In Celia II, the influence of Picasso’s portraits of the 1930s is palpable; Birtwell’s captivating, electric blue eyes, weightlessly propped arm, and charming smile reveal both the artist’s adoration for his subject and the stylistic cues that he supplements from the grand master of Cubism. “Like his hero Picasso, Hockney has returned to portraiture again and again as a forum through which he has explored personality and self-image, interpersonal relationships, sexuality, the joys and optimism of youth and the darker realities of illness, frailty and old age” (Marco Livingstone, ‘The Private Face of a Public Art’ in: Exh. Cat., London, National Portrait Gallery (and travelling), David Hockney Portraits, 2006, p. 17). Birtwell has consistently been attendant to Hockney’s stylistic – and romantic – developments since they first became acquainted in the early 1960s; it was in the wake of the artist’s break-up with his long-term partner of the time Peter Schlesinger in 1971 that their relationship intensified. Emerging in a series of portraits of Birtwell in Paris between 1973 and 1975, Hockney developed a much more delicate and tender drawing style that expressed his sitters through an effeminate veil of pencil and coloured crayon. But it was not until the early 1980s that Birtwell would be central to the artist’s exploratory lithographs that instrumentalised Cubist formalities to illustrate his subjects ‘in the round’. In two poignant and elaborate works, An Image of Celia (1984-6) and Walking Past Two Chairs (1984-6), both in the Tate Collection, London, a dynamic inversion of perspective and pictorial shattering synonymous with Georges Braque and Picasso, plays out in an animated staccato.
Hockney’s investigation of the formal intricacies of Cubism reached a crescendo during this period. Whilst influenced by his predecessors, the artist’s ongoing experiments with photography – which combined the singular, static frame into a multidimensional, multifocal amalgam – had motivated the artist to revisit painting and printmaking from a fresh perspective. Previously employing photography as a method of achieving a precision-reproduction in the large-format double portraits of the 1970s, for example the astounding Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy in which Celia Birtwell is depicted with her husband Ossie Clark, in the present work, Hockney unshackles himself from the rigours of documentarian painting from photographs. What his works of the mid-1980s exhibit, rather, is an ineffable synthesis of formal experimentation and intuitive execution, combining the artist’s art historical reference points with the candid and sensitive gaze that defines his remarkable freehand portraiture. Birtwell – one of Hockney’s closest friends and most reproduced sitters – is captured in the present work in an elegant repose, her transfixing stare highlighting the undertones of her glowing visage. Celia II, with its fantastic intensity and luscious coils of brushwork, is an exemplary work of a master portraitist demonstrating his comparable accomplishments to the idols of the genre, and undoubtedly places Hockney on par as one of the most innovative and seminal artists devoted to painting.
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