BY Saashya Rodrigo
It’s the 1800s. A Dutch artist who is a fervent observer of nature paints irises using hues of blue. The vibrancy of his colour palette and movement of his deceptively still paint strokes later become his claim to fame. His paintings – undoubtedly influenced by his struggles with mental health – popularised him as ‘the mad artist’ but he is better known as Vincent van Gogh.
Fast forward to 2021…
In the hills of sunny California resides a young at heart octogenarian. His quirky wardrobe is a representation of the colours on his table size paint palette. World renowned artist David Hockney, like Van Gogh, is drawn to the vibrancy and movement of his natural surroundings’ ever-changing landscapes.
In a past life, Van Gogh and Hockney must have been brothers in arms.
Their paintings, when placed side by side, radiate the unusual relationship that they share despite a vast gap in space and time. The Museum of Fine Arts – Houston, in Texas highlights this relationship in a springtime art showing titled Hockney-Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature.
The show features Hockney’s paintings beside those of Van Gogh, making the similarities unmistakable. Both artists’ love for colours, textures and movement of nature travel down parallel paths. Their series of paintings tell the story of seasonal changes from slightly different viewpoints.
Van Gogh completed many paintings of fields, some with his famous rows of irises and some without.
The general visual structure of Van Gogh’s field paintings comprises a meadow in shades of greens and yellows. The meadow with a few trees interspersed, stretches to the horizon, which is typically lined with forest greenery and a few cottage-like structures. Blue skies take over the remaining quarter of the horizontal painting.
Similarly, Hockney’s 2005 painting Woldgate Vista also depicts a field. His painted field is however, slightly more mountainous than the mostly flat fields painted by Van Gogh.
The field in Hockney’s painting also takes up a majority of the space with a small strip of blue sky taking over at the horizon. Unlike Van Gogh’s fields, Hockney’s is warmer toned with yellow being the dominant colour.
Van Gogh was also drawn to forest landscapes, many of which he observed during his time at the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum, closer to his death in 1890. Many of his forest paintings such as Pine Trees at Sunset and Path in the Garden of the Asylum feature tall trees, much like those of Hockney’s.
Interestingly, across both artists’ work, the tops of the towering trees are often not depicted in their paintings. The central focus of both artists’ forest landscapes is the tree trunks and foliage below.
Van Gogh emphasised the textures of tree trunks in his paintings. He used short brushstrokes in contrasting colours to depict depth, making them feel alive with movement. Hockney’s forest paintings on the other hand, emphasise the lines of the landscape from the bold vertical lines of the trees to the more organic, curved lines of the branches, vines and pathways below.
Hockney’s more detailed paintings are detailed for a reason – often, each painting is an organised mosaic of multiple smaller canvases.
Sometimes it can take over 30 canvases to complete a painting, which ultimately is large enough for viewers to feel as though they could walk right into the painting. Each canvas is a detailed study of a small frame belonging to a much larger view. Once each detailed study is completed and pieced together with its siblings, the final piece results in a magnificent, vibrant, saturated work of art.
Although Hockney’s paintings often go hand in hand with those of Van Gogh’s, the former’s almost pop art-like style is his signature. Both artists’ enthusiasm for nature, however, is what connects them – like twins separated at birth and in this case, separated across time and space as well.
Hockney said in an interview: “I’ve always found the world quite beautiful and that’s an important thing I share with Van Gogh.”
“In a past life, Van Gogh and Hockney must have been brothers in arms