Hockney’s Eye review: works so vibrant they ‘make the Old Masters look dull’

This is a superlative exhibition that will leave you ‘in awe’ of the artist

David Hockney’s Annunciation II, After Fra Angelico
David Hockney’s Annunciation II, After Fra Angelico, on display in the UK for the first time at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge
(Image credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

For decades, David Hockney has been arguing that Old Masters “from Velázquez to Vermeer” used optical aids to help them produce their work, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. Critics have disputed his thesis, saying that it detracts “from the notion of artistic genius”, but Hockney (b.1937) has stuck to his guns; indeed, in 2001 he published a “pertinent and engaging” book on what he calls “the lost techniques of the Old Masters”.

This exhibition, mainly at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum but with a few more pieces at the Heong Gallery at Downing College nearby, is the painter’s attempt to illustrate his point. It pits several dozen of his works against pieces by the likes of Monet, Poussin and Fra Angelico, to show how artists have used technology in the making of their art.

Just as he has experimented with Polaroids and iPads, he argues that his “vaunted predecessors” used devices such as camera obscura and 3-D wax models. Whatever you think of the theory, the result is a “blooming good show” in which works from across Hockney’s long career are juxtaposed with treasures from the Fitzwilliam’s permanent collection to wonderful effect.

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There’s certainly much for the visitor to enjoy here, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. There’s a Hockney “acrylic of a beach brolly casting shadows on the sand” which deftly “isolates the lessons of impressionism”, and a series of his Californian sketches from the 1960s and 1970 “of dazzling facility”. Elsewhere, a “mesmerising” multi-screen film depicting the woods of the artist’s native Yorkshire has been hung beside a wintry scene by Camille Pissarro, highlighting the different ways in which the two artists evoke the colours of snow.

The exhibition is packed with technical detail aimed at illuminating Hockney’s theories on the techniques of the Old Masters. How did Ingres achieve the “stupendous accuracy” for which he was renowned in his pencil portraits? By using a camera lucida, Hockney reckons.

You can see one of these devices, which uses mirrors to project images onto paper, at the Fitzwilliam, and also portraits by Ingres set against others by Hockney, which he created with a camera lucida. The draughtsmanship amazes; yet scepticism remains: there is no record of Ingres having such a device. We learn a lot about Hockney’s methods here.

Whether the show sheds light on the methods of the past, however, is debatable. Yet in the end, it doesn’t matter, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. If you don’t agree with the theory, just go along to enjoy a “scintillating”, uplifting show. Hockney’s palette is ravishing: his deconstructed response to a landscape by Hobbema is a riot of “fiery farmhouses” and “emerald fields”; his Virgin Mary, hung next to Domenico Veneziano’s The Annunciation, is a “psychedelic rave of colour”. In fact, some of Hockney’s works are so vibrant, they “make the Old Masters look dull”, though that is not the intention – but set against one of his landscapes, Constable’s painting of Hampstead Heath “looks like a wet hanky”.

Best of all is Hockney’s 1970 Le Parc des Sources, Vichy, a work of high “romantic grandeur” depicting two figures, sat on a bench, gazing into the distance of a manicured park. Its “intense, seductive colours enfold and immerse you”. It’s a highlight of a superlative exhibition that will leave you “in awe of Hockney”.

Fitzwilliam Museum and Downing College, Cambridge (fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk). Until 29 August (free)

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