It is plain to the viewer that David Hockney's 'Bigger Splash' depicts a splash in a Californian swimming pool, but what led him to paint it?

It all started when Hockney first went to Los Angeles in 1963, a year after graduating from the Royal College of Art in London. He returned there in 1964 and stayed, with only the odd trips to Europe, until 1968, when he returned to London. But the pull of California proved too great and in 1976 he took the plunge, no pun intended, and made a final trip back to Los Angeles where he set up home.

He liked California because of its relaxed and sensual way of life. He once said, ‘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.’

Then, to his pleasant surprise, in California, Hockney discovered that everybody had a swimming pool, the perfect venue for the beautiful people to display themselves. Because of the climate, they could be used every day of the year and were not thought of as a luxury, unlike in Britain where it is too chilly to have them. Between 1964 and 1971 he made several paintings of swimming pools. In each of the paintings he tried a different solution to the painting of the constantly changing water surface. His first apparent reference to a swimming pool is in the painting California Art Collector 1964 which is currently in a private collection. Then there was Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool also done 1964 and was finished in England from a sketch.

At first he would rely on photographs to aid him, but in the mid 1960s Hockney’s depiction of pool water was consciously borrowed from the influences of British painter Bernard Cohen (born 1933). Then he took ideas from the abstract artist, Jean Dubuffet. During this period he was in the habit of leaving wide borders around the paintings unpainted, exposing raw or ecru canvas. He also found that fast-drying acrylic paint was better suited to portraying the suburban landscapes of California than the slower drying traditional oil paint.

A Bigger Splash was executed between April and June 1967 when Hockney was teaching at the University of California in Berkeley. The image is taken partly from a photograph Hockney discovered in a book on 'swimming pool building'. The background is based on a drawing he had made of Californian buildings. A Bigger Splash is the largest of three ‘splash’ paintings. The Splash, which is now in a private collection, and A Little Splash, also privately owned, were both done in 1966. They share certain compositional similarities with the later version.

All show a view over a swimming pool towards a section of modernist architecture in the background. A diving board juts out into the paintings’ foreground, beneath which the splash is shown by areas of lighter blue combined with fine white lines on turquoise water. The diving board juts out as a diagonal from the corner which gives perspective, and cuts across the horizontals. The colours used in A Larger Splash are brighter and bolder than in the two smaller paintings, probably to emphasise the strongly ambient Californian light.

The yellow diving board stands out against the turquoise water of the pool, which reflects the intense turquoise of the sky above. A strip of skin-coloured land denotes the horizon and the area between the pool and the building at the top of the picture. The building is rectangular with two plate glass windows, in front of which is a folding chair. Two palms on long trunks are in the painting’s background while others are reflected in the windows of the rectangular building. A line of plants decorate its front.

From accounts, the areas of colour were rollered onto the canvas, whereas the splash itself, the chair and the vegetation were painted later on using small brushes. The painting took approximately two weeks to finish. Hockney says, ‘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 didn't want to recreate the splash with an instantaneous flick of liquid on the canvas.

Interestingly, in contrast with several of his earlier swimming pool pictures, which contain a male subject, frequently naked and viewed from the rear, the ‘splash’ paintings are sans a human presence. But, the splash beneath the diving board suggests the presence of a diver. In addition to this, American pools were only too often being enjoyed by the gay community and so served as natural magnet of interest to Hockney. In fact, muscular torsos and pools are really like ham and mustard, almost inseparable. Perhaps Hockney had a mystery diver in mind? There's no doubt that 'The Splash ' is pure iconic Hockney at it's most minimal and as usual, full of intriguing content.

Art-Eklecto artist rating infinity +++