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MFAH Explores Surprising Parallels Between Hockney and Van Gogh

Take in 'Hockney-Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature' through June 20.

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David Hockney, More Felled Trees on Woldgate, 2008 (oil on canvas, collection of the artist) © David Hockney

Most lovers of all things art, especially those in the LGBTQ community, will immediately recognize the name David Hockney. The gay British artist’s best-known works of his 60-year career are his swimming-pool paintings from the 1960s. But he has an equally impressive body of work comprised of portraits and still lifes.

In early 2018, Michael Valinsky, writing for the publication them., described the then-80-year-old Hockney as “an artist who defied generally accepted social structures and led his life as an openly gay man in a world that systematically oppressed and silenced those who did not conform.”

Hockney’s legacy, Valinsky explained, “gave voice to so many of us and provided aspiring artists with the tools and confidence to explore their own vocations. Ultimately, Hockney looked at oppression not as a threat, but as a challenge to shock, subvert, and shake up heteronormative structures.”

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents Hockney-Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature through June 20. The show was inaugurated by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2019, and MFAH will be its only U.S. venue.

David Hokney

The show examines the surprising parallels between works by Hockney and Van Gogh, exposing just how much Hockney’s work was influenced by the Dutch Postimpressionist master. The show includes a collection of 57 landscape paintings and drawings.

Ann Dumas, MFAH’s consulting curator for European art, notes that visitors will be taken by “the sheer color, scale, and exuberance of Hockney’s work, as well as the connections with the works by Van Gogh and the intensity of both artists’ responses to nature.”

From 2004 to 2013, Hockney created a variety of Yorkshire landscapes in the north of England. Those landscapes are the focus of this exhibition, demonstrating how Hockney explored, time and again, a variety of techniques resulting in everything from oil paintings, watercolors, charcoal, and iPad drawings to sketchbooks and even films.

Hockney was known to be a longtime admirer of Van Gogh’s work. Hockney was born in 1937 and Van Gogh was born in 1853, but their work shows striking similarities. Both Hockney and Van Gogh are entrenched in all that they create and all things nature, and they both have a longing to share that with viewers.

Hockney attended the Royal College of Art in London from 1959 to 1962. It was then that the public first took notice of both him and his work. California’s ephemeral light drew him to make Los Angeles his home. The year was 1964, and throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, Hockney hopped between Los Angeles, London, and Paris.

The artist created many well-received theater set designs, mostly for the opera, in the ’70s and ’80s, but that didn’t stop him from making portraits and landscapes in a variety of different media as well. Hockney often visited his mother before she died in 1999, and it was on those visits that he renewed his interest in the landscapes of his youth, which became a principal theme in his work from approximately 2004 on.

Vincent van Gogh, Tree Trunks in the Grass, 1890 (oil on canvas, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands)

Van Gogh was the son of a Protestant pastor who briefly became a missionary himself after having worked for an art dealer. Thankfully for the art world, he became a largely self-taught artist in 1880 who devoted his life to his art from that time forward. In 1889, he suffered his first psychotic episode, admitting himself to an asylum. In 1890, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, having spent his final few months in northern France. His career was a mere ten years long, during which he produced a truly awe-inspiring body of work.

Light, color, and landscape—and how the three morph and change, depending on time and location and season—enthralled both artists in similar ways. Seeing their work hanging together in Houston is equal parts satisfying and surprising. It is a parallel most would not draw, and yet, when confronted with the work it is just as impossible to ignore. The elegance of line. The subtlety of color. The attention to minute detail. The perceived movement in the strokes and designs.

“Looking at the art of Van Gogh and Hockney helps us to see the beauty of the world with fresh eyes. This is a jubilant, uplifting exhibition that has special meaning in the difficult times we are living through at this moment,” Dumas says.

If one were forced to guess which painting belonged to which artist, viewers familiar with the two would likely score 100 percent on the test. Van Gogh’s palette is often more muted, while Hockney’s interpretations are often more animated. But one can see clearly the connection, the joy, and the artists’ deep interest in nature and the ability of art to elevate it. It is a show to be seen by lovers of Hockney, lovers of Van Gogh, and lovers of all things connected. In the world of art and nature, everything is different and everything is exactly the same.

What: Hockney-Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
When: Through June 20, 2021
Tickets/Info: mfah.org/exhibitions/hockney-van-gogh-joy-of-nature

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Jenny Block

Jenny Block is a frequent contributor to a number of high-profile publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm. She has appeared on a variety of television and radio programs from Nightline to BBC Radio, and has spoken in bookstores and at events all across the country. Block is also a featured performer on Olivia Travel cruises and resorts.
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