Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Emma Warren

Emma Warren | 20th December 2012

In which, as the year comes to its end, our friends and collaborators look back and share their moments:

I bought tickets for the David Hockney exhibition as a gift. The recipient couldn’t go, so they swung back to me. I’m so glad they did: I’ve never been so entirely swooped upon and filled up by colour, where pinks and purples and greens were poured into me, in front of great rollercoaster roads, made of precisely deranged pigment that swept up and away, off into the corner of the canvas, which gave the distinct impression of being miles away.

I went with my son to a 10pm viewing of the sold-out show at the Royal Academy. We left south east London at night, crossing the Thames like I’ve crossed it thousands of times. I always make a point of noticing the river when I cross it: downriver to the art deco clock on the old Shell Mex House on Embankment; and upriver, past the glitter of the London Eye and the shimmer of city lights on water. We walked up Piccadilly, past St Patrick’s Day revellers in green and white Dr Seuss hats, falling towards each other and towards us in a giggly, breathy stumble. We, mother and son, exchanged amused glances, as if momentarily, they were the children and we were the adults, and I remembered what it’s like to be that age again, in your early teens, when you first see the adult world unmediated – when the curtain is lifted and you see adults on their terms, a reality they occlude when they try and make you believe that you must behave like them, must be sensible, must work hard, mustn’t make mistakes – and then you see them as they really are, uptown on a Saturday night, and you become incrementally more adult yourself.

We turned into the courtyard and walked towards the stairs at the entrance of the RA. It was the first time either of us had been there and it became obvious, as with all great buildings, that the stairs were there to mark a transition from the everyday into the elevated, into the extraordinary.

What a world it was. There’s something about the colours in Hockey’s paintings that soak right through. We stood in front of a huge canvas where bright pink fields bubbled and bounced and yellow roads squealed off into the distance and it felt like they were inviting you in – that it was not inconceivable that you could walk into the paintings and melt into a life in this parallel universe, this heroically humane, colour-saturated world that refuted logic but condensed the feeling of being in nature better than any book or film or painting I’ve ever seen. His sketches and photographic compositions were beautiful too, and funny, and clever, and somehow proud, but it was the paintings, the sheer scale and beaming colour they contained, that felt like music does, when you hear a song that is so close to the edge of wrong that it becomes absolutely right.

We sat in the middle of the large room at the RA, surrounded by paintings Hockney made of his local woods over one year. The pictures shifted moodily, carelessly, seamlessly through the seasons and the micro-seasons that exist between the four we recognise. I was lulled and we sat there for ages.

The Hockney exhibition touched me in a way that transcends the simple exhibition of beautiful artwork. It showed forcefully that luminescence can increase with age. Hockey is 75. Years on the planet, he showed, can bring great power. I’ll also never be able to experience springtime without thinking of Hockney’s phrase to describe the flurry of activity when blossom bursts out – it will now and forever be known as ‘action week’. Thanks, Hockers.

I found vapour trails of what Hockney communicated in a favourite read of the year: Robert McFarlane’s The Old Ways. He brought a delicious tension to walking that was amplified when I saw him perform The Sea Road at both the Royal Festival Hall and at Port Eliot. The latter was assisted by half a glass of Richard King’s Welsh cider, but the combination of McFarlane’s redolent writing and his insistent, understated voice, and the creaks and gull-cries of Chris Watson’s soundscape was emotional, exotic and moving. They were doing what Hockey did: taking the things we recognised from the natural world and transmuting them, in the same way that nature changes everything, all the time.

Emma Warren.