Imagining the Grand Canyon
Once considered as a place of terror, from the 19th century the Grand Canyon came to represent great Majesty the Heroic and westward expansion. In his recent publication, How the Canyon became Grand, Stephen Pyne explores changing perceptions of the grand Canyon over the centuries, as that extraordinary site came to symbolise different values and ideas for different generations — from the Unknown to Populism, from Grandeur to Wilderness.1
Few major artists have chosen to grapple with the Grand Canyon — notoriously difficult given its vast scale; the most recent of them is David Hockney. He had long harboured a desire to work on the subject, ever since his early visit to America as a young man. Now, as a mature artist, he has applied extraordinary skill to the painting of A Bigger Grand Canyon.
Photographing the unphotographable
Hockney photographed the Grand Canyon in 1982. He commented later that he wanted ‘to photograph the unphotographable. Which is to say, space ... [T]here is no question ... that the thrill of standing on that rim of the Grand Canyon is spatial. It is the biggest space you can look out over that has an edge.’2 The artist’s solution for his two-dimensional image of the Grand Canyon was to take a series of photographs which, with their multiple vanishing points, he placed together as the collage, Grand Canyon with ledge, Arizona, 1982.3 This was one of several such photo-collages that he made at the time, and it can now be identified as a crucial step in the making of A Bigger Grand Canyon.
For Hockney, the problem with photography had always been that the composition was a single view — ‘such a tunnel to me’4 — and could only inadequately deal with the subject at hand. His decision to make photo-collages of the Grand Canyon followed ‘a Cubist idea ... when you put one piece of paper on top of another… you put two pieces of time together, [and] therefore make a space. I thought I was making time, then you realise you’re making space… Then you realise time and space are the same thing.’5 In 1986, in preparation for a forthcoming exhibition at the International Center for Photography in New York, David Hockney Photocollage: Wider perspective, the artist revisited his preferred collaged view of the Grand Canyon. This he produced in a large scale photo-collage of 60 photographs, reprinting them using the full negatives abutted to make Grand Canyon with Ledge, Arizona. 1982, Collage #2, Made May 19866 It was this work which formed the painting over a decade later.
A time of bereavement
In June and July 1997, Hockney made two long trips by car, from Los Angeles to Santa Fe and back: ‘I’d been contemplating some sort of big landscape of the West. Big spaces: that’s what was getting into my head. I was experiencing a growing claustrophobia [and] stronger, the longing for big spaces.’7 The full expression of this would be to paint the Grand Canyon.
Almost immediately after this journey, Hockney returned to the landscape of his youth, Yorkshire, to be with a dying friend, Jonathan Silver — ‘who always thought that life was a celebration’.8 Hockney made frequent trips through the countryside to be at the bedside of his friend. The experience inspired a series of paintings of the Yorkshire landscape, a subject suggested by Silver — in order ‘to put some joy there’.9The last two paintings in the series, Double East Yorkshire and Garrowby Hill of early 1998, were painted on Hockney’s return to Los Angeles, after Silver’s death. As the work progressed, the imagery had become more and more dramatic. The final painting of the series, a view from Garrowby Hill, was a location that, to Hockney, imparted ‘this marvellous feeling, how you’re about to take off and fly. A momentary sense of soaring.’10 Garrowby Hill, about a journey through winding roads towards distant vistas, was rich in metaphor at this time of bereavement.
Looking at the Grand Canyon
Hockney’s obsession with the depiction of ‘big spaces’ had been fuelled by a visit, in December 1997, to the exhibition Thomas Moran at the National Gallery in Washington DC. Like Hockney, Moran (1837—1926), a fellow countryman from the North of England, had taken on the challenge of the Grand Canyon. Hockney remarked that the exhibition catalogue ‘featured an early ad for the Santa Fe Railroad which characterized the Grand Canyon as “the despair of the painter” — meaning, it was too difficult to paint’11 Returning home to Los Angeles, Hockney prepared to paint it.
He made two painted studies, one of nine canvases, the other of 15, then cleared his studio of everything except these, and two related photo-collages. These works formed the basis for Composition study for A Bigger Grand Canyon.’12 In February 1998, Hockney began work on the 60 canvas A Bigger Grand Canyon. During the process, in an effort to resolve the painting further, he made three more drawings — of the left, centre and right of the foreground. The subject, according to the artist, is “Looking at the Grand Canyon”, not just “the Grand Canyon”.13
A different point of view
A Bigger Grand Canyon is a culminating statement by the artist about the depiction of space and the experience of being within a space, or travelling through a space, over time. In this remarkable landscape, Hockney has drawn from a lifetime’s experience. He refers to the lessons of Cubism, where a subject is depicted with multiple viewpoints. There are lessons drawn from a careful examination of Chinese scroll painting where different time sequences, different elements of a cityscape or landscape form an apparent whole. There are the lessons learned from Hockney’s own set designs for operatic productions. A significant lesson was learned while driving through vast landscapes in his car listening to music. In Hockney’s view, music is ‘an art of time and of movement and so driving a car though a landscape ... they have connections ... [with] Nature doing the lighting’.14
Defying the imagination
Hockney has created a 60 canvas work, with as many viewpoints and points in time. The artist has woven together all the elements he perceives in his subject, and those he imagines. The painting suggests what it is like to be in a landscape, to travel around in it, to view tiny details as well as dramatic vistas, to see changing light, to trample the earth under foot, and to feel the sun beating down. The viewer has the breathtaking experience of rounding jagged outcrops, descending rocky steps, looking down over dry river beds and viewing distant escarpments, while confronting at close hand strange sculptural forms. It is a most suitable subject for a painter obsessed with space — how you perceive it, how you depict it. The experience of viewing the Canyon from the rim, as Hockney has noted, is remarkable: ‘You can peer into it for an awful long time. And you look all over. I mean, it is the one place …
where you become very aware of how you move your head, your eyes, everything.’15 The noted art historian, Marco Livingstone, has commented on the effect that the painting has on the viewer: A Bigger Grand Canyon places the viewer so convincingly at the canyon’s south rim at Powell Point, one of the most spectacular vantage points, as to induce in some the vertiginous thrill of standing on the edge of a precipice so deep and extensive that it almost defies the imagination.’16
The element of The Sublime in this work has been perceptively noted by another scholar, Paul Melia. He sets the landscape within the English Romantic tradition: ‘The genre of landscape has been important to Hockney since the beginning of his professional career. Until relatively recently, however, he was unable to draw upon the Romantic or neo-Romantic tradition of landscape art: personal experience, empathy, quasi-magical feelings aroused by a place or location, spontaneity all triggers of artistic production for older generations of artists (Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, the painters of the St Ives School).’17 A Bigger Grand Canyon clearly has links to the rich and awe inspiring English Romantic tradition but also to the broader European emotionally redolent Symbolist landscapes of Paul Gauguin and the artists at Pont Aven, the forefathers of Hockney’s much loved School of Paris. In their works, the universal, the symbolic, is tapped and the pedestrian or the man-made is excluded. Hockney presents the Grand Canyon without tourists or evidence of human intrusion such as abandoned mines. Here is a Symbolist landscape with the colours of the desert.
‘Hollywood at the end of the street’18
Brilliance of colour and vastness of space characterised a world of dreams when Hockney was growing up in the then heavily industrialised North of England. As a young boy in Bradford, he frequented the cinema and was mesmerised by the big screen, its scale and colours. His Grand Canyon painting, according to Livingstone, recalls ‘the magnificent spectacle of the Hollywood cinema which had helped draw him [Hockneyl to the American West while he was a young boy day dreaming in Bradford’.19
Described as a ‘technicolour extravaganza that pays oblique homage to Hollywood films in its extended horizontal format’,20 A Bigger Grand Canyon is rich in golds, crimsons, scarlets, oranges, nchres and browns, and contrasts of brilliant blues and greens. The visual impact, on even the most jaded late 20th-century eye, is as powerful and confronting as a Fauve palette would have been in the dimly coloured, restrained world at the beginning of this century.
In his discussion of the painting technique he employed, Hockney has noted: ‘If you want very strong colour, first of all you have to put it on reasonably thin ... and build it up in layers. But I wanted the colour to stay there so you have to put it on in a certain way to build it up rather slowly ... let the white of the canvas into it to get the glow. You don’t put white paint in colour that would make it somewhat chalky.’21 In fact, Hockney has applied his paint in the manner of Vermeer, with the subject built up by the application of thin layers of oil. He was enthralled in 1996, at the major exhibition of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, by ‘the vibrancy of the colors after all these years ... I spent hours in those rooms in The Hague, just studying how he did it, how he made those images glow like that. Just technically — the layering, the building up of thin layers of colors, one atop the next, the foreplanning. I joked that Vermeer’s colors will last a lot longer than MGM’s, but it’s true.’22 22
A bigger universe
While the pedigree nf A Bigger Grand Canyon is set within the European landscape tradition, the colours, the experience of being in the landscape and the sense of the universal, imbue the painting with a level of meaning not seen before in Hockney’s work. It suggests a move to an art of Symbolism in a landscape of almost unimaginable space.
In an interview with the artist, Lawrence Weschler talked to Hockney about his recent paintings, including A Bigger Grand Canyon. He reminded Hockney of a favourite quotation of his, from the writings of the astronomer Carl Sagan, which reads, in part: ‘How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said — grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”?’23 It is Hockney’s view that Sagan’s comment was ‘actually about big space ... how God must be even greater than we dreamed of. Much bigger. The universe, bigger. Grander. Vaster. More spacious. I thought that was marvelous.’24
Such vast space is the principal subject of A Bigger Grand Canyon. Emotionally loaded in its colours, forms and scale, the painting extends the boundaries of the landscape genre. In the words of Livingstone:
‘Far from being overwhelmed by this challenge, Hockney has produced not only one of the masterpieces of his maturity but also one of the most remarkable landscape paintings in the history of western art.’25
David Hockney 'A Bigger Grand Canyon' 1998 oil on 60 canvases 207.0 x 744.2 cm National Galleiy of Australia © 1999 David Hockney
1Stephen Pyne, How the Canyon became Grand: A short history, New York: Viking Press, 1998.
2David Hockney, quoted in ‘Interview by Lawrence Weschler’, in David Hockney: Looking at landscape / being in landscape, Los Angeles: LA Louver, 15 September—24 October 1998, p.28.
3Photo-collage, 68.6 x 182.9 cm, Collection of David Hockney.
4Hockney, quoted in Marco Livingstone, ‘Getting closer to the Grand Canyon: David Hockney interviewed by Marco Livingstone’, in David Hockney Space dLine: Grand Ginyonpasteic on paper 1998 d works on paper 1966—1994, New York: Richard Gray Gallery, 29 April—28 May 1999; London, Annelyjuda Fine Art, 30 June—18 September 1999, p.19.
5Hockney, interviewed in David Hockney: en perspective, documentary film by Monique Lajournade and Pierre Saint-Jean, Paris: Canal+/ Mirage Illimité/ Grand Canal, Centre Georges Pompidou, 1999. For recent examinations of the role of Cubism, photo-collages etc., see Reinhold Misselbeck (ed), David Hockney: Retrospektive photoworks, Cologne: Editions Braus, Museum Ludwig Köln, 1997; Gerard Regnier and Didier Ottinger (eds), David Hockney: Dialogue avec Picasso, Paris: Musée Picasso, Editions de Ia reunion des musées nationaux, 1999.
6Photo-collage, 113.0 cm x 322.6 cm overall , Collection of David Hockney
7Hockney, in David Hockney: Looking at landscape/ being in Iandscape (1998), p.10.
8Hockney, in David Hockney: en perspective (1999).
10Hockney, David Hockney: Looking at landscape/ being in Iandscape (1998), p.26.
11Ibid., p.28 see also Gerard Wajcman, ‘Le Désespoir des peintres', in David Hockney: Espace/Paysage, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1999, pp.43-63.
12Charcoal, pencil, ink drawing, with tape on three sheets, 57.1 x 199.3 cm overall, Collection of Dale Chihuly.
13Hockney, in David Hockney: en perspective (1999).
15Hockney, in David Hockney: Looking at landscape/ being in Iandscape, (1998), p.28.
16Marco Livingstone, Report to the National Gallery of Australia 17 April 1999 p.1. Powell Point was named after the explorer Major John Wesley Powell, who set out twice, in 1869 and in 1871—72, to travel 'down the great unknown’. Powell, in Stephen Pyne, How the Canyon became Grand (1998), p.58; Powell described the Grand Canyon in his geological survey as ‘our granite prison’, ibid., p.60, footnote 15. On Hockney's obsession with the theme of landscape and space, see David Hockney Espace/Paysage (1999), passim.
17Paul Melia, Report to the National Gallery of Australia, 4 May
18Hockney, in David Hockney: en perspective (1999).
19Livingstone, David Hockney, Space & Line (1999), p.6, see also p.11, footnote 7.
20Livingstone, Report to the National Gallery of Australia (1999).
21Hockney, in David Hockney: en perspective (1999).
22Hockney, in David Hockney: Looking at landscape! being in lac p.30 Jahannes Vermeer, Washington DC: National Gallery, 2] 1995—11 February 1996; The Hague: Royal Cabinet Painting Maurishuis, 1 March—2 June 1996.
23Hockney, in David Hockney: Looking at landscape/ being in landscape (1998), p.5.
25Livingstone, Report to the National Gallery of Australia (1999), p.2.