Painting of the Day

1 Dec


A Bigger Splash. by David Hockney (born 1937). Acrylic on canvas, 1967. Currently on view at the Tate Modern, London.

Notes from

The Sixties are often seen as a time when Britain emerged from the greyness of the postwar years into a period of optimism, youthfulness and colour. Few works exemplify this perception better than Hockney’s depictions of Californian swimming pools. Even in the late 1960s, these still evoked a glamorous and exotic life of sun, wealth and leisure.Frequently, Hockney populates these scenes with male figures but here only the splash suggests a human presence.

This painting depicts a splash in a Californian swimming pool. Hockney first visited Los Angeles in 1963, a year after graduating from the Royal College of Art, London. He returned there in 1964 and remained, with only intermittent trips to Europe, until 1968 when he came back to London. In 1976 he made a final trip back to Los Angeles and set up permanent home there. He was drawn to California by the relaxed and sensual way of life. He commented: ‘the climate is sunny, the people are less tense than in New York … When I arrived I had no idea if there was any kind of artistic life there and that was the least of my worries.’ In California, Hockney discovered, everybody had a swimming pool. Because of the climate, they could be used all year round and were not considered a luxury, unlike in Britain where it is too cold for most of the year. Between 1964 and 1971 he made numerous paintings of swimming pools. In each of the paintings he attempted a different solution to the representation of the constantly changing surface of water. His first painted reference to a swimming pool is in the painting California Art Collector 1964 (private collection). Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool 1964 (private collection) was completed in England from a drawing. While his later swimming pools were based on photographs, in the mid 1960s Hockney’s depiction of water in swimming pools was consciously derived from the influences of his contemporary, the British painter Bernard Cohen (born 1933), and the later abstract paintings by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85). At this time he also began to leave wide borders around the paintings unpainted, a practice developed from his earlier style of keeping large areas of the canvas raw. At the same time, he discovered fast-drying acrylic paint to be more suited to portraying the sun-lit, clean-contoured suburban landscapes of California than slow drying oil paint.

A Bigger Splash was painted between April and June 1967 when Hockney was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. The image is derived in part from a photograph Hockney discovered in a book on the subject of building swimming pools. The background is taken from a drawing he had made of Californian buildings. A Bigger Splash is the largest and most striking of three ‘splash’ paintings. The Splash (private collection) and A Little Splash (private collection) were both completed in 1966. They share compositional characteristics with the later version. All represent a view over a swimming pool towards a section of low-slung, 1960s modernist architecture in the background. A diving board juts out of the margin into the paintings’ foreground, beneath which the splash is represented by areas of lighter blue combined with fine white lines on the monotone turquoise water. The positioning of the diving board – coming at a diagonal out of the corner – gives perspective as well as cutting across the predominant horizontals. The colours used in A Larger Splash are deliberately brighter and bolder than in the two smaller paintings in order to emphasise the strong Californian light. The yellow diving board stands out dramatically against the turquoise water of the pool, which is echoed in the intense turquoise of the sky. Between sky and water, a strip of flesh-coloured land denotes the horizon and the space between the pool and the building. This is a rectangular block with two plate glass windows, in front of which a folding chair is sharply delineated. Two palms on long, spindly trunks ornament the painting’s background while others are reflected in the building’s windows. A frond-like row of greenery decorates its front. The blocks of colour were rollered onto the canvas and the detail, such as the splash, the chair and the vegetation, painted on later using small brushes. The painting took about two weeks to complete, providing an interesting contrast with his subject matter for the artist. Hockney has explained: ‘When you photograph a splash, you’re freezing a moment and it becomes something else. I realise that a splash could never be seen this way in real life, it happens too quickly. And I was amused by this, so I painted it in a very, very slow way.’ He had rejected the possibility of recreating the splash with an instantaneous gesture in liquid on the canvas. In contrast with several of his earlier swimming pool paintings, which contain a male subject, often naked and viewed from behind, the ‘splash’ paintings are empty of human presence. However, the splash beneath the diving board implies the presence of a diver.

My comments:

When I saw this painting (which I’ve only seen online unfortunately), I was attracted to its pristine and smooth flatness. It contains none of the what is called the “painterly” quality that other paintings have, especially works by the impressionists like Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, and Berthe Morisot. To look painterly means to clearly see the hand of the artist in the work, and A Bigger Splash couldn’t be farther from that. On a computer, it even looks like it could have been a computer generated image. It made wonder what Hockney did to achieve this.

As the notes above tell us, Hockney rolled the painting onto the canvas to achieve the smooth flatness. There is no shading or drawing, just solid swaths of color, creating an image that is so cool and unemotional that it’s almost aloof and curt. But the brilliant, bold blues keep the painting from being repulsive and sinister.

I bolded the quote of Hockney about his thinking behind painting the splash because I found it absolutely fascinating. Even though I see splashes all the time since I’m on a swim team, I’ve never stopped to think about their transience. It’s amazing how many little details I miss in my everyday life, while artists notice them and make them into art.

This is why, I think, artists are absolute geniuses. From an academic standpoint, it feels like artists and art historians aren’t taken as seriously as scientists, and their disciplines are seen as “easier” than those of the scientists. But it is extremely difficult to be creative, to take things that seem so mundane and transform them into something truly awe-inspiring. And even though there is so much art, artists are still coming up with new ideas every second. In science, you’re always starting with a question to answer, a problem to solve that includes specific variables and procedures. But with art, artists have absolutely nothing concrete to use as a springboard, not even the certainty of using paint or clay–because there are many more mediums to choose from. And even when you choose a medium, there’s not a given way to proceed, because then you have to decide what am I going to paint with? A brush? A stick? My fingers? And what kind of paint will you use? What colors? How many colors? And that comes even before you decide what to paint.

2 Responses to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara December 1, 2012 at 6:33 pm #

    this does seem like a iconic view of the sixties. Wonder if this house is next door to “the Girls next door”?

    • zwray1 December 1, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

      Wow you’re amazing at coming up with a good joke for every single painting!

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