A Bigger Splash, a semi-fictionalized documentary about David Hockney opens with a ringing phone. A slideshow of photos flashes across the screen, and the shrill ringing goes on. Ten seconds… Twenty seconds… Forty… Over a minute goes by, and no one picks up. It dials up the anxiety on a film that, ostensibly, is about an artist and his work. But, the work of an artist is rarely confined to what is found on the canvas: It is the sum of his experience and obsessions.
When director Jack Hazan decided to make A Bigger Splash, which was first released in 1974 and has returned to New York’s Metrograph for one week in a 4K restoration, David Hockney had just entered the mainstream. A few years earlier he was toiling away as a no-name artist until his arrival in California, where he started painting images of swimming pools that propelled him into superstardom. While from the UK, to this day, Hockney’s paintings capture California as a carefree but almost antiseptic land of leisure, longing and desire. It was a place where he had a breakthrough as an artist, but also where he found love. In California, Hockney met Peter Schlesinger and the pair struck up a romantic relationship. Schlesinger would become the subject and muse of some of Hockney’s most enduring paintings and their breakup would become the central focus of Hazan’s A Bigger Splash.
Hockney and Schlesinger rarely appear together on screen in the film. There is just one sequence where Hockney takes photos of Schlesinger on a misty morning, trying to strike the perfect pose for his upcoming painting, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). They barely speak, and Schlesinger, who will be the man in pink, reluctantly stands off in the distance. They are physically close but emotionally distant. Their love has already soured. In another sequence, we see dozens of photos of a swimmer in white trunks under water and a different man in pink. This man is Hockney’s friend, Mo McDermott. He faces the camera to explain that they tried to make it work with him, but only Peter had “the right hair,” according to Hockney.
This scene contrasts with those of Hockney painting and repainting his former lover. His gallerist wants to know why he has been obsessing for half a year over a painting he takes no pleasure in actually working on. It is a painting of Peter that Hockney can’t seem to let go of.
The work stalls, and Hockney procrastinates. He showers and, intercut, are scenes of the real Schlesinger at a pool in California with other beautiful young men. Two realities collide: the lonely Hockney in his London shower, and the perfect and vibrantly imagined Peter, frolicking in California. A Bigger Splash is a rare film from the era that represents both gay love and gay sex. Sequences like this one, and earlier ones featuring Schlesinger intimately with other men, are hot, heavy, and romantic. The movie, even by today’s standards, does not shy away from male nudity either. It is a film that seems to externalize David Hockney’s erotic imagination and the anxiety that comes with it. Even though Peter Schlesinger appears in the film, we never see the real version of him, just various stand-ins for how Hockney imagines him.
Hockney’s fascination with swimming pools during this era was tinged with eroticism. They not only feature beautiful men but reflect the tension between cool, clear exteriors and explosive desires. He achieved this technique by contrasting the use of rollers to apply paint with jerky hand motions to capture splashes. For the graphic problem of capturing the transparency and reflectivity of water, he relied somewhat on photographs, but they were often insufficient in capturing the ethereal quickness of its flow. He said that the problem with cameras was that they would “freeze,” the water when he was trying to use paint to give it movement. Instead, he’d mostly work from his own sketches and experiments, much like Da Vinci had centuries before.
The moving camera was a much better vehicle for capturing what Hockney was looking for. As part of the film, Hazan tries to recreate elements of the paintings by asking various subjects to pose as they would have for Hockney. In doing this, we have a greater sense of how Hockney was able to see past their external reality and capture deeper meaning. Yet, to the same sense, it is also an unnatural and even alienating position. Hazan was clearly fascinated by the tension that existed in the ambiguity between the artist and the subject, especially if they are also lovers. What happens when those relationships dissolve? What does it mean for the work? How does one live with the art afterward?
Hazan describes showing Hockney the film for the first time. “I have never seen a more distraught person,” he apparently said. “It shattered me.” Hockney wasn’t even sure what to think, it was his friends who convinced him the film was something special. They thought it was a beautiful film about him, but also his work. Hazan’s camera crosses across all boundaries and though it’s fictionalized elements, arrives at a greater sense of truth.
The film ends on one of Hockney’s most famous paintings, “Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy” (1970–1) a portrait of his friend’s fashion designer Ossie Clark and the textile designer Celia Birtwell shortly after their wedding. Both are featured in the film, and to see them alongside the painting is somewhat harrowing. Hockney chooses to pose them apart from one another with a cat (Percy) in Ossie’s lap, and his hand reaching for the phone. The symbolism of deceit and disappointment is clear even to them. Less than a year after the release of the film (three years after the painting was completed) they would divorce due to Ossie’s infidelities.
In A Bigger Splash’s ringing phone, we get that sense of unfulfilled desire. How a breakup is rarely clean and is often protracted over time. Through art, Hockney digs his finger into an already open wound by tracing the lines around his fantasy Peter over and over again. The breakup and the fictionalized elements surrounding it are used to both build and deconstruct the myth of the artist. We cannot erase our animal desires so they become integrated into the work. To understand Hockney’s process is to understand his inner world, which can only be reached through fantasy and fiction.