Across the courtyard from The Geological Society, the Royal Academy’s latest exhibition David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture is attracting bigger crowds: the queue that snakes in steward-managed concertinas around the statue of Joshua Reynolds seems to be unabated by the cold March winds. It’s understandable: Hockney is very popular, and, along with Freud at the NPG, this exhibition is the hot ticket of 2012. I found it joyful, bold and witty and felt that what Hockney was attempting with and saying about landscape was ground-breaking. But then, I’m no art critic.
The significance of geology in Hockney’s paintings is perhaps not something that comes immediately to mind. Reading his numerous books, the overwhelming influences on his work are clearly space and light. Of the 60 canvas A Bigger Grand Canyon (1998), which appears early in the exhibition, Hockney has said ‘Big spaces: that’s what was getting into my head […] the longing for big spaces’. To look at the painting is to look at the immensity of the Grand Canyon with the same sense of vertigo you might feel standing on the edge of one of its many outcrops. There is too a surrealism to this odd warped sculpture with its dark cavern and fire-orange Martian intensity.
It is, as Jane Kinsman writes, ‘a Symbolist landscape with the colours of the desert’. Yet through Symbolism Hockney has captured the geology of the Grand Canyon (for what else is it but geology?) exactly: the stratification, the dry river beds, what Beus and Morales (2003) call the ‘giant stairsteps’ of Mesozoic and lower Cenozoic strata. He has also captured it playfully, with a purple pebble-dash for the limestone and a light speckling for sandstone, in many ways not dissimilar to how geologists sketch strata in the field.
In the same room are two other paintings with distinctive geological motifs: Flight into Italy – Swiss Landscape (1962) and Rocky Mountains with Tired Indians (1965). In both, the mountains are symbolized by a distinctive Aquafresh stripe of geological stratigraphy, influenced, Hockney states, ‘by the 1962 paintings of Harold and Bernard Cohen’.
There is a humorous aside to both these paintings, which has interesting implications from a geological standpoint. Hockney had hoped to paint the Alps when journeying to Italy in 1961 but unfortunately was not able to see them because he was in the back of a windowless van the whole way (wittily illustrated in the painting). When he arrived home he decided to paint a picture anyway, to ‘make it up’: he writes, ‘It’s just taken from a geography book, what the mountains are like’
Similarly, when he went to teach at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, he was given a studio without any windows. ‘Here I am’, he writes, ‘surrounded by these beautiful Rocky Mountains; I go into the studio – no window! And all I need is a couple of little windows. So I painted Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians. The whole picture is an invention from geological magazines and romantic ideas’.
As Andrew Causey points out, therefore, both paintings derive from ‘an unseen landscape’. And it is fascinating that when he paints a mountain he cannot see, he paints it rather as the geologist might: inside out. Indeed, painting what cannot be seen might also describe the work of geological surveyors; apart from where stratification can be clearly seen in cliffs, rocks are hidden below the surface and the geologist’s work is to visualise what is underneath, out of sight. Likewise, as geologists assign colours to denote rocks which are hidden, so Hockney uses geological colouring to represent the mountains he too cannot see.
These imagined scenes are in stark contrast to the majority of the paintings in the exhibition, which are recent works Hockney has produced since returning to his family home in Bridlington, East Yorkshire, on the eastern corner of the Yorkshire Wolds. In these multiple canvases or iPad prints, painted from memory or en plein air, Hockney revels in the landscape, capturing the spirit of hurtling over the hills, catching the morning light in the woods, meditating on trees in the different seasons.
Having lain so long in the shadow of the Yorkshire Dales and Moors, much has been made about the exhibition putting the Wolds on the map. It’s landscape is a quieter geology of cretaceous chalk, narrow glacial valleys and shallow soils (it is one of the few areas in the UK for which the British Geological Survey has not seen fit to publish a regional Memoir).
But its beauty is palpable; mysterious; calming – Hockney’s bands of dark purple, winter greens, bone skies and ghost-grey mists bring to life the sparse, sweeping curves like never before. In Three Trees near Thixendale, Winter 2007 the different tones of the field against the hills beyond so well conjures the chalky chill of the ancient landscape I want to breathe deep the cool clean air. Is that just me? One can look at the Grand Canyon paintings and see the geological record cut into the cliffs, but with the Wold paintings the sense of geology is more intuitive: you can feel it under your feet.
 Hockney, David David Hockney: Looking at landscape/ being in Landscape: September 15-October 24, 1998, L.A. Louver L.A.: [The Gallery], 1998, p.10
 Beus, S.S. & Morales, M. Grand Canyon Geology 2nd Edition Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
 Stangos, Nick, ed. David Hockney by David Hockney [S.l]: Thames and Hudson, 1976, p 87
 Ibid, p 87
 Ibid, p 101
 Causey, Andrew ‘Mapping and representing’ in Melia, Paul, ed. David Hockney Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995