David Hockney Goes Head To Head With Grayson Perry

The South Bank Awards nominations have been revealed, pitting the two best art exhibitions of the year against one another

David Hockney’s very-recent exhibition ‘A Bigger Picture’ at the Royal Academy has been nominated for this year’s South Bank awards, and will go head to head with Grayson Perry’s ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ at the British Museum in the ‘visual art’ category. Also nominated for an award is architect David Chipperfield for his design of the Hepworth art gallery in Wakefield.

The award ceremony will be hosted by Melvyn Bragg and will take place at the Dorchester hotel in London: ‘Although this is a celebration of British arts by British artists, we have a world class list of nominees,’ said Bragg.

David Hockney’s exhibition was the first major blockbuster exhibition of 2012, and the event that kicked off the London Cultural Olympiad. Bringing together over 150 works, the majority of which have been created in the last 8 years, this was a sumptuously buttery, paint-still-wet show, that imbued Yorkshire hills with the geographical drama and cut-glass light of California – the artist’s home for so many years.

The title ‘A Bigger Picture’ carried a wholly literal meaning alongside general allusions to the retrospective trope. Cobbling together canvases as if they were his early photo-collages, Hockney created vast, sprawling surfaces on which he created his stage set-like panoramas of woodland and hillscapes. While some of the works veered toward being imaginative rather than the representational, their claim to reality was made good by virtue of sheer size, forcing the viewer to take them seriously as worldviews – however purple. 

With such a large body of work on display, it was inevitable that some pieces were better than others. But even the failures amongst the fruits of Hockney’s recent bout of creativity were evidence or his remarkable artistry: ever curious, ever experimenting with image-making, Hockney made a convincing case for the experiential authenticity of canvas over camera.

In The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry invited us on a pilgrimage: saluting the ‘travel’ experience generated by the museum, we were to call at the historical and cultural stations that have informed our imaginative world and material output. ‘Few civilisations spring up spontaneously or develop in isolation’, we are shown: rather, ‘cultures borrow and adapt’, with visual languages invented through appropriation of ‘the other’, and its combination with ‘the local’.

At the heart of the British Museum, Perry created a microcosmic exhibition to rival its host, selecting from the BM’s massive collection of world objects, but also stirring in material of his own making. Perry enshrined an eclectic assemblage, housing juxtaposition after juxtaposition, for us to contemplate: from an ancient Egyptian Soul House, a symbolic abode for souls of the dead; a late 1800s sailing chart from the Marshall Islands made of overlapping canes; a ‘power figure’ from the Democratic Republic of Congo; a 19th century Russian engraving of ‘A Forge for Turning Old People into Young’; to a 12th century Irish Sheela-na-gig, a mysterious early Christian (?) figurine of a woman splaying her labia.

Initially united by the artist’s delight in them, Perry quickly began to weave a joyous matrix of connections between these objects, drawing visual parallels of breath-taking historic-cultural scope – a portable 10th century Japanese shrine, for instance, seemed to him ‘like a miniature wardrobe belonging to a doll’s house owned by a 1920s film startlet’. The numerous examples of his own pieces completed this job of linkage, his pots, tapestries and sculptures, clearly springing from the material palette only display, adopting and adapting, mimicking and mishmashing.

At the heart of it, this exhibition was the product of Perry’s love affair with ‘stuff’ – his ‘long and sympathetic’, ‘ever-curious’, ‘hands-on relationship with materials’. It is fitting, therefore, that the centrepiece of the show took the form of the Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman itself– a cast iron ship adorned by copies of the so-called ‘hits of the British Museum’, and carrying the tool that begat all tools, and thus the Adam of material culture; the flint hand axe.

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