Painting of the Day

31 May

David Hockney, ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ 1970-1

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy. by David Hockney (born 1937). Acrylic on canvas, 1970-71. Currently on view at the Tate Britain, London.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy by David Hockney is one of a series of double portraits of the artist’s famous friends made during the 1970s. Critics have remarked on Hockney’s ability to appeal to viewers’ escapist instincts; the Los Angeles swimming pools series and the celebrity portraits share this characteristic. Along with The Room, Manchester Street 1967, this is the only explicit picture of London that Hockney painted before he moved to California. In this work, the furnishings, the view through the balcony, and the muted light in the picture establish the sense of place. Hockney’s own comments on the painting suggest that achieving the quality of light was his main concern; he worked both from life and from a series of photographs to achieve the desired effect. Leaving behind the stylistic devices of his previous works, which draw attention to the status of his subjects as pictures, the artist here returns to a more traditional style. The couple’s formal poses and their relationship to one another in the room reinforce the reference to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture. However, on close examination of Hockney’s treatment of large areas of the canvas, the viewer finds that the artist has abstracted the room’s background surfaces, while paying significant attention to detail in his subject’s faces, the telephone, and the vase of flowers. It would be a mistake to take this work as an example of simple, realistic naturalism; here, Hockney is experimenting with new ways of constructing and painting the portrait.

Additional notes from tate.org.uk:

This is one of a series of large double portraits which Hockney began in 1968. He had painted imaginary couples in such earlier paintings as The First Marriage (A Marriage of Styles) 1963. In the later paintings, the subjects are real couples who were Hockney’s friends. They are portrayed in their home environment in a style which is both realistic and highly simplified. Hockney worked from photographs and life observation, making drawings to resolve composition. Usually one character looks at the other, who looks out of the painting at the viewer, thus creating a cyclical movement of looking. Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy is unusual in that both subjects, Mr and Mrs Clark, look out at the artist and viewer from either side of a large open window which is in the centre of the painting. The viewer, who looks at the painting from a central perspective, will be at the apex of the couple’s gaze out of the painting, a third in the relationship. Percy is the name of one of the Clarks’ cats and refers to the cat sitting statue-like on Mr Clark’s knee, looking out of the window. ‘Mr and Mrs Clark’ are the dress designer Ozzie Clark and the fabric designer Celia Birtwell. Like Hockney, the two came from the north of England and met the artist in 1961 in Manchester, where Ozzie was studying at Manchester College of Art. Both men went on to study at the Royal College of Art in London. When Ozzie and Celia married in 1969, Hockney was their best man. He painted them in their flat in Notting Hill Gate, west London, an area where the artist and a number of his friends then lived. Hockney chose to paint them in their bedroom because he liked the light there. An etching from his earlier series A Rake’s Progress 1961-3 (Tate P07029-44) is portrayed on the left side of the painting. He began to make drawings and take photographs for the painting in 1969 and began working on the canvas in the spring of 1970, completing the painting in early 1971. In 1976 he described the painting as one of two works of his to come close to naturalism (Kinley 1992), although many areas of the image have been flattened and emptied of detail.

Hockney has commented that his aim in this painting was to ‘achieve … the presence of two people in this room. All the technical problems were caused because my main aim was to paint the relationship of these two people.’ (Quoted in Kinley 1992, [p.6].) One technical problem was to paint the figures contre jour, or against the light, something he had been experimenting with in earlier pictures of single figures in interiors. As in a photograph, it was difficult to achieve a balance between the bright daylight outside the window and the relative shade indoors. Because the canvas was so big, Hockney worked on it in his studio, where he set up light conditions that approximated those in the Clarks’ bedroom. He painted the lilies, sitting in a vase on a small table in the foreground of the painting, from life at the studio. He found the nearly life-size scale of the figures difficult to realise and both Clarks posed for him many times. In the event, Hockney painted Ozzie Clark’s head as many as twelve times before he was satisfied. He is depicted lounging on a chair, his bare feet buried in the long pile of a fur rug. His pose is relaxed but his expression is watchful. Celia stands with one hand on her waist wearing a long, flowing dress and a rather wistful expression. Close to her and therefore, perhaps, associated with her are the lilies, traditionally a symbol of the Annunciation and feminine purity. Likewise, the cat on Ozzie’s lap carries symbolic resonances of the libertine and somebody who disregards rules and does as they please. Viewed in this way, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy recalls the famous portrait of a married couple, The Arnolfini Marriage 1434 (National Gallery, London) by Flemish renaissance painter Jan van Eyck (approximately 1395-1441), in which a small dog at the couple’s feet represents fidelity. Hockney has pointed out that his painting reversed one of the conventions of wedding portraiture, by seating the man while the woman stands. The gulf between the couple represented by the open window and the gaze of the third party (artist or viewer) turned out to be prophetic: the marriage did not last.

My comments:

I absolutely love Hockney’s brushwork style. He is such a master at communicating differing textures of different materials in a painting, yet without letting his painting dissolve into an exercise in photo-realism. The way that he captured the changes in light in different parts of the room is also unbelievable as well; he is able strike this incredible balance between realism and abstraction in these paintings. They somehow look so realistic while never being so much so as to fool the viewer into thinking that they’re looking at a photograph. It reminds me a lot of the brushwork style of Rene Magritte and Edward Hopper. Both of these artists, although with subtle variations, had similar ways of applying paint to canvas that achieved this middle ground in the realm between abstraction and realism. It’s interesting that Hockney chose to paint this work in acrylic rather than oil paint, since most artists usually work in oil due to its greater flexibility and longer drying time compared to acrylic nowadays. I’m not sure exactly how acrylic paint looks compared to oil paint, but that is something I hope to learn in the Oil Painting class I’m taking at Swarthmore next semester.

It’s also so fascinating how predictive this painting would be of the course of the marriage of the depicted couple. It’s expressively incredibly accurate of what would happen to them. Whether or not they consciously were aware of this, the couple does not look like they love each other very much. If it weren’t for the background information and the title that I’m aware of, I never would have guessed that this man and woman were a couple, let alone married. There is a palpable cold distance between them that’s communicated in the painting by the strong, almost opaque light that separates them as if it is a solid living entity with real mass standing between them.

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One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara May 31, 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    this composition , with window in the center and people on either side and the ornate balcony woodworking reminds me of the Music lesson by Henri Matisse. The brush strokes and feelings evoked by the two are very different but in some wasy very similar. The Matisse is part of the Barnes collection.

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