I have always felt deeply moved by David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’.
Hockney completed ‘the painting in I971 and – as a literal reading of the the title might suggest – this is a portrait of an artist called Peter Schlesinger. An artist who also happened to be David Hockney’s lover.
However, I think that this image communicates something far more poetic than its rather prosaic title might literally suggest. For it is, I believe, also a unique portrait of the creative process and the interplay between the conscious and the unconscious mind.
Born in 1937 and raised in the post-industrial landscape of Northern England during a time of rationing, sexual repression and homophobia, California proved an irresistible attraction for the young gay artist on many levels.
Hockney moved to California in 1964. And the move was to be a profoundly transformative experience for the artist, in the same way that moving to Provence was to have had such a profound effect on the painting of Vincent Van Gogh, a hundred years previously, For it was here that he found his first great theme – his version of Van Gogh’s sunflowers – the subject that was to dominate his early career…
The domestic swimming pools of California.
These sparkling and shimmering waters, extending out beneath the immaculate blueness of cloudless Californian skies, seemed to symbolise everything that the boy who had grown up in the black-and-white bleakness of post-war Bradford loved about his new found life.
For the first time, David Hockney found himself, quite literally, in his element.
However, the element was not without its issues.
Water, of course, is, in reality, a completely transparent substance, and therefore, very difficult to represent in paint.
From a technical point of view this was a time of large scale innovation for Hockney.
It was at this point that he abandoned traditional oil paints for the more recently developed acrylic kind which offered the benefit of much faster drying times.
He also began to use photography as part of the development of his imagery, a practice that, as time went on, would lend his paintings greater and greater representational realism.
Working in the new acrylic medium Hockney experimented with a wide variety of techniques in his attempts to reflect the mercurial nature of water. The most famous of these experiments, being the painting called ‘A Bigger Splash’. Here a sky made up of a large flat field of cobalt blue is splashed with a Jackson Pollock style action-painting plume of pure white paint.
It was here in Claifornia, that David Hockney met Peter Schlesinger, a young Californian art student who would not only became his lover but also his inspiration and favourite model, appearing in countless paintings over the next few years.
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was completed towards the end of this period, and the painting technique demonstrates the increasingly naturalistic style of Hockney’s work at this stage.
I have always felt that there is a suffused sense of melancholy and longing in this painting and it is perhaps significant that it was completed after the breakdown of his relationship with Peter Schlesinger, an event that left Hockney depressed and devastated.
However I do not think that this is the real point of this painting.
In the painting, we see – as promised in the title –the portrait of an artist, Peter Schlesinger, peering over the edge of an outdoor swimming pool which is set in a idyllic, if slightly stylized, landscape. The composition has a exquisite rhythmic feel to it, formed as it is from a series of interlocking triangles. In the pool, below the artist, swimming towards him underwater, is a mysterious figure.
The most important thing in this image is the relationship between the artist and the swimmer.
They exist in different realities. The artist is clearly conscious of the swimmer. The swimmer is not, necessarily conscious of the artist.
And this is the key to understanding the real power of this painting.
Because it is in fact a metaphorical representation of the creative process: in which the artist represents the conscious mind and the swimmer the subconscious.
Indeed, Portrait of an artist represents that extraordinary moment just before something new and mysterious – that has been slowly emerging out of the depths of the artists subconscious – breaks the surface of the water and emerge into full light of consciousness.