pioneer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that the scope of visual arts has broadened enormously throughout history. In the Renaissance, painting and sculpture were considered the most significant art forms, with drawing often viewed as preparatory. In the early 20th Century, drawing and applied arts — such as textiles and ceramics — gradually came to be accepted as important art forms in their own right. Today, many definitions of the visual arts include disciplines such as architecture, photography and filmmaking.
What do we not know?
There remains fervent debate over what makes an artwork “great”. During the Renaissance, art was often judged by how accurately it resembled reality. But, from the late 19th Century onwards, a number of alternative theories have emerged. For formalists, art should be judged based on its purely visual elements. For instrumentalists, an artwork’s context and purpose is most important. And for emotionalists, art can be assessed based on the feelings that it inspires.

Word Watch

Seven Dwarves house
Hockney compares his Normandy residence to the cottage in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Travesty
A fake and offensive representation of something. Travesty descends from the French verb travestir, meaning to disguise.
Otto Dix
German painter and printmaker famous for his brutal depictions of World War One and realistic portraits of Weimar society.
Strange, smelly substances
Paint has historically contained some surprising ingredients. Jan van Eyck used bone and glass, Leonardo beeswax. Tempera, a paint used in the Middle Ages, was made with egg yolk.
Rembrandt
Among the Dutch master’s works are a series of penetrating self-portraits.
Claude Monet
A French painter and co-founder of the Impressionist movement. From 1883, he largely painted his garden.
Acrylic
A fast-drying paint made using plastics. Many of Hockney’s most acclaimed works are painted using it.
Camera obscura
A darkened room with a small hole or lens, through which an image can be projected. It has been speculated that Johannes Vermeer used one to achieve his minute attention to detail.
Camera lucida
An optical device, patented by the chemist William Hyde Wollaston. It can superimpose an artist’s subject onto paper or canvas.
Venice Biennale
A prestigious art festival held every two years in the Italian city since 1895. Countries send artists to compete for the Golden Lion.

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