David Hockney, who has spent a lifetime looking on the bright side, recommends spring as the cure for our ills. The 82-year-old artist has released his latest iPad paintings – intense observations of daffodils and fruit trees in blossom in Normandy. They are, as the title of one work puts it, a reminder that even in a locked-down world “they can’t cancel the spring”. While the world is fighting coronavirus, Hockney hopes the world will see spring.
It is tempting to share the bleakness of Eliot or Warhol as we enter spring under lockdown. Botticelli’s Primavera is literally the springtime of art – painted in the heady blossoming of the Florentine Renaissance, and known by its present title ever since. The painting depicts a goddess being attacked by a blue spirit, Zephyrus, the wind god, who will rape her – transforming her into a goddess of plants, with a skirt made of flowers. Meanwhile the Three Graces dance and Mercury touches the heavens with his wand in a glade in which almost 200 varieties of flowers and blossoms are depicted.
The woman at the centre of it all is Venus, goddess of love and desire. Botticelli’s friend, the poet Angelo Poliziano, wrote a poem welcoming spring and its “wild banner”, hymning a custom in which young Florentine men plucked leafy branches and presented them to women they fancied.
Cherry blossoms are a favourite theme in woodblock prints. This is the spring painting of Japan. A painting of pink flowers flowing in nature. But with that, it’s possible that humans are gathering to enjoy the flowers this spring. This spring in Japan, the traditional, highly sociable appreciation of this passing beauty that the woodblock masters depicted was discouraged because of social distancing.
Paolo Uccello’s Renaissance masterpiece The Battle of San Romano is as much a spring scene as Primavera. There are late-spring fruits and flowers all around the men fighting. In pre-industrial times winter was too cold for horses, high summer too hot and autumn too wet – so spring was the season of war.
So is there any great artist whose images of spring are authentically uplifting at this abnormal moment? There is, and he is the genius to whom Hockney’s spring pictures pay homage: Vincent van Gogh.
In February 1888, Van Gogh got off a train in the the south of France in desperate need of renewal. Over the next few months in Arles he saw the southern spring and it blew his mind.He painted the blooming orchard along with the colors in a soft brush stroke.
Like us, Van Gogh had to observe social distancing – in his case because people were distant towards him. Alone and introspective, the joy he finds in his blossoming trees is hard won. These paintings are inspired by the Japanese prints he collected. But where they are calm, he is consumed. His long, lonely quest for meaning has led him to this vision of spring trees as flaming beacons of hope.