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Critical Review

Perhaps Hockney’s most famous muse and romantic partner, Peter Schlesinger is captured in these monochrome etchings with a searing intimacy. The two met in 1966 when Schelsinger enrolled in a summer drawing class taught by Hockney at UCLA, at the age of 18. They became lovers and the younger man was soon caught up in the older artist’s active social life, attending parties and spending his days lounging by Hockney’s iconic pool. And in fact Schlesinger is probably best known as the figure looking down at the pool in thePortrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) which became the most expensive painting by a living artist when it sold at auction for $90.3 million in 2018. Schlesinger also appears in another iconic work, Peter Getting Out of Nick's Pool and for many he was considered a ‘muse’ to Hockney, a label he firmly rejects. “I think the whole muse thing is ridiculous,” he has said, insisting that Hockney often painted his closest friends and lovers and that the record-breaking painting is not a ‘break up’ painting, as it is often assumed but instead a more conceptual painting than an ‘emotional’ one. And yet Schelsinger continues to be Hockney’s most famous ex – their break up was even dramatised in the 1974 film, A Bigger Splash.

Hockney’s etchings of Schlesinger are miles apart from the anonymous seeming figure in the pink suit by the side of the pool however, in Peter Schlesinger the artist’s lover is shown in intimate detail, his features picked out in monochrome, his hair flopping over his eyes and his face half in shade as he looks squarely out at us. In contrast Peter (MCA Tokyo 107) shows us the model full length and nude, his hands on his hips but his feet tucked together as he stands on a grid of tiles in an otherwise spare interior. Dating to 1968 and 1969 respectively, these etchings are similar in style to the later Friends portfolio as well as the Illustrations For Fourteen Poems By C.P. Cavafy from 1967. Here once again gay love is celebrated openly and without shame, reflecting the change in the law that made homosexuality no longer an illegal state of being, which passed in the UK that same year.

Why is the Peter Schlesinger collection important?

Along with Hockney's other great muse, Celia Birtwell, Schlesinger has come to almost define Hockney’s style. He will always be associated with the artist’s iconic pool paintings and he features prominently in the gallery of friends, lovers and artists in Hockney’s prints. Schlesinger is an artist in his own right and yet his relationship with Hockney has overshadowed his career somewhat, perhaps explaining his irritation with the ‘muse’ label which follows him everywhere. In these works, where Hockney and Schlesinger are shown performing the intimate relationship of artist and sitter, we can catch a glimpse of the man behind the hype, and the beauty of Hockney’s portraits of those he knew well.

This series represents one of the most important figures in Hockney’s life, who came to define a whole chapter of the artist’s LA residency. These etchings show Hockney’s unfailing ability to communicate intimacy and eroticism in the sparest of compositions, and his mastery of line that make him the master draughtsman he is still is today.

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