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Reconfiguring the natural world: David Hockney painting "The Road to Thwing, Late Spring", May 2006 (David Hockney/photo Jean Pierre Goncalves de Lima)

The reason David Hockney became a painter, and the reason he is still, at 74, going at it hard, is because it offers the possibility of nailing things down. "We are not sure what the world looks like," he says. "An awful lot of people think we do, but I don't." Discovering the world's true appearance has been the quest that underlies almost everything he has produced for the past 50 years.

Next month offers a new opportunity to assess how he's getting on. The Royal Academy is staging a major retrospective of his landscape work, with examples from the 1960s to the present. The geographical span of David Hockney: A Bigger Picture reaches from the Grand Canyon to the Yorkshire Wolds, and the techniques used range from paint and Polaroids to film and iPads. 

Hockney had his first retrospective in 1971, only ten years into his career, and numerous others have followed. What they have charted, as the new show does too, is not just his changing art but his changing reputation. Hockney has always been a famous painter. He came to prominence in 1961 in the renowned Young Contemporaries exhibition while still a student at the Royal College of Art and that celebrity has rarely faltered. What has been more difficult to gauge is where he stands in the grander scheme of things.

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