Picasso and Hockney
How the late artist inspired the contemporary master

This signed print by much-loved British artist David Hockney is a tribute to Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, it depicts Hockney standing next to a bust of his idol, positioned on an ornate marble plinth.The Student © David Hockney 1973
Jasper Tordoff

Jasper Tordoff, Specialist[email protected]

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In 1960, a young David Hockney visited a Pablo Picasso retrospective at the Tate. He would return eight more times. Since then, the profound impact of Picasso on Hockney's artistic journey has become an emblematic story of inspiration and evolution in modern art. Throughout his career, Hockney has demonstrated the intricate ways in which Picasso's groundbreaking techniques and philosophical approaches to art deeply influenced him. From his innovative Photo Collages and stage designs to his poignant Influences and the celebrated The Blue Guitar series, we explore how Picasso's legacy of innovation became intertwined with Hockney's own quest for expression.

Pablo Picasso: A Trailblazer in Modern Art

Picasso was born in 1881 in Málaga, Spain, and was a prodigious talent from an early age, nurtured under the guidance of his artist father. He rapidly evolved to become one of the most influential figures in 20th-century art, a true trailblazer whose impact extended far beyond his time. As a co-founder of Cubism alongside Georges Braque, Picasso revolutionised the art world with works like Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and Guernica. These pieces challenged traditional perspectives through their innovative geometric forms while conveying profound political and social commentary, particularly in the context of the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso's artistic journey was characterised by a relentless pursuit of innovation, as he constantly evolved his style and experimented with various mediums including painting, sculpture, ceramics, and printmaking. This versatility and refusal to be confined to a single style or medium made him a source of inspiration for generations of artists who followed. He has been directly cited in the work of numerous contemporary artists such as Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Each of these artists, in their unique ways, drew from Picasso's groundbreaking approach to art. Thus, Picasso's legacy is not just in the pieces he created but in the creative pathways he opened up. His work encouraged artists to challenge conventions, explore diverse mediums, and express themselves in groundbreaking ways. The reverberations of his influence in modern art are profound, making him not just a master of his time but a perennial source of inspiration in the art world.

Influences: Hockney's Posthumous Homages to Picasso

Hockney's series Influences was Hockney’s first poignant and deeply personal tribute to Picasso, reflecting profound admiration and the significant impact the late master had on his work. This can be seen in the artworks The Student and Artist And Model, each offering a unique perspective on Hockney's relationship with his idol. These works were created a few months after Picasso’s death, a posthumous homage to the Cubist icon. In The Student Hockney presents himself standing beside a bust of Picasso, which is elegantly positioned on an ornate marble plinth. This composition is rich in symbolism, with the marble pedestal serving as a visual metaphor for Hockney's indebtedness to Picasso. The work communicates a formal reverence, portraying Picasso as a towering figure in the art world whose influence is monumental and foundational to Hockney's own artistic journey. The choice of a classical plinth elevates Picasso to a near-mythical status, underscoring the immense respect and admiration Hockney holds for him.

Artist And Model contrasts strikingly with this. Here, Hockney depicts a more intimate scene, where he stands across the table from Picasso, engaging in conversation. This print presents a less formal and more personal interaction between the two artists. Hockney made the choice to depict himself nude in front of Picasso, suggesting vulnerability and symbolising how Hockney is indebted to the master. Having incorporated elements of Picasso's œuvre into his own work, this act of artistic humility reflects Hockney's acknowledgment of his debt to Picasso's creative genius. Furthermore, Picasso is shown reading from a sheet of paper to Hockney, who is attentively listening – further emphasising the dynamic of mentorship and learning. Alternatively, could be sketching Hockney as a nude, as implied in the title. Both scenarios convey a deep sense of respect and homage, with Hockney positioning himself as a student to Picasso's tutelage.

Picasso in Hockney's The Blue Guitar

Hockney's The Blue Guitar series stands as another notable homage to Picasso, intertwining literature, poetry and visual art. This series draws upon Wallace Stevens' 1936 poem The Man with the Blue Guitar, inspired by Picasso's 1903 painting The Old Guitarist, which portrays a blind, old guitarist – one of the most evocative works from his Blue Period. Hockney's approach to the etchings was not to create literal illustrations of Stevens' poem or fully copy Picasso but rather to explore and interpret its themes through visual means. He delved into the concepts of transformation within art, and the relationship between reality and imagination. This aligns closely with Picasso's own explorations, where reality was often depicted as a subjective, fragmented, and reinterpreted entity. The interplay of these artistic mediums and eras creates a multi-layered homage that transcends time and form.

Hockney also paid homage to Picasso through his technique in this work. Following Picasso’s death in 1973, Hockney received an invitation to participate in a print series celebrating the legendary painter. Accepting this opportunity, Hockney travelled to Paris to work closely with Aldo Crommelynck, who was renowned as Picasso’s master printer. During his time in Crommelynck’s studio, Hockney mastered the sugar lift aquatint technique, a method Picasso often used for creating his coloured etchings. This newfound skill played a crucial role in the creation of this series, showcasing a direct link to Picasso’s artistic methods.

“The history of art is a history of appropriations. [Hockney] has been able to adapt his reading of Picasso's art to his own very different representational problems and has thereby created works that are fresh, innovative, and personal.”
Gert Schiff

Picasso’s Influence on Hockney’s Photography

Picasso also has a deep influence on Hockney's photography, particularly in his Photo Collages, which he calls Joiners. In 1980 in New York, Hockney saw a Picasso retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and felt inspired. Hockney began to overlay his photographs, creating a more complex and dynamic visual effect reminiscent of Cubism. This technique allowed Hockney to play with perspective and fragmentation, breaking down a scene into its constituent parts and then reassembling them in a manner that challenged traditional, linear perspectives. By this point in his career, Hockney had already become known for his relentless experimentation with various mediums, and found in photography a way to dissect and reassemble reality – much like Picasso did with his Cubist compositions.

Unlike a single photograph, which captures a scene from one static viewpoint, Hockney's Joiners amalgamate multiple angles and moments, offering a more fluid and dynamic perspective and mirroring the way the human eye perceives the world. This approach aligns closely with the cubist philosophy of depicting objects from various viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. In works like The Desk, Hockney pays homage to Picasso's Synthetic Cubism phase, characterised by simpler shapes, muted colours, and a more collage-like approach. These limited hues allow for a greater focus on the geometric and fragmented aspects of the composition.

Hockney’s Photo Collages represent a unique blend of cubist principles with photographic techniques, paying tribute to Picasso’s groundbreaking art while pushing the boundaries of how photography is perceived and used as a medium to capture and represent reality.

Picasso’s Influence on Hockney and the Stage

Picasso's influence on Hockney further extended into the realm of stage design, particularly evident in their interpretations of the ballet Parade. Picasso's engagement with the performance piece in 1917 set a significant precedent for artist involvement in stage design. His work on the original production was characterised by innovative and avant-garde elements, including Cubist costumes. The audience’s first impression of Picasso was the curtain he created, which would be the artist’s largest ever work. Both Synthetic and Analytical Cubism then found their way into his contributions: the main set was a monochrome back cloth depicting a cubist perspective on a Parisian boulevard. The artist also created 2.75m tall sculptures, created out of geometrical shapes.

When Hockney had the opportunity to contribute to a later production of Parade, he consciously chose to draw inspiration from Picasso's groundbreaking approach. Hockney's design paid homage to Picasso, not only in the general aesthetic but specifically through the incorporation of signature elements like the harlequins from his Rose Period. This choice was a tribute and a continuation of Picasso's artistic vision, demonstrating the profound impact he has had. Hockney’s work on Parade became a cross-generational dialogue between two masters, bridging their artistic styles and epochs within the unique and dynamic environment of the stage.

Colour and Innovation: Shared Aesthetics between Two Masters

The artistic journey of Hockney, profoundly influenced by Picasso, stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of one of the 20th century's most revolutionary artists. The common threads of colour and innovation weave through both artists' works. Picasso's periods, from the Blue and Rose to his foray into Cubism, resonate in Hockney's vibrant colour choices and his bold, experimental style. This shared aesthetic is more than a mere similarity in technique or subject matter; it represents a mutual understanding of art as a constantly evolving dialogue between the interior world, perception and reality.

In their unique yet interconnected ways, Picasso and Hockney have demonstrated that art is not just a reflection of the world as it is, but a window into what it could be. Their works challenge viewers to see beyond the conventional, to explore the interplay of light, colour, and form in ways that transform our understanding of art and its possibilities. The legacy of Picasso, as seen through the lens of Hockney's work, is a vivid reminder that the journey of art is infinite, its horizons ever-expanding, driven by the ceaseless spirit of innovation.

“When I’m working, I feel like Picasso, I feel I’m 30. When I stop I know I’m not, but when I paint, I stand up for six hours a day and yeah, I feel I’m 30. Picasso said that, from the age of 30 to 90, he always felt 30 when he painted.”
David Hockney

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