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Seeking the Real David Hockney Through Fact and Fiction


Seeking the Real David Hockney Through Fact and Fiction

The British director Jack Hazan followed Mr. Hockney and his gaggle of bohemian friends in the early 1970s. Mr. Hockney, by his own acknowledgment, was at a painful juncture in his life. His partner, Peter Schlesinger, a young California artist who had posed for many of his paintings, had left him after five years, ending a romance that coincided with one of Mr. Hockney’s most artistically fecund periods. In the aftermath, Mr. Hockney had trouble working.

But then, after six months, he had a breakthrough. In 1972, he completed “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” a 10-foot-wide pool scene that is known colloquially as his “Peter Painting” and can fairly be called a masterwork. By a nice coincidence, Mr. Hazan, the filmmaker, was around to document its long evolution. There is wonderful footage of Mr. Hockney in his studio, opera blaring on the stereo, his half-finished canvas casually leaning against a wall as he quickly paints, in short brushstrokes, the shaggy hair and jacket lapels of a standing male figure.

The painting sold at Christie’s last November for $90.3 million, then the largest sum ever paid at auction for a work by a living artist. The price tag, however ludicrous, brought welcome attention to the painting, which had been overshadowed by “A Bigger Splash,” an earlier pool painting from 1967, from which the current film takes its title.

“Portrait of an Artist” is the more interesting of the two paintings, giving us, in lieu of a totemic splash of pool water frozen in midair, a sweeping tableau shot through with complex emotion. Set at a backyard pool, with a mountainous landscape unspooling in the distance, the painting is a two-figure composition. One of the figures is swimming underwater, gliding, unreachable. A second figure, modeled after Mr. Schlesinger, fully clothed in a salmon-colored sports jacket, slacks and loafers, stands at the end of the pool, looking down at the swimmer as if waiting for him to finish his laps and come up for air. The scene is like a religious annunciation in reverse; you suspect the clothed man has come to say he is leaving. It is hard to think of another painting that combines so much blue-hued radiance with so much aching silence.

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