- David Hockney
- Life Painting for a Diploma
- signed twice with the initials and titled
oil on canvas with charcoal on paper collage
- 180 by 180cm.
- 70 7/8 by 70 7/8 in.
- Executed in 1962.
Collection of the artist
Ossie Clark, London
Acquired directly from the above by the previous owner
London, The Royal College of Art, Degree Show, 1962
Exhibition Catalogue, London, Whitechapel Gallery, David Hockney: Paintings, Prints and Drawings 1960-1970, 1970, p. 26, no. 62.9, illustrated (photograph of the artist with the present work)
Paul Melia and Ulrich Luckhardt, David Hockney Paintings, New York 1994, p. 17, fig. 14, illustrated (photograph of the artist with the present work)
Exhibition Catalogue, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, David Hockney: A Drawing Retrospective, 1996, p. 48, fig. 17, illustrated (photograph of the artist with the present work)
"I was threatened with not getting a diploma at all at The Royal College because they said I hadn't done enough life-painting. So I copied that muscle man out of a magazine"
Artist's statement in Town, vol. 3, No. 9, September 1962
Life Painting for a Diploma represents a groundbreaking moment in David Hockney's personal and pictorial development and for the evolution of Pop Art. Conceived as the crowning centrepiece of his critically acclaimed 1962 diploma show at the Royal College of Art, it cemented his reputation as the most exciting artistic talent of his generation and announced the versatility, masterful draughtsmanship and autobiographical intimacy that are now synonymous with his best mature work.
Life Painting for a Diploma presents a male nude copied from the cover of American body-building magazine 'Physique' alongside a painstakingly-detailed, anatomical study of a skeleton that Hockney drew during his first days at the Royal College. A stark momento-mori of juxtaposed forms and styles, as the title suggests, this work was intended as an ironic riposte to the stringent, and in Hockney's opinion, dated diploma criteria of the Royal College under which each student was obliged to submit a series of life drawings as part of their final degree show. As the artist explained, he wanted this work to both criticise and enliven the otherwise habitually dreary tradition of academic life painting: "At the Royal College in those days there was a stipulation that each year you had to do about twelve life paintings, which would take quite a lot of time if you were doing them in an academic way. Then they thought that was being a bit rigid, and I think they altered it to three, saying it only meant that in your diploma show you had to have at least three paintings done from life. I had a few quarrels with them over it because I said the models weren't attractive enough; and they said it shouldn't make any difference, i.e. it's only a sphere, a cylinder and a cone. And I said well, I think it does make a difference, you can't get away from it; and it's true, it does. Any great painter of the nude has always painted nudes that he liked; Renoir paints rather pretty plump girls, because he obviously thought they were really wonderful. He was sexually attracted to them and thought they were beautiful, so he painted them; and if some little thin girl came along he'd probably have thought, lousy model. Quite right. Michelangelo paints muscular marvellous young men; he thinks they're wonderful. In short, you get inspired. So I got a copy of one of those American Physique magazines and copied the cover; and just to show them that even if the painting isn't anatomically correct I could do an anatomically correct thing, I stuck on one of my early drawings of the skeleton and I called it in a cheeky moment Life Painting for a Diploma. It's mocking their idea of being objective about a nude in front of you when really your feelings must be affected. I though they were ignoring feeling, and they shouldn't. It was a way of telling them something." (Cited in: David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1984, p. 88)
Despite its subversive intent and unconventional content, Life Painting for a Diploma gained Hockney the Royal College's much coveted Life Drawing prize; just rewards for the natural facility he had shown as a draughtsman from the start of his time there. This is evinced in the exquisitely rendered charcoal drawings of a skeleton on the left side of the composition - one of three drawings he made of this subject shortly after enrolling. One of his contemporaries R.B Kitaj fondly recalled: "We were in the Cast Room and I watched him spend his first week drawing a skeleton. It was the most beautiful drawing I had ever seen... I offered him £5 for it and he accepted. In the second week he did a more elaborate skeleton drawing which I was able to buy many years later from a dealer, but for rather more than £5!" (Cited in Webb, Portrait of David Hockney, London 1988, pp. 21-22)
Hockney is widely regarded as, "the most popular and versatile British artist of the 20th Century" (Jane Turner, Ed., The Grove Dictionary of Art, Volume 14, Oxford 1996, p. 607) and in this work he displays the celebrated wit, self confidence and irony that have become the hallmarks of his staunchly individual artistic persona. Having previously repressed his homosexuality behind a smoke screen of symbolism and consciously naive abstract expressionist gesture, his decision to tackle the intimate circumstances of his own life and sexuality here effectively marked a radical change of direction and the 'coming-out' of his mature creative voice. Taking the private into the public sphere, it provided the inspirational springboard and autobiographical emphasis for his work over the coming decades as well as the earliest expression of Hockney's love affair with America - his adopted home since 1964 - and the body-beautiful, California-dreaming lifestyle that he yearned for and was at this time living through Los Angelean magazines like Physique. As such, Life Painting for a Diploma can be seen as the direct precursor to his iconic 'Shower' and 'Pool' paintings - many of which were also inspired by Physique magazine.
Life Painting for a Diploma established Hockney as the figurehead for an emerging generation of British Pop artists and challenged conventional divisions between high and low art. It is one of the iconic Pop art images of the 'swinging 60s' and was acquired by one of Hockney's contemporaries at the Royal College: the designer Ossie Clark who was to become one of that era's most colourful and influential figures. Like Clark's clothing which defined the youthful look and zeitgeist of the decade, Life Painting for a Diploma reflects the sense of creative optimism and freedom of the period. Although often presented as a primarily American phenomenon, Pop's first, formative manifestations were in England during the late 50s and early 60s and it was there that the term itself originated within the Independent Group and their discussions about art and popular culture. Richard Hamilton in particular sought to incorporate the Group's theoretical interests regarding advertising and product design into his work and his collage of 1956, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? still holds pride of place as the creative germ from which all the other Pop Art explorations sprung. Hockney's own muscle man importantly creates a bridge between the Pop's early years in Britain and its subsequent growth in America: the country where the movement took hold and developed in the hands of artists Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and of course, Hockney himself.
As a subject the nude is one of the oldest and most revealing themes in the History of Western art - one whose changing treatment provides an insightful reflection of societies' changing attitudes to the body through the centuries, whether objects of veneration in ancient cultures, vessels of shame in the Christian Middle Ages, or symbols of universal truth and harmony in the Renaissance. Life Painting for a Diploma touches upon this ambiguous and evolving history, referencing both the nude's Classical, idealised origins in Greek statuary as well as its more recent self-conscious, psychological realism. In its physique and timeless contrapposto pose, Hockney's nude is comparable to the Neo Platonic forms advocated by Alberti, Michelangelo and Leonardo. And yet like the prostitute's shoes and jewellery in Manet's Olympia, the bodybuilder's 'posing-pouch' and glistening smile locate him in a contemporary reality: one observed through the photographic lens of a muscle-mag. Hockney delights in this tension, taking quasi-pagan, Rubensesque satisfaction in constructing the carefully modelled form of his contemporary 'David' through an intricate patchwork of tonal chiaroscuro and local colour.
Following his graduation, Hockney was invited to exhibit his work in four important London exhibitions. In the catalogue for 'Image in Progress' at the Grabowski Gallery in the autumn of 1962 he wrote: "I am sure my own sources are classic or even epic themes. Landscapes of foreign lands, beautiful people, love, propaganda, and major incidents (of my own life). These seem to me to be reasonably traditional." (Cited in: Peter Webb, Portrait of David Hockney, London 1988, p. 52) All this is true. Rather than inventing new, sensationalist subjects, or using unprecedented art materials, Hockney has continued to invest subject matter that has preoccupied artists throughout history with new meaning and contemporary relevance. The newness and importance of his work lies in the uniqueness of his vision; its singular outlook and uninfluencable candour.