Several people I spoke to when this exhibition was first mentioned thought it would be a Hockney retrospective, considering that he was commandeering all the first-floor galleries at the RA. But actually the retrospective element is very slight, consisting of half a dozen early landscapes and a couple of photo-collages, before we encounter the first of the mainly large-scale landscapes he has been painting since the late 1990s. In fact, the greater part of the exhibition (sponsored by BNP Paribas) consists of work done in Yorkshire since 2004, and Hockney has packed the galleries with hundreds of images (a single work might consist of 36 watercolours, or perhaps 51 iPad drawings with an oil painting on 32 canvases). The sheer energy and productivity on view cannot be anything else but impressive. Unfortunately, almost none of this recent work possesses a fraction of the intensity of the early landscapes, such as ‘Ordinary Picture’ (1964) and ‘Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians’ (1965). What we have here, in gallery after gallery, is brash, loudspeaker art, shouting all the fun of the fair but delivering precious little.
From the moment the visitor enters the exhibition, to find the Central Hall hung with four large paintings of eight canvases each, depicting the same group of three trees near Thixendale, as seen through the seasons of 2007–8, the designation of Hockney as our Greatest Living Painter seems utterly ludicrous. With the death of Freud last year, pundits and commentators have been racking their ill-equipped brains to think of a suitable successor, and Hockney (always much in the public eye, with his predilection for the limelight) has seemed the obvious choice. But, as this exhibition abundantly demonstrates, he is not a great painter. He is not even a natural painter, for his greatest skills have always been as a draughtsman.