In Focus: Hockney, Banksy and the battle of ‘fine art’ vs ‘a stencilled publicity stunt’

David Hockney's evocative 1972 masterpiece Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) set a record for a living artist last week, immediately sparking debate given the recent farrago surrounding the recent sale of Banksy's Girl with a Balloon.

David Hockney’s iconic Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)

Last week, David Hockney’s iconic Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) set a record at auction, becoming the most expensive work of art by an artist still living. The painting – a 1970s play on Classical paintings depicting a bather with an idyllic natural backdrop – fetched $90.3 million at Christie’s in New York. Not bad going for a lad from Yorkshire.

The acclaim for the painting is nothing new.  Portrait of an Artist has long been one of Hockney’s most celebrated works and has starred in various exhibitions, including a travelling retrospective organised by Tate Britain and shows at the Centre Pompidou and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The painting itself depicts the artist Peter Schlesinger, Hockney’s lover, muse and a favoured model. Their relationship had ended shortly before this was painted in 1972, leaving Hockney devastated, but inspiring this extraordinary work. Christie’s described it as ‘a powerful testament to the therapeutic power of painting’ in the catalogue – a power so potent that it sparked the cult 1974 film A Bigger Splash, which deals with the break-up and the creation of the painting.

In it Schlesinger is shown gazing at a swimmer underwater and a landscape illustrating the sun-drenched Californian good-life replaces the traditional Renaissance paradise. Albeit in a modern interpretation, the metaphor of Man’s harmonious relationship with Nature remains true.

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Hockney first had the idea for the painting when he noticed two photographs discarded on his studio floor: one of a swimmer in 1960s Hollywood, the other of a boy looking at something beneath him.

‘[Los Angeles was] the first time I had ever painted a place,’ Hockney explained. ‘In London I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angeles, there were no ghosts…

‘I remember seeing, within the first week, the ramp of a freeway going into the air and I suddenly thought: My God, this place needs its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am.’

Hockney’s depictions of LA life had previously resonated strongly with buyers: the previous records for one of his works was set earlier this year with Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica (1990), at $28.453 million. Now, he has overtaken the record for work by a living artist that had been set by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), which sold for $58.405 million back in 2013.

The Hockey sale comes hard on the heels of the sale of Banksy’s Girl With Balloon, and the extraordinary PR hoopla following its destruction moments after the hammer fell. And to some, at least, the fact that Hockney has reclaimed the spotlight for more traditional art is good news.

‘Real masterpieces do not need gimmicks – they stand and deliver on their own merit,’ said art dealer Stephen Howes immediately after the Hockney auction, who decried the ‘hideous pantomime’ of Banksy’s painting ‘self-shredding’.

‘Bizarrely, that prank has apparently made that piece’s value soar – which, it can be reasonably assumed, Banksy knew would happen…

‘That stunt was not about the art at all, it was all about the art of publicity…

‘Should David Hockney’s masterpiece have been shredded today, it would have rendered it pretty much worthless  – unlike Girl With Balloon which apparently increased in value.

‘Why? Because one piece is a work of fine art and the other is a stencilled publicity stunt.’

That said, the art of publicity has always been a critical part of the world of fine art. And if you know how to play the game, why not play to win?

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