Celia I is a delicate and tender portrait of one of David Hockney’s closest and oldest friends, the renowned designer Celia Birtwell. The portrait encapsulates not only the technical mastery of subtle color and form that David Hockney has become so admired for, but also permits us to see one of Hockney’s closest confidants through his own eyes. Celia first met Hockney in Los Angeles in 1964 and is most famously represented in Hockney's large double portrait Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970-1971 (Tate Collection, London), with her husband, Ossie Clark. In a career-long examination of himself, his closest friends and family, and art world personalities, Hockney’s portraits form a crucial element of his practice, integrated into his shifting palette, styles, and modes of production. An intimate portrayal of one of the artist’s most frequent and important sitters, Celia I demonstrates the virtuosity of one of the most prodigious artists of the post-modern period.
It was in the wake of Hockney’s break-up with his long-term partner Peter Schlesinger in 1971 that his relationship with Celia Birtwell intensified. In a series of portraits of Birtwell executed 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 colored crayon. However, it was not until the early 1980s that Birtwell would be central to the artist’s exploratory lithographs that called upon Cubist formalities to illustrate his subjects ‘in the round.’ Hockney’s investigation of the formal intricacies of Cubism reached a crescendo during this period. In Celia I, the influence of Picasso’s portraits of the 1930s is palpable; Birtwell’s captivating, electric blue eyes, weightlessly propped arm, luscious and flowing red locks 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 traveling), David Hockney Portraits, 2006, p. 17).
Hockney’s works of the mid-1980s exhibit an indescribable 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 is captured in the present work in an elegant repose, her transfixing stare highlighting the undertones of her glowing visage. Celia I, 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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