‘I draw flowers every day and send them to my friends so that get fresh blooms every morning’ (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, London, 2016).
Painted as a gift from David Hockney to Sir Ian McKellen, Red Flowers and Blue Spots was to help raise funds for the Iris Trust organised by Stonewall in 1991. Created in 1989, Stonewall helped tackle legalised homophobia and continues to lead the fight in those British schools where homophobic bullying ruins many young people’s lives.
Red Flowers and Blue Spots, 1986 takes as its subject the representation of space, colour and form. The unusual oval format adds to the overall appearance of a work that is full of movement. The viewers eye is led around the canvas; following the curve of the staccato background, encouraged along by the movement of the Catherine wheel flowers, down to the liner table top; its flatness enhanced by the contrastingly smooth horizontal brushstrokes. Hockney’s use of bold colours and few shadows, except those on the vase and table surface, act to further compress the pictorial space. Through this ‘removal of distance’ as Hockney has called it, the work appears more intimate and the viewer feels closer to the picture. Referring to his obsession with single point perspective in the 1970s Hockney commented, ‘the one point perspective was terribly constricting – and it’s only by playing with the space in the years since then that I’ve been able to make it clearer. Everything since then has been a progression toward a playful space that moves about but is still clear and not woolly’ (D. Hockney, quoted in exhibition catalogue, David Hockney. A Retrospective, Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, 1988, p. 84). Hockney masterfully combines his study of space and colour to create the overall impression of a work that is full of joy, playfulness and charm.
Red Flowers and Blue Spots is at once exuberant and intimate in scale. The unusual oval format of the canvas was used again by Hockney two years later in Still Life with Book on Table, 1988, where Hockney used the form of the canvas to illustrate the edge of the curved table which we see from above, set with a vase of flowers, two red books; one closed, the other open to reveal an illegible scrawl. Further scattered pieces of fruit add punctuations of colour. Both works study the notion of pattern and space, whether in the dotted background of Red Flowers and Blue Spots, or in the grain of the wooden table panels as opposed to the painted planked wooden floor. It is in Still Life with Book on Table that we fully realise Hockney’s focus on depicting unusual and multiple perspectives and sense of space. As Hockney asserts, ‘I’m trying to convey the experience of space’ (T. Barringer, ‘Seeing with Memory: Hockney and the Masters’ in exhibition catalogue, David Hockney: A Bigger Picture, London, Royal Academy, 2012, p. 46). Hockney’s focus was not on the straight forward traditional sense of space, but in the real-life, holistic involvement, which we see Hockney playing with in Red Flowers and Blue Spots.
Moving to America in the 1960s, Hockney was quickly absorbed into the colour saturated world of American magazines, Hollywood films and vivid commodities, quite unlike the culturally austere landscape of Britain at that time. Hockney described, ‘[Los Angeles was] the first time I had ever painted a place. In London I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angles, there were no ghosts … I remember seeing, within the first week, the ramp of a freeway going into the air and I suddenly thought: My God, this place needs a Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am’ (D. Hockney, quoted in S. Howgate, exhibition catalogue, David Hockney Portraits, London, National Portrait Gallery, 2006, p. 39). The bright colours of California and Los Angeles changed the visual format of Hockney’s oeuvre thereafter. The bold and lively intensity of Red Flowers and Blue Spots pays homage to the colour revelations of Los Angeles.
Hockney studied and understood the importance of the still life genre in the history of painting and Red Flowers and Blue Spots is a testament to his deep understanding and respect for the floral motif throughout art history. He greatly admired the work of Henri Matisse, which is evident in Red Flowers and Blue Spots in his liberation of colour and form. Bright colours, swirling, dotted and purposeful brushstrokes create a picture surface that is alive and vibrant, evoking the exciting works of the Fauves.
Executed with rich, impasto brushwork, Red Flowers and Blue Spots is a celebration of the still life genre and exudes immense delight. Hockney exclaimed, ‘I think anyone who makes a picture loves it, it is a marvellous thing to dip a brush into paint and make marks on anything’ (D. Hockney, quoted in N. Stangos (ed.), David Hockney by David Hockney, London, 1976, p. 28).