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Blue Guitar

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Critical Review

Drawing visual inspiration from Picasso, Hockney’s The Blue Guitar etchings are based on Wallace Stevens’ 1936 poem, The Man with the Blue Guitar. It was here that he came across Wallace Stevens’s 1936 poemThe Man with the Blue Guitar which had been inspired by a 1903 painting by Picasso entitled The Old Guitarist. Hockney decided to base a series of works on the poems and described how the “etchings themselves were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms. Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame”.

Hockney had adored Picasso since he first saw his paintings in a retrospective at the Tate in 1960 which he visited eight times. In 1973, when Picasso died, Hockney was invited to contribute to a series of prints inspired by the painter and he ended up going to Paris to work under the tutelage of Aldo Crommelynck, Picasso's master printer. It was in Crommelynck’s studio that Hockney learned to use the sugar lift aquatint technique which was favoured by Picasso to create coloured etchings such as those in the present series.

As well as adopting Picasso’s printmaking technique for this portfolio, Hockney also tried the Cubist perspective on for size in a move that would inform much of his later work, including series such as Moving Focus and his photo collages. In this way he demonstrates his fluency in the languages of style and printmaking, cherry picking from earlier movements and masters to invent something entirely new. Speaking on this ability, critic Gert Schiff said, “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.”

Why is The Blue Guitar series so important?

The first plate in the series, after the frontispiece, is in fact a direct copy of Picasso’s 1903 painting of the man with a guitar. The work epitomises the artist’s Blue Period and Hockney has chosen to emphasise this by tinting the whole image in a wash of indigo to add to the melancholy of the figure. After this homage, which acts as an introduction, Hockney reverts to his usual style, with lighter and sparser compositions that often seem surreal or absurd. In It Picks Its Way a strange tubular worm passes through a doorway while Discord Merely Magnifies includes an awkward line drawing of a cat.

These strange compositions are filled with unreadable symbols, offering a dreamlike encounter with the poems of Wallace Stevens, who was not the first poet Hockney had been inspired by. In 1967 he published the series Illustrations For Fourteen Poems By C.P. Cavafy which was again a loose interpretation of a body of work by the Greek homosexual poet. Even earlier, in 1961, Hockney had produced a print entitled Myself and My Heroes where he portrayed himself alongside American poet Walt Whitman and Gandhi.

This series shows Hockney reaching back into art history and turning to literature to find subjects for his art. It also represents his insatiable appetite for learning new techniques, and his ability to become a master printmaker and a literary artist while at the same time retaining his wit and playfulness.

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