On David Hockney’s Californian swimming pools

Spring is almost around the corner and with this hopeful outlook of pleasant temperatures and sunny days, Little artnecdotes looks at the Californian swimming pool paintings of British artist David Hockney (b. 1937). Hockney first visited the Golden State in 1963, a year after his graduation from the Royal College of Art in London. He returned in 1964 and remained there, with only intermittent trips to Europe, until 1968. Drawn to California for its relaxed and sensual way of life, and the sunny climate, he discovered that most people in Los Angeles and surrounding areas had a swimming pool. Unlike Britain, where a pool was considered a luxury, California was known for its abundant presence of pools, a common commodity in a constantly warm environment.

Between 1964 and 1971 Hockney made numerous paintings depicting swimming pools. In each painting he attempted to find a different solution for representing the constant changing surface of water. While his later swimming pools were based on photographs, in the beginning his depiction of water was consciously derived from the influences of others, like painter Bernard Cohen and Jean Dubuffet.

Most known for A Bigger Splash (1967), Hockney painted this painting with two other ‘splash paintings’, The Splash and A Little Splash (both 1966). Derived in part from a photograph he 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 represents 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 turquoise water.

The 1960s are often seen as a period when Britain emerged from the greyness of the post war years into a period of optimism, colour and youthfulness. Few works demonstrate this attitude better than Hockney’s depictions of Californian swimming pools. These evoke a glamorous and alluring life of sun and leisure. Repeatedly, he populates these scenes with male figures. However, only the splash in this iconic work suggests a human presence. And this is exactly what makes this painting emblematic and unforgettable.

David Hockney has currently a major retrospective at Tate Britain, on view until 29 May.