Nature, noticed Posted on January 23, 2012

Ever since Picasso declared war on beauty, especially feminine beauty, mocking it or jumbling it up, artists have fought shy of it. ‘Major’ artists, at least. Lucian Freud, as major as they come, found ugliness in the human flesh that should, surely, evoke our warmest feelings. It is perverse to say, as some critics do, that he was loving the blotchy flab he painted so precisely. What he was loving was paint.

No wonder, then, that David Hockney’s paintings of trees in his native Yorkshire landscape are causing queues round the block at Burlington House. Here is a major artist daring to admit that he loves nature and wants us to share his feelings. The point of his huge canvasses of the most humdrum of woods and lanes is that they are worth studying in minute (or rather magnified) detail. These are not beauty spots, sublime scenery or sunsets. Not the faintest memory of Turner. His Yorkshire Wolds (or the corners he chooses) are interchangeable with the bottom of your lane – or indeed my daily Essex walk.

Loving trees as I do, I find endless details to admire even in my 40 minutes to the bridge over the stream and back: the alders, the oaks, the bat willows and the hazel bushes (their catkins are starting to lengthen). Their winter colours, in sun or shade, or rain, form a palette of extraordinary richness and beauty and their tracery against the clouds is infinitely fine.

Hockney is celebrating precisely these things, and giving us permission to do the same. He uses strong colours partly in celebration, out of sheer excitement at what he sees. Partly, perhaps, to surprise his metropolitan viewers into looking at something they would otherwise take for granted.

Does it sound smug to say that I could never take a tree for granted: that I am right up there with the painter? Not many, I fear, are as lucky. This is the importance of what Hockney has done: an old man with the eyes of a child is making nature mainstream.

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Trees was first published in 1973 as The International Book of Trees, two years after The World Atlas of Wine….

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