Through the looking glass: David Hockney at the Walker

Mike Pinnington
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David Hockney, Liverpool Exhibition, Walker Art Gallery

We look at Hockney’s struggle with sexual identity via just one, seminal work: “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool.”

“What one must remember about some of these pictures is that they were partly propaganda of something that hadn’t been propagandised, especially among students, as a subject: homosexuality…” So said David Hockney, speaking about a time in his life when to act on his proclivities would have been to risk losing his place at art school and most likely seen him imprisoned (not until 1967 would homosexuality be legalised in the UK). Instead, the Bradford-born artist painted himself out of the closet, producing work such as “We Two Boys Together Clinging” and “Portrait of Peter C.”

David Hockney: Early Reflections at Walker Art Gallery charts these chastened early days but also the personal freedom Hockney experienced when spending time on secondment at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1966. The lifestyle and weather of the American West Coast were a stark contrast to Hockney’s upbringing in the perpetually overcast north of England. Suddenly, there were blues everywhere; in the skies, the sea and of course, the swimming pools.

In California, there were blues everywhere; in the skies, the sea and of course, the swimming pools

The impact on Hockney’s work was astonishing. Almost immediately after arriving in California, he produced “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool,” arguably his most iconic work. The pool was that of the gallery owner, Nick Wilder while the naked back and behind belong to 19-year-old Peter Schlesinger, a painter Hockney had met at the university.  The virgin canvas that frames the painting is a nod to the Polaroid he used as a guide to paint Peter.

A testament to the revelatory effects of a change of scene, the piece is also a proclamation of sexual preference and defiance. “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” evokes the Californian sun, the vogue for crisp, modernist architecture and a decidedly more carefree gay scene than Hockney had ever experienced at home. Alongside 1967’s “A Bigger Splash,” the piece cemented his genius as a painter and would later win the 1967 John Moores Painting Prize. This was no longer propagandism, this was celebration in its purest form.

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