Born in Bradford in 1937, David Hockney had already become a success in Britain when, late in 1963, he arrived in Los Angeles, a city which had fascinated him for a long time. ‘Within a week of arriving there in this strange big city, not knowing a soul, I’d passed the driving test, bought a car, driven to Las Vegas and won some money, got myself a studio, started painting, all within a week. And I thought, it’s just how I imagined it would be.’
Perhaps only those who experienced the grey drabness of 1950s Britain can understand the full intensity of this culture shock. Another work in the Tate collection acts as a reminder; Carel Weight’s The Dogs shows a crowd leaving a south London greyhound stadium. Although a beautiful sunset illuminates the scene, the mood remains relentlessly downbeat, the crowd dressed almost uniformly in grey, trudge home, unaware of the spectacular sky, shoulders hunched, heads down. Hockney left all that behind him and embraced the light and colour of California (as well as a number of beautiful young men). This picture is a celebration of that dazzling light and the lifestyle he now enjoyed.
In 1966 he had painted a small piece called The Little Splash which he completed in about two days. Later that year he produced a larger version, The Splash but, he tells us in his book David Hockney by David Hockney, ‘I thought the background was perhaps slightly fussy, the buildings were a little too complicated, not quite right. So I decided I’d do a third version, a big one using a very simple building and strong light.’ So in 1967 A Bigger Splash took shape.
Hockney had switched to acrylic paint which chimed in well with the intense light producing flat, bold colours — he tells us that he used a roller to apply the broad areas of paint in A Bigger Splash. There are almost no shadows, just an overwhelming sense of heat and penetrating light. A single chair swelters at the poolside, two slender palm trees rise into the featureless sky, the blind glass of the low-rise house reflects another palm behind us. A diver has just departed from the diving board a split second before; he has broken the unnaturally becalmed surface of the pool and has disappeared beneath the water causing the eponymous splash to erupt. In contrast to the rapid application of the flat background planes of acrylic Hockney worked intensively on the splash using fine brushes in his effort to capture a frozen instant.
In a minute fraction of a second gravity will recall the plumes of water which now hang at their apogee, and the placid surface of the pool will be disrupted. In another second the re-emergence of the diver will cause more ripples. But for now we can stand for as long as we want, as though we are in a realm in which the laws of time have ceased to work, enabling us to contemplate the light, the heat and the silence, the diver permanently consigned to the blue-tiled depths.
1967 Andy Warhol: Electric Chair, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou
1969 Patrick Heron: Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian, London, Tate Britain