Object Image

A Bigger Splash

The Sixties are often seen as a time when Britain emerged from the greyness of the postwar years into a period of optimism, youthfulness and colour. Few works exemplify this perception better than Hockney’s depictions of Californian swimming pools. These evoke a glamorous and exotic life of sun and leisure. Frequently, Hockney populates these scenes with male figures but here only the splash suggests a human presence. The painting also reflects Hockney’s concern with capturing in paint transparent materials and transient moments.

Detailed Description This painting depicts a splash in a Californian swimming pool. Hockney first visited Los Angeles in 1963, a year after graduating from the Royal College of Art, London. He returned there in 1964 and remained, with only intermittent trips to Europe, until 1968 when he came back to London. In 1976 he made a final trip back to Los Angeles and set up permanent home there. He was drawn to California by the relaxed and sensual way of life. He commented: ‘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.’ (Quoted in Kinley, [p.4].) In California, Hockney discovered, everybody had a swimming pool. Because of the climate, they could be used all year round and were not considered a luxury, unlike in Britain where it is too cold for most of the year. Between 1964 and 1971 he made numerous paintings of swimming pools. In each of the paintings he attempted a different solution to the representation of the constantly changing surface of water. His first painted reference to a swimming pool is in the painting California Art Collector 1964 (private collection). Picture of a Hollywood Swimming Pool 1964 (private collection) was completed in England from a drawing. While his later swimming pools were based on photographs, in the mid 1960s Hockney’s depiction of water in swimming pools was consciously derived from the influences of his contemporary, the British painter Bernard Cohen (born 1933), and the later abstract paintings by French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85). At this time he also began to leave wide borders around the paintings unpainted, a practice developed from his earlier style of keeping large areas of the canvas raw. At the same time, he discovered fast-drying acrylic paint to be more suited to portraying the sun-lit, clean-contoured suburban landscapes of California than slow drying oil paint.

A Bigger Splash was painted between April and June 1967 when Hockney was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. The image is derived in part from a photograph Hockney discovered in a book on the subject of building swimming pools. The background is taken from a drawing he had made of Californian buildings. A Bigger Splash is the largest and most striking of three ‘splash’ paintings. The Splash (private collection) and A Little Splash (private collection) were both completed in 1966. They share compositional characteristics with the later version. All represent a view over a swimming pool towards a section of low-slung, 1960s modernist architecture in the background. A diving board juts out of the margin into the paintings’ foreground, beneath which the splash is represented by areas of lighter blue combined with fine white lines on the monotone turquoise water. The positioning of the diving board – coming at a diagonal out of the corner – gives perspective as well as cutting across the predominant horizontals. The colours used in A Larger Splash are deliberately brighter and bolder than in the two smaller paintings in order to emphasise the strong Californian light. The yellow diving board stands out dramatically against the turquoise water of the pool, which is echoed in the intense turquoise of the sky. Between sky and water, a strip of flesh-coloured land denotes the horizon and the space between the pool and the building. This is a rectangular block with two plate glass windows, in front of which a folding chair is sharply delineated. Two palms on long, spindly trunks ornament the painting’s background while others are reflected in the building’s windows. A frond-like row of greenery decorates its front. The blocks of colour were rollered onto the canvas and the detail, such as the splash, the chair and the vegetation, painted on later using small brushes. The painting took about two weeks to complete, providing an interesting contrast with his subject matter for the artist. Hockney has explained: ‘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.’ (Quoted in Kinley, [p.5].) He had rejected the possibility of recreating the splash with an instantaneous gesture in liquid on the canvas. In contrast with several of his earlier swimming pool paintings, which contain a male subject, often naked and viewed from behind, the ‘splash’ paintings are empty of human presence. However, the splash beneath the diving board implies the presence of a diver.

Credit: Purchased 1981

Acrylic paint on canvas
2425.0 x 2439.0 x 30.0 cm
Image © David Hockney, 2018
Text © Tate Britain, 2018

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Tate Britain
Tate Britain
Permanent collection