Some painters – and some paintings – are the silent type. They fear language. Their art is a wordless enigma.
Caravaggio left almost no trace of his speech, let alone any writing. The court cases his violent life led to are the only record of the way he accounted for himself, verbally. His paintings are great frozen moments of wordless power.
David Hockney is another kind of artist, a painter-poet for whom language is a musical instrument, a second art. If Hockney was not such a talented painter, perhaps he’d have become a writer. Everyone knows his Bradford voice, one of the great non-southern, non-posh accents that changed spoken English in the 1960s. But it’s not just his eloquence in interviews that makes him an artist of words.
On the London Underground the other day, I came across a poster for a new film called A Bigger Splash. What, I thought – has someone remade Jack Hazan’s haunting 1973 Hockney biopic, which in turn takes its title from the artist’s 1967 masterpiece of that name?
But no – the new A Bigger Splash is a psychosexual thriller starring Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes that has, writes the Guardian’s Andrew Pulver, “nothing specifically to do with David Hockney, aside from the presence of swimming pools glinting in full-beam sunlight …” Great title, though. You can see why they chose it instead of The Swimming Pool, for this loose remake of the 1969 French classic, La Piscine.
If you are going to have people sensually diving into sun-kissed pools, why not go with the best and use Hockney’s lingeringly enigmatic title? It is a piece of poetry that floats in the modern mind, quotable and reusable, like a perfect lyric. I can’t immediately think of any other titles of paintings that function in this way, separate from the picture itself, as a lovely and suggestive arrangement of words.
But what does A Bigger Splash mean? Hockney’s perfect California moment – a diver’s white foaming wake in a blue pool under a blue sky and framed by a board, two tall palms and a long low house – was one in a series of swimming-pool pictures that also include The Splash and A Little Splash. So at its simplest, the title A Bigger Splash is a jokey reference to its place in a group of works. How prosaic.
But no one seeing the words A Bigger Splash on a film poster is going to read them that way. And we don’t when we see Hockney’s painting in London’s Tate Britain either. A Bigger Splash is a poignant and inscrutable line that suggests some great emotional moment. It implies glamour. It speaks of glory, drama and exhilaration. It may be a lyric of longing, love, lust. And yet it is languid. It’s a cool observation.
Hockney was getting used to being famous, and wealthy, when he painted A Bigger Splash. He was loving his new home in Los Angeles. This all adds to the eerie, cool, fascinating lyricism of his painting and its title – that moment when life erupts so beautifully. Hockney is a fine poet. Both his art and words make a bigger splash.
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