David Hockney's The Blue Guitar

David Hockney’s The Old Guitarist. An intaglio print of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist with still life and abstract drawings around its perimeter. The Old Guitarist © David Hockney 1977
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David Hockney

David Hockney

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When an artist draws inspiration across generations and genres, how does it manifest in their work? David Hockney’s The Blue Guitar series serves as a response, combining the visual motifs of Pablo Picasso and the poetic rhythms of Wallace Stevens. This collection of etchings, created in 1977, captures Hockney's mastery of synthesising history with his own vibrant, modern approach. Through The Blue Guitar, Hockney not only pays homage to his predecessors but also redefines the boundaries between traditional and contemporary art forms, placing his own stamp on the dialogue of visual and literary arts.

What Influenced Hockney’s The Blue Guitar?

Wallace Stevens’ The Man with the Blue Guitar

The inception of The Blue Guitar series can be traced back to Wallace Stevens' poem The Man with the Blue Guitar, published in 1937. Stevens' poem meditates on the transformative power of art, suggesting that the artist's vision reshapes reality. Hockney, drawn to this exploration of perception, saw an opportunity to visually translate Stevens’ themes. The poem itself references Picasso's The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, adding another layer of connection that appealed to Hockney.

Hockney's engagement with Picasso's work is a cornerstone of this series. Picasso's influence is evident in the fragmented, Cubist-inspired compositions and the use of bold, flattened planes of colour. These choices reflect Hockney's admiration for Picasso’s ability to deconstruct and reassemble reality through art. By referencing Picasso through Stevens' poetic lens, Hockney creates a complex interplay of visual and literary allusions that challenges viewers to reconsider the nature of representation in art.

In The Blue Guitar, Hockney navigates the relationship between seeing and interpreting, a theme that resonates within the broader context of modern art. His etchings, characterised by their meticulous line work and colour palettes, not only pays homage to Stevens and Picasso but also asserts Hockney's position as a master of visual storytelling and conceptual innovation.

Picasso's The Old Guitarist

Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist remains one of the most evocative pieces of his Blue Period, a time marked by emotional depth and artistic innovation. Painted in 1903-1904, this artwork is emblematic of a phase where Picasso was engrossed in themes of poverty, isolation, and human frailty. The figure of an old guitarist, emaciated and bent, occupies almost the entire canvas, his posture mirroring the curves of the guitar he holds – his sole means of expression and possibly, subsistence.

“The source of the point was the painting of Picasso, so I’m turning the poem back into a painting.”
David Hockney

When considering Hockney’s The Blue Guitar series, it is clear that The Old Guitarist serves as a pivotal source of inspiration. Hockney, much like Picasso, uses art to explore complex emotional landscapes. However, while Picasso’s work lives in the realm of sombre realism, Hockney’s etchings exhibit a more lyrical and abstract approach. The series not only borrows thematic elements from Picasso but also transforms them through vibrant colours and dynamic compositions, reflecting a more contemporary and perhaps less desolate perspective.

Hockney’s Printmaking Techniques in The Blue Guitar

Hockney’s engagement with printmaking techniques, particularly during the creation of The Blue Guitar, marks a pivotal shift in his evolution. This exploration was significantly influenced by his experiences in the studio of Aldo Crommelynck, Picasso's esteemed master printer, in Paris. Here, Hockney embraced the sugar lift aquatint technique, a method that profoundly impacted the stylistic and technical qualities of his work.

"It was thrilling to meet someone who had such direct contact with Picasso and worked with him such a lot. Aldo Crommelynck taught me marvellous technical things about etching."
David Hockney

Sugar Lift Aquatint

The sugar lift aquatint technique, which allows for nuanced textural effects and subtle gradations of tone, was a method favoured by Picasso, especially in his coloured etchings. This technique involves painting a solution of sugar and ink on a metal plate, which, once treated, creates a permeable layer that can be etched to various depths. This process results in rich, velvety textures that are characteristic of aquatint etchings. Hockney's adoption of this method during his time in Crommelynck’s studio allowed him to achieve a level of depth and intensity in his prints that paralleled the thematic complexity of The Blue Guitar.

Hockney’s Reinterpretation of Cubism

Hockney’s reinterpretation of Cubism is less about deconstructing form in the manner of early Cubism, and more about reassembling it in ways that infuse the subject with a new, modern vitality. This approach does not dissect the forms into fragments but rather simplifies them into playful, almost cartoonish representations, using Cubism as a stylistic tool rather than a philosophical inquiry.

Beyond technical skills, Hockney’s stint in Paris also deepened his conceptual engagement with Cubism. By adopting and adapting the Cubist perspective, he explored the fragmentation of form and multiplicity of viewpoints, which allowed him to reconstruct reality in ways that were both visually striking and thematically layered. This engagement is evident in the way The Blue Guitar breaks down and reassembles its subjects, using planes and angles that echo the Cubist manipulation of form and space.

Hockney’s application of Cubist techniques can be seen in the way he deconstructs and reassembles forms in the series, playing with perspective and scale to challenge the viewer’s perception of space and narrative. This exploratory approach not only pays homage to Cubism’s revolutionary impact on visual art but also serves as a foundational element in Hockney’s later works, including the Moving Focus series and his renowned photo collages.

Collecting Hockney's Blue Guitar Series

Among the sought-after pieces from this series is Hockney's On It May Stay His Eye (signed), which is estimated to be worth between £3,450 and £5,000. Originating from 1977, this etching print has demonstrated a robust investment potential, showcasing an average annual growth rate of 21%. Since its first appearance on the auction block on 28th June 2006, the artwork has changed hands 11 times. In the past year alone, the average selling price has reached approximately £3,400 from a single sale. Over the last five years, its hammer price has seen fluctuations, ranging from a low of £1,208 in November 2019 to a high of £3,726 in September 2022, reflecting the artwork's increasing appeal and value in the art market.

A Moving Still Life (signed), holds an estimated value between £4,200 and £6,500. This etching, dating back to 1977, has demonstrated considerable value growth, boasting an impressive average annual growth rate of 54%. Since its market debut in June 2000, it has been sold 15 times at auction. Over the last 12 months, the average selling price has stabilised at £2,200. Moreover, the hammer prices in recent years have shown variability, with figures ranging from £1,510 in October 2020 to the most recent at £2,200 in June 2023, indicating a steadily increasing collector interest and market valuation.

MyArtBroker’s MAB100 Print Market Index Dashboard seen from a computer monitor.MAB100 Print Market Index © MyArtBroker 2023

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The Impact of The Blue Guitar on Contemporary Art

David Hockney's The Blue Guitar series has exerted a significant influence on contemporary art, asserting itself as a seminal work that bridges the divide between modernist explorations and postmodernist expressions. The series' integration of text and image, alongside its playful exploration of form, offers a blueprint that has been expanded upon by subsequent generations of artists.

Hockney's approach in The Blue Guitar continues to resonate, particularly in its challenge to conventional perceptions of space and narrative. His method of fragmenting and reconstructing imagery has inspired artists to pursue similar experiments in visual storytelling, where the narrative is not linear but multifaceted. Hockney's use of colour and bold lines in The Blue Guitar has encouraged a revival of interest in the expressive potentials of colour in printmaking and beyond.

The Blue Guitar serves not only as a landmark in Hockney's career but also as a continuing source of inspiration within modern art. It exemplifies how art can transcend its immediate context to influence future directions, maintaining an evolving presence in ongoing cultural conversations. Through this series, Hockney has shaped the contours of contemporary art, affirming the role of the artist as both a reflector and an innovator of their time.

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