Metrograph Pictures is releasing a pristine new restoration of the classic queer semi-documentary A Bigger Splash, directed by Jack Hazan. The film takes place in and around the milieu of David Hockney, the redoubtable British artist. You’ve heard the name, but you might not be well versed in Hockney’s life, his paintings, his astonishing career - and that’s okay. That’s why we put together this primer for you to look through before you visit Metrograph to see A Bigger Splash on the big screen.
Who is David Hockney?
David Hockney is an English painter, draftsman, stage designer, photographer, and printmaker. He was born in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England and educated at the Royal College of Art in London. A pivotal figure in the second wave of British Pop art, he would become a definitive artistic chronicler of both the Swinging London and the laid-back southern California of the 1960s. He has been the focus of some 400 solo shows, and his work has appeared in more than 500 group exhibitions.
Why is he major?
One of the most important representative painters of his generation, he is noteworthy not only for the rigor of his approach to his craft and his art historical erudition, but also for his subject matter—as early as his 1961 painting We Two Boys Together Clinging, his work has openly and unabashedly reflected his identity as a gay man. His art is prized by collectors but, more importantly, embraced by a broad public.
Okay, but wasn’t there something about swimming pools?
In 1964, shortly after his first solo show at the 118 New Bond Street gallery of John Kasmin, he temporarily relocated to Los Angeles where, using the then-still-novel acrylic medium, he turned out a series of paintings of the city’s ubiquitous swimming pools, which would help to establish him as one of the leading lights of British art. Through the years his practice has expanded to include portraiture, plein-air landscape painting, stage design, lithography, and photocollage. He divides his time between London, Yorkshire, and Los Angeles.
Is he still painting?
Oh yes, he’s still productive, very much in demand, and he’s doing a lot of interesting work with the iPad. And last year, his painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) set a world record as the most expensive painting by a living artist ever sold at auction. He’s got a new show going up later this year in New York at Pace Gallery.
I think I know about that painting.
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was inspired, Hockney would later recall, when he caught sight of two photographs on the floor of his studio. “One was of a figure swimming underwater and therefore quite distorted… the other was a boy gazing at something on the ground. The idea of painting two figures in different styles appealed so much that I began the painting immediately.” He began work on the composition in 1971 but destroyed his first attempt at it in frustration, only to return to the idea in April 1972, in advance of an exhibition of his work due to open in a month in New York.
Okay, yeah, I definitely know that painting. What’s the backstory?
Hockney travelled to a villa at Le Nid du Duc near St. Tropez in the south of France, in order to make photographic studies for the painting with his Pentax camera. A young photographer, John St. Clair, posed as the swimmer, while Mo McDermott, Hockney’s assistant, played the role of the onlooking man in the pink blazer. Hockney’s preferred model, his former lover, Peter Schlesinger, had flown to California with director Jack Hazan to film scenes for the movie A Bigger Splash. On returning to London, Hockney wrangled Schlesinger to model as the man in the pink blazer, photographing his muse in Kensington Gardens. Hockney completed the painting in two weeks of eighteen-hour days. The speed was made possible because Hazan loaned Hockney a set of bright studio lights in exchange for access to the painter. Of the process, Hockney would say “I must admit I loved working on that picture, working with such intensity; it was marvelous doing it, really thrilling.”
Whoa. Is all of that in the movie?
How much did it sell for, then?
Originally sold in 1972 to James Astor and his wife for $18,000—it is at the Astor home that Hockney scrutinizes his portrait of Patrick Procktor in A Bigger Splash—it was acquired in 1983 by David Geffen, then sold to British businessman Joe Lewis in 1995. In November of 2018 it sold for $90.3M, the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living artist.
All this seems pretty personal. Is Hockney cool with this movie?
He doesn’t talk much about it. But we did dig up an old interview at the New York Public Library that really gets into it. Here’s Hockney: “I was shattered by it and so were a few of the other people. I think anyone would have been if it happened to them. To think about this nice quiet guy making a movie for three or four years and have this vague idea it’s going to be an inoffensive film about an artist and his paintings, and then suddenly to see this. We’d none of us taken into account the way the film is pieced together. I had the impression Jack had only filmed two or three scenes with me – which is why I was startled when I first heard he’d made a feature-length film. Then of course there was the feeling of, “My God, we’re having to sit through all of this again, all that drama. Dragging it up.” I reacted very strongly. I remember it was awful and I telephoned Peter and said, “What have we done?””
It’s okay… He’s more chill about it in retrospect. “I suppose one’s emotional life is intimately connected with the work one achieves, so it has a point. If you’re thinking about the fact that it describes a homosexual love, well, I’ve never made any secret of my sexuality. I think one of the good things about the film is that it does describe people and things as they are, without trying to see anything remarkable or sensational in what it is.”
What was London even like for queer people back then?
When Jack Hazan’s film had its first screenings — at the 1973 Chicago International Film Festival and the 1974 Cannes Critics’ Week — homosexuality had been legal in the United Kingdom for only a few years, thanks to an Act of Parliament, the Sexual Offences Bill 1967.
The legal status of the United Kingdom’s LGBTQ population would change with the Sexual Offenses Bill 1967, introduced in Parliament ten years after the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, or Wolfenden report, had advised the British Government to legalize homosexuality. Public attitudes, however, would not change overnight.
So what was the reaction to the movie?
In the critical reactions to Hazan’s A Bigger Splash, even the positive notices, one can find none-too-subtle hints of sniggering condescension, as when Daily Telegraph critic Patrick Gibbs gets in a reference to the “simpering” of artist Patrick Procktor. For John Weightman in Encounter, Hockney’s circle is one of “androgynous flutter.”
At least they didn’t try to ban it, though.
Not so fast. An item in the November 1, 1974 “Londoner’s Diary” column of the Evening Standard noted that Hazan’s film had run into trouble across the Channel, observing: “The British film censor is apparently more broad-minded than his French counterpart. A film based on a period in the life of Yorkshire-born artist David Hockney, banned in France three weeks before it was to have been shown at two Paris cinemas, has just received an X certificate from the British censor.”
Additional writing by Nick Pinkerton.