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As I write, David Hockney is pretty much inescapable, he and his Yorkshire landscapes the subjects of massive media attention as his Royal Academy blockbuster gets underway. He is 74 and as good for a line of copy as ever he was. Of the artists of his generation, he has always been the most dazzling, and the cinematic scale of his recent work is merely the latest manifestation of a spectacle, of both art and personality, played out in public over five decades.

In a filmed interview included with this new DVD release of A Bigger Splash, director Jack Hazan makes plain that his approach was based on the sensibility of Warhol’s films, citing in particular Warhol associate Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968). Watching Hazan’s film now, I’m struck by its similarities to David Bailey’s 1973 television documentary about Warhol, a work that was equally controversial in its day. In each, the artist is the still centre of an entourage enacting or re-enacting its own cult of personality, its own myth, to camera. And the parallels between these two quintessential twentieth-century artists are manifold: each of them a self-creation flirting with irony and artifice, with perceptions of class and queerness, and each cultivating mystique from the dualistic disguise of dandyism. And both are essentially portraitists, variously in thrall to photography and the world of surfaces.

A Bigger Splash centres on the breakdown of the relationship between Hockney and his American lover Peter Schlesinger; a story that provides the film’s ‘coalface’ as Hazan puts it. The affair and it’s aftermath are delineated more coherently in both Hockney’s autobiography and in Christopher Simon Sykes’s recent biography, though factual coherence is not the real point here, as the film seems largely an exercise in the exploration of narrative configuration and the generation of atmosphere.

Although much of it reads as linear documentary, A Bigger Splash is a construct, collaged together in the cutting room from scenes shot out of sequence, its final structure the result of much deliberation. Its blend of verité and artifice; part Factory, part Carry On, combines Hazan’s footage from real events and unscripted re-enactments. It’s the lie that tells the truth: ‘Truer than the truth’ as Ossie Clark said post-screening, though just whose truth is unclear. As a film it’s too long, its obliquely pregnant longueurs the result of Hazan’s occasional attempts to impose dramatic tension, and in part from it’s acting by non-actors: of whom incidentally Hockney – I suppose unsurprisingly – appears the most natural.

The story is told largely in retrospect, looping first backwards then forwards in time, its endpoint also its beginning. Narrative signposting comes largely from Patrick Gowers’s insistently melodramatic score, and from Mo McDermott’s frequent voiceovers, enunciated in a world-weary Northern camp, first uttered thus: “It’s over. He phoned me last night and told me Peter’s leaving him. He was so beautiful. Like a Greek god… When love goes wrong there’s more than two people suffer’; this last rather aggrandising refrain reiterated later in the film.

The tone is set in the opening credits, as the cast, each represented by their Hockney portrait, are introduced in a sequence overlaid by Gowers’s score at it’s most portentous. The gang’s all here: Schlesinger, textile designer Celia Birtwell and her fashion designer husband Ossie Clark, MoMA curator Henry Geldzhaler, Hockney’s gallerist John Kasmin, artist Patrick Procktor, model Joe McDonald et al. There follows a montage of press cuttings and colour supplement profiles, a flickering photo-chronology of Hockney’s propulsion to international fame, the accoutrements of his self-perpetuating myth furnishing a brand of ironic glamour – the gold lamé jacket, the peroxided Artful Dodger haircut, Le Corbusier specs, etc.

In a film about an artist who at this early-1970s juncture was heavily reliant on photographic source material, Hazan is good at making nuanced connections between film and Hockney’s painted shorthand of photographic colour, light and reflection. We see how the inherent detachment of the photograph is rendered in paint; the sheen of photo emulsion translated in acrylic washes; and then referenced also in the reflective surfaces of water and glass in Hazan’s film. There is a marvellous sequence in which massed photographs of an underwater swimmer are laid edge-to-edge in an echo of film and its processes, with then a switch to Hockney in his studio working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with two figures), in which the light and movement of water captured in one of these photographs are transcribed as a fractured mosaic.

“When you go into the world of David Hockney, it’s easy,” Hazan recalled in 2003. “The set is designed for you. It’s all planes – it’s almost like a film set.” Here everything is a form of portraiture. Filmed in Hockney’s sitting room, the glass and chrome table, the Lalique lamp, the vases of tulips that we recognise as components from the iconography of his art, speak of both elegance and of Schlesinger’s absence. Later on, in one of a number of surreal moments in which Hockney’s portraits and their subjects appear together as if by magic, Ossie takes his white cat to stand in front of Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy at the Tate. In their painted versions, as Renaissance nobility reborn in a new aristocracy of talent, he and Celia stare out both at him and at us: it’s a play within a play, in which artifice begets artifice.

Amongst the more telling documentary scenes is one shot at what Derek Jarman termed ‘the Ascot of radical drag’, Andrew Logan’s ‘Alternative Miss World’, staged in an old jigsaw factory in North London. A motley Bohemian crowd whoop it up as Jarman (as Miss Issippi) and others sashay down the aisle in Gay Liberationist drag. Hockney and the painter Robert Medley are amongst the judges: Kasmin’s aristocratic backer Sheridan Dufferin and fashion journalist Michael Roberts amongst those slumming it in the crowd. It’s a moment that says something of the period’s collisions between fashion, art, and music, whilst documenting also a gestating radical gay politics, one that surfaced powerfully in the 1980s.

The film’s depictions of gay life, including a fumbling coupling between Schlesinger and, it now transpires, a straight friend drafted in for the sake of art – a scene which accounted for much of the film’s difficulty with the censor – have lost their potency now. Watching that particular scene again I was reminded of how enthralled and embarrassed I was by the film as an art student in the late 1970s; enthralled by Hockney and his circle as the epitome of bohemian glamour, and embarrassed, in an art college lecture theatre screening, by the open depiction of gay sex at a time when I was still uncertain of my own orientation.

Another sequence, filmed at an Ossie Clark fashion show, has Amanda Lear and Gala Mitchell on the catwalk, and Hockney, Birtwell and Schlesinger in the audience’s front row, the latter in a sailor’s top, for all the world like Björn Andrésen’s Tadzio in Visconti’s Death in Venice. The scene serves as a reminder of the ways in which Hockney’s circle reclaimed and reinvented inter-war modernity, of how they seized glamour as a liberating force at a time when in Peter York’s phrase, ‘Style became a weapon to forge your own legend.’ For this was the generation for whom the likes of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant – the Bright Young Things of the Thirties – were the models of inspiration, a hedonistic world of camply ironic nonchalance and legerdemain. The 1960s and 70s manifestation of this world and its wider milieu are documented in Peter Schlesinger’s book of photographs, his ‘visual diary’ A Chequered Past (2003). It’s a world now lost – the world of Gatsby before the Fall, before the wrecker’s ball of Thatcherism and Aids. Like Schlesinger’s book, Hazan’s film serves also to remind us of the unfulfilled potential of wasted talent, and of those dead too soon: Henry Geldzhaler, Derek Jarman, Joe McDonald from the effects of Aids, McDermott and Procktor from alcoholism, and the murder of Ossie Clark.

Towards the end of A Bigger Splash everything clicks into place, with Hockney in New York, the painting of Schlesinger he’s battled to complete installed alongside others at André Emmerich’s gallery on East 57th Street. He is filmed from a hand-held camera, striding through the city en route to his exhibition, the streets full of urgent life and blaring horns.

‘I’m always alone, looking’, Hockney said in a recent radio interview. And perhaps, as obsessed as Warhol was by the image world, Hockney lives to some extent vicariously through those images of his own making – as do his public: each new exhibition, each new book and media appearance, a further stage in the unfolding story. Meanwhile, the good ship Hockney sails on: beguiling, unstoppable, a magnificent obsessive.

Published in Sight and Sound, March 2012

© Ian Massey 2012

Film still by kind permission of Jack Hazan and BFI DVD

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