The Pools of Hockney
It is very good advice to believe only what an artist does, rather than what he says about his work. –David Hockney David Hockney shows the audience through his work the greatest sense of what he is about as an artist. This was not easy at first and he had to take a long hard road to openly express himself which lead him to travel around the world. Hockney’s ideas as to what art could be helped to define the next generation of art by breaking through the then held shackles of Modernism. Modernism however was not the only convention Hockney would need to break through as sociological issues wrought with heavy chains of oppression attempted to shackle him as well. Hockney’s best known series was his pool paintings which helped society define him as an artist and helped him explore a whole new world of possibilities.
Hockney’s upbringing begins in the northern town of Bradford, England where even as the country had reestablished itself as conservative in 1951 was even more so in the north. This conservatism went so far as to criminalize homosexuality in Britain, which was an issue since Hockney was a gay man. It is worth noting however that Britain’s youth culture was beginning to experiment with homosexuality. [footnoteRef:1] Even though the youth culture during that time was exploring sexuality in Britain disrupting the traditionally held spectacle of the post war nuclear family, Hockney never felt a utopian home in Britain and it was the book City of Night (1963) that caught Hockney’s attention and led him to travel to Los Angeles where homosexuality was seemingly celebrated in the book.[footnoteRef:2] [1: David Hopkins, After Modern Art 1945-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2000), 103.] [2: Ibid.]
Modernism for all its great accomplishments had become more and more difficult to depart from. Utopia puts it best “For what seems like a long time, Modernism has been an untouchable subject for contemporary artists and critics or, better stated, it was the thing to resist”[footnoteRef:3] This was one of the spectacles Hockney had to resist, the breaking from abstract expressionism because to Hockney his art was to have “a subject and a little bit of form”.[footnoteRef:4] This reveals both the desire to portray an individual and to give the individual form. The form that Hockney wanted to display though was not the overly masculinist man of Modernism but the southern California man who was living in a utopia. This transition marked the most influential time in his life and for many whom experienced his works of art.[footnoteRef:5] [3: Alison Green, “Utopias and Universals”(2003), in Utopias, ed. Richard Noble (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2009), 214] [4: Jeanne Siegel, Art Journal Vol. 38, No. 1 (Autumn, 1978), 66] [5: Andrew Marr, “David Hockney: The Art of Seeing – A Culture Show Special” The Culture Show (BBC 2011/2012), Episode 21 of 28
The stillness of the water and of the man even in the slightly awkward position he is tensing his hands in reveals Hockney’s feelings at the time.[footnoteRef:6] (Fig. 1) This is the general imagery of Hockney’s Sunbather 1966. Using only the upper third to place the man has multiple interpretive implications. First is the uplifting feeling of being able to be openly homosexual through placement at the top of Sunbather. Second is the awkward tension of the figure not actually being on the upper third line but defined in the space above it. The third is the tension of the figure fighting the upper edge almost touching it but never getting close enough. Fourth is the way the viewer keeps resting their eyes on the figure of the man because the lower two-thirds is filled with a busy spectacle of lazy flowing lines. The detail of the tan line tells a much deeper story than how often the man sunbathes nude. It seems to reference the long censored and covered-up nature of homosexuality stating that here and now in Los Angeles one can be truly exposed and free rather than covering up who one truly is. The counter point is made through the man lying on his front side that even though a homosexual man can finally be free he must not flaunt who he is to the world lest the spectacle oppress him. [6: Nathan Kernan, “Hockney’s Portraits” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 148, No 1241 (Aug., 2006), 570]
Portrait of an Artist contrary to the first inclination does not include the artist David Hockney but instead has the painter Peter Schlesinger standing on the edge of the pool looking down at a man swimming, distorted by the water in an idealized landscape setting depicting the Los Angeles Hockney felt at the time. (fig. 2) The man by the pool, who was his former lover, is not in swimming attire though and actually is fully clothed with a sports jacket giving the piece an entirely different tone the more the viewer examines it. With this a time in Hockney’s life is stamped into the history of art. Every piece in the series tells a personal, cultural, or combined story of his life at the time, a life that never hid who he was and never gave up on showing the world what art could be: “a subject and a little bit of form”. [footnoteRef:7] [7: Jeanne Siegel, Art Journal Vol. 38, No. 1 (Autumn, 1978), 66]
- David Hopkins, After Modern Art 1945-2000 (Oxford University Press, 2000), 103.
- Alison Green, “Utopias and Universals”(2003), in Utopias, ed. Richard Noble (Cambridge, MA:MIT Press, 2009), 214
- Jeanne Siegel, Art Journal Vol. 38, No. 1 (Autumn, 1978), 66
- Andrew Marr, “David Hockney: The Art of Seeing – A Culture Show Special” The Culture Show (BBC 2011/2012), Episode 21 of 28
- Nathan Kernan, “Hockney’s Portraits” The Burlington Magazine Vol. 148, No 1241 (Aug., 2006), 570
- Bram Kempers, The Making of Humanities Volume III: The Modern Humanities (Amsterdam University Press, 2014) ed. Rens Bod, Jaap Maat, Thijs Weststeijn
- Figure 1, David Hockney, Sunbather, 1966
- Figure 2, David Hockney, Portrait of an Artist 1972″