The world is full of things that at first blush don’t go together at all. Peanut butter and chocolate, anyone? And in the world of art, no less so. This week, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) brought together the illustrious late-19th-century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and the major contemporary British multimedia artist David Hockney. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
David Hockney, Woldgate Vista, 27 July 2005, oil on canvas.
These are trying times for Texans and Houstonians, of course, as they recover from the whims of nature and human hubris, so how apropos that the title of this new exhibition—Hockney-Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature—reminds us that the natural world is still to be celebrated. Mounted originally in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 2019, the Houston show (through June 20, 2021) is made up of forty-seven works by Hockney in his usual mix of material, from sketches to iPad creations, and ten paintings and drawings from the hands of Van Gogh.
The obvious difference between the two geniuses is that Hockney paints much larger than Van Gogh ever could (canvas costs money, after all, which Vincent famously lacked), and Hockney being always on the cutitng edge now prepares his studies by filming landscapes with multiple cameras on an SUV. And, of course, it’s Hockney who has had the benefit and great joy of studying Van Gogh over his career, as active as ever going on sixty years now.
Vincent van Gogh, Field with Irises near Arles, 1888, oil on canvas.
Yet, as famously inimitable as each artist is, each in his own way also demonstrates through his vivid color palettes natural frames of reference that speak agreeably over the cultural, generational and technical gaps of their respective eras and places.
“How can you be bored with landscape?,” asks Hockney in an interview with Dutch art critic Hans den Hartog Jager for the MFAH exhibition catalogue regarding a lack of strong interest in the public these days for landscape. “Landscape is infinite, isn’t it?”
If Van Gogh in the late-1880s had his Arles and his Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Hockney since the late-90s has had his Yorkshire Wolds in northeastern England, having returned to the U.K. after decades in Los Angeles where he produced his most iconic works.
Vincent van Gogh, Tree Trunks in the Grass, 1890, oil on canvas,
The Yorkshire Wolds are located in East Riding county where town names such as Bugthorp, Foggathorpe, Fangfoss, Sigglesthorn, Thixendale and Uncleby sound to an American ear right out of Dr. Seuss. The boy from Bradford in Yorkshire had come full circle and moved a far thematic cry away from his famous L.A. swimming pools.
“I’ve always found the world quite beautiful—and that’s an important thing I share with Van Gogh,” Hockney says. “We both really enjoy looking at the world.” In this part of Hockney’s world, the very British geologic designation of a wold is typically an open, elevated landscape, here in Yorkshire specifically of Upper Cretaceous limestone. In this chalky, hilly wold plateau cut by dry glacial-carved valleys, Hockney produced landscapes of a rich world in constant change and flow with the seasons.
David Hockney, May Blossom on the Roman Road, May 2009, oil on 18 canvases.
Mostly a sparsely populated area of old market towns, Neolithic sites and tractors, farmhouses, and country lanes, the Yorkshire Wolds end in the North Sea chalk cliffs at eight-mile-long Flamborough Head, a rich seabird area. In addition to the old Roman Road, Hockney in 1998 famously painted the view from Garrowby Hill summit, at 807-feet the area’s highest point. One of the premier introductions for visitors to the wolds is to wander the 79-mile-long Yorkshire Wolds Way.
From his experience painting the Yorkshire Wolds, Hockney says “Nature keeps changing before your very eyes; the light eludes the viewer, the clouds scud across the sky, the wind turns the trees into ballerinas and the shadows take on different forms.”
Located in the Houston Museum District, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ranks among the largest art institutions in the nation. Its growth over the last century since Ludwig Mies van der Rohe added pavilions to the original 1924 structure has included additions by other prominent architects, from a 1986 Isamu Noguchi sculpture garden and Rafael Moneo’s Audrey Jones Beck Building that the Pritzker Prize-winner designed in 2000 to Steven Holl Architects’ Nancy and Rich Kinder Building opened last fall and devoted to modern and contemporary art.
Other upcoming MFAH exhibitions include: Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting (February 21 through May 16, 2021); Impressionism to Modernism: Monet to Matisse from the Bemberg Collection (summer 2021); Three Centuries of American Art: Masterpieces from the Fayez S. Sarofim Collection (summer 2021); Calder-Picasso (fall 2021); and Georgia O’Keeffe: Photographer (fall 2021).
What I most love about being a travel journalist is the ever-changing mix of environments in which I find myself. Over many years of writing Conde Nast Traveler’s Room