A glowing sun-drenched vision rendered on a spectacular life-sized scale, Sur la Terrasse stands among David Hockney’s most poignant works. Begun in March 1971, and completed that summer, it was painted during the decline of his relationship with Peter Schlesinger: his first love and greatest muse. This devastating turn of events became a milestone in the artist’s personal life, precipitating an intense period of sadness that found heart-wrenching expression in his paintings. The present work, infused with longing, romance and melancholy, represents Hockney’s last depiction of Schlesinger during their time together. It is based on a series of photographs taken on the balcony of the couple’s room at the Hôtel de la Mamounia in Marrakesh, where they had spent two weeks in February. Viewed through the open French windows, Schlesinger stands with his back to the artist, bathed in long shadows. Lush gardens bloom before him, as if enticing him to exotic new pastures. Positioning himself beyond the picture frame, Hockney casts himself as a voyeur, bidding a private farewell to his lover. It is a deeply moving portrait of estrangement, whose themes would be revisited in the iconic 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). The present work and its studies, one of which is held in the Arts Council Collection in London, featured in Jack Hazan’s 1974 documentary A Bigger Splash, which he began filming during this period. Last seen publicly at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1973, the work has remained in the same private collection for nearly half a century.
Hockney and Schlesinger met in the summer of 1966. At the time, Schlesinger was a history student at the University of California Santa Cruz, and was looking to forge a career as an artist. The young Hockney had been employed to teach a six-week drawing summer school at the university’s Los Angeles campus, and it was there that the two locked eyes for the first time. “On the first day of class the professor walked in,” recalls Schlesinger; “– he was a bleached blond; wearing a tomato-red suit, a green and white polka-dot tie with a matching hat, and round black cartoon glasses; and speaking with a Yorkshire accent … I was drawn to him because he was quite different.” Hockney, for his part, immediately recognized a kindred spirit: “I could genuinely see he had talent, and on top of that he was a marvellous-looking young man,” he remembers (P. Schlesinger and D. Hockney, quoted in C. S. Sykes, Hockney: The Biography. Volume 1 1937-1975, London 2011, pp. 180-81). The two struck up a friendship that outlived the course, and eventually blossomed into what was to become both Hockney’s and Schlesinger’s first true romance. “It was incredible to me to meet in California a young, very sexy, attractive boy who was also curious and intelligent,” explained Hockney. “In California you can meet curious and intelligent people, but generally they’re not the sexy boy of your fantasy as well. To me this was incredible; it was more real. The fantasy part disappeared because it was the real person you could talk to” (D. Hockney, quoted in M. Livingstone and K. Haymer, Hockney’s Portraits and People, London 2003, p. 81).
By 1967, Schlesinger had transferred from the Santa Cruz campus, and had enrolled full-time on the art course at UCLA. The couple lived together in Hockney’s rented studio on Pico Boulevard, and Schlesinger quickly became ensconced in his lively literary and artistic social circles, spending many evenings with friends including Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Jack Larson and James Bridges. “David Hockney’s image and personality intrigued me,” recalls Schlesinger. “He represented a world outside my own that I was eager to embrace” (P. Schlesinger, A Chequered Past: My Visual Diary of the 60s and 70s, London 2004, p. 17). That summer, the pair left California for New York, before setting sail for England, where Schlesinger gained a place at London’s Slade School of Art. From Hockney’s home on Powis Terrace, they made frequent trips to Europe, holidaying regularly with friends in Italy and the South of France. By January 1971, however, tensions were beginning to emerge, rooted partly in the couple’s age difference and an increasing need for independence. Their stay in Morocco, intended to rekindle their romance, was punctuated by frustration and arguments. It was shortly after their return that Schlesinger began to forge a close acquaintance with Eric Boman, a young Swedish designer and photographer who was studying in London. Their growing relationship would ultimately become the catalyst for the definitive split between Hockney and Schlesinger that summer, following an explosive row in Cadaqués. “It was very traumatic for me,” recalls Hockney; “I’d never been through anything like that. I was miserable, very, very unhappy” (D. Hockney, David Hockney by David Hockney: My Early Years, London 1976, p. 240).
From personal tragedy, however, came artistic triumph. Hockney had spent the last three years immersed in his landmark series of double portraits, defined by their enigmatic portrayal of human relationships through crisp command of lighting, composition and perspective. At the time of the present work, Hockney had just completed the masterpiece Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (Tate, London): a feat of pictorial drama, full of subtle spatial distortions and elusive emotional tension. The lessons of this painting are palpable in Sur la Terrasse, where exquisite formal rigor gives rise to a powerful sense of yearning and unspoken resignation. In many of the double portraits—particularly those featuring Schlesinger—Hockney deliberately implicated his own presence. A vacant chair is left in Le Parc des Sources, Vichy (1970), as if for the artist, whilst the swimming pool in Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) has been variously read as a metaphor for himself. In Sur la Terrasse, Hockney writes himself into the composition through the sheer force of his gaze, articulated through dramatic shadows and sweeping perspectival lines. It is less a portrait of Schlesinger than a portrayal of the artist observing him: a private confession, laid bare in vivid technicolor. Hockney magnifies the entire composition to a grand cinematic scale, as if seeking to preserve the memory in the sharpest possible detail.
As a muse, Schlesinger had a transformative impact upon Hockney’s practice. The artist’s desire to capture his lover’s lithe physique prompted him to move away from his early stylized idioms towards more “naturalistic” modes of representation. His initial drawings of Schlesinger are indicative of this shift, lavishing precise linear detail upon every inch of his form. In his first paintings of him, such as Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool (1966) and The Room, Tarzana (1967), Hockney employs bright, saturated color, illuminating his features with piercing clarity. Open windows and glistening water feature prominently in these works, flooding the picture plane with natural Californian light. Throughout their relationship, Hockney had frequently depicted Schlesinger from the back: a strategy known as Rückenfigur (“back-figure”), most famously exemplified by Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (circa 1818). Yet where this device had previously imparted a sense of romantic heroism and mystery, here it lends the scene a strain of loss and futility. “The sun may be shining on an idyllic landscape,” writes Marco Livingstone, “but the scene is glimpsed from within the threshold of a temporarily occupied hotel room; the artist, subconsciously or by design, represents himself as in retreat, absenting himself or saying his farewells. It is of no little symbolic importance that in the picture Peter has resolutely turned his back on him” (M. Livingstone, ibid., p. 116). Receding into the fading evening light, Schlesinger retreats from Hockney’s grasp back to the realm of fantasy.
The work also demonstrates Hockney’s dialogue with photography at a pivotal moment in his practice. For many of the double portraits, the artist had made extensive use of photographic source material, fascinated by the camera’s ability to impose an artificial strangeness upon lived reality. In his paintings, Hockney delighted in toying with this quality, counterbalancing precise structural geometries with emotive ambiguity. The present work, as documented in A Bigger Splash, is similarly staged. “The scene in life is full of romantic allusions,” explained Hockney: “Peter on a balcony, gazing at a luscious garden and listening to the evening noises of Marrakesh. George Chinnery’s painting, The Balcony, Macao, was certainly in my mind at the time. The moment we arrived at the hotel in Morocco—we had a bedroom with this beautiful balcony and view—I immediately thought it would make a wonderful picture. So I deliberately set up Peter in poses so that I could take photographs and make drawings” (D. Hockney, ibid., p. 239). With its bright blue shadows seemingly plucked straight from one of Hockney’s swimming pool paintings, the work owes much to the hyper-real lighting of his Californian pictures, many of which feel like illuminated studio sets. Tellingly, Hockney likened the Hôtel de la Mamounia to the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, and was also intrigued to discover that both Josef von Sternberg and Alfred Hitchcock had made films there. Such parallels may be seen to shed light on the painting’s uncanny sense of nostalgia and déjà-vu.
In many ways, Sur la Terrasse marks something of a turning point in Hockney’s practice. In the autumn following his break-up, the artist eradicated all people from his work, channeling his feelings of grief and loneliness into portraits of inanimate objects. Though devoid of human presence, paintings such as Beach Umbrella (1971), Rubber Ring in a Swimming Pool (1971) and Pool and Steps, Le Nid du Duc (1971) are nonetheless haunted by the present work’s depiction of Schlesinger. Aloof, silent and swathed in shadow, his solitary standing form would find curious echoes in the lonely domestic objects that came to populate Hockney’s oeuvre. In particular, the painting Still Life on a Glass Table (1971)—widely considered to represent one of his most psychologically-charged works of the period—is infused with a similar sense of melancholic foreboding. Hockney’s banal objects confront the viewer like relics from another world, almost anthropomorphic in their stark, surreal clarity. The fact that many of the items upon the table had strong associations with Schlesinger himself serves to heighten this impression: as Hockney explained, “my emotional state was reflected in the choice of the objects (and even the choice of the subject) and in the gestural electric shadow under the table, representing my real feelings, in contrast to the calm of the still life” (D. Hockney, ibid., p. 241). Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) would continue this approach: here Schlesinger appears like a spectral imposter, his shadow thin and elongated in a manner reminiscent of the present work.
Seen in the context of all that that followed, Sur la Terrasse may be said to capture the moment at which Schlesinger became a stranger to Hockney. He is no longer the visceral spectacle of human flesh that defined the artist’s early portraits, but a fragile illusion, infused with the solemn grandeur of nature morte. As Livingstone has written, “Hockney’s most affecting portraits, not surprisingly, are often those of people with whom he has close emotional bonds. These include the painting he made of Peter during the final months of their five years together. In them he acknowledges the shift in tone in their friendship, the emotional distance that was separating them from each other, even though he was not necessarily consciously seeking to illustrate the situation. It was perhaps more a question of an extremely sensitive person picking up signals that had not yet been openly communicated, and including them intuitively in his pictures” (M. Livingstone, ibid., p. 112). This innate understanding of human interaction—so skillfully demonstrated in the double portraits—had long formed the backbone of Hockney’s practice. In Sur la Terrasse, through deft compositional manipulation, the artist tacitly acknowledges the gulf between him and Schlesinger. It is an elegy turned to a eulogy, bathed in the glow of the setting sun.