Flowers have been a central theme of David Hockney’s work since the 1970s. In some of his earliest paintings such as Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, 1969, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, 1970-1971 (Tate, London) and My Parents, 1977 (Tate, London), Hockney would often insert a vase of colored flowers or pure white lilies into an otherwise sparse composition. Here, in Flowers Sent as a Gift, Hockney depicts a large vase of flowers set against a cobalt blue background—the chromatically rich petals acting as beacons of lights as they reflect the sunlight back out into the room. Each petal of these delicate flowers is the result of a single sweep of the artist’s brush with which he slowly builds up—petal by petal and stigma by stamen—into a spray of glorious blooms. Comprised of the artist’s rich, luscious brushwork, these colorful blossoms are then arranged in a constellation of warm colors ranging from oranges, to pinks and red, all gleaming in the strong light. Hockey has continued this rich vibrancy in the dozen or so lemons which he has placed inside the vase. Often used as a decorative element by florists, Hockney’s inclusion of these bright yellow fruits brings an additional chromatic element to this vibrant composition.
As with all of Hockney’s work, Flowers Sent as a Gift pulls in two directions, between sensuous joie de vivre and an intense perceptual scrutiny that addresses the problems of representing objects in space. Here, Hockney realistically represents the flowers, their vessel, and the surrounding environment, yet his use of bold colors and few shadows act to flatten the pictorial space. The accurately rendered, though simplified forms of the flowers is the main device that the artist uses to imply three-dimensionality. Through this “removal of distance” as Hockney has called it, viewers are allowed to feel closer to the picture, enveloping them within the artist’s manufactured environment. Once “inside” Hockney’s picture, the rich colors, cerulean blue and deep red among others, emerge as the true subjects of the composition. In this way, the flowers provide a means of exploring color, form and space. They show how varying methods of representation effect what it is the viewer perceives from what they see.
The vibrancy of Hockney’s paintings can trace their roots back to his upbringing in the decidedly unglamorous surroundings of Bradford in the north of England. Raised in a former industrial town that, as the artist was growing up in the 1950s, had fallen on hard times the attraction of escaping to new environs would have been unarguable. Having studied at the Royal College of Art in London, in 1964 Hockney moved to California and he soon immersed himself in the artistic potential of the California sunshine. “[Los Angeles was] the first time I had ever painted a place,” he later explained. “In London I think I was put off by the ghost of Sickert, and I couldn’t see it properly. In Los Angeles, 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 its Piranesi; Los Angeles could have a Piranesi, so here I am” (D. Hockney, quoted in S. Howgate, David Hockney Portraits, exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 2006, p. 39).
From the still-lives painted in the Dutch Northern European tradition to the post-impressionist fervor of Vincent van Gogh, the vase of flowers has been a constant theme throughout centuries of art history. Hockney was a keen student and fully understood the importance of this tradition, while at the same time also making his own unique contribution to the genre. “From the very beginning of his career, Hockney has employed strategies, reference, quotation, distortion and fragmentation that speak of a deep and intelligent engagement with the history of art” (T. Barringer, “Seeing with Memory: Hockney and the Masters,” in M. Livingstone and E. Devaney, ed., David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Art, London, 2012, p. 43). Flowers Sent as a Gift strongly recalls the work of Henri Matisse, an artist whom Hockney particularly admired. Randall Wright, a longtime friend of the British artist and the director of the documentary Hockney, said his reaction to Matisse is a visceral one, allowing Hockney to express his total freedom “his response to Matisse is incredibly emotional. It’s not about ideas. He finds Matisse a liberator. Matisse lets him off the leash” (R. Wright, quoted in Non Fiction Film, http://www.nonfictionfilm.com/blog/director-randall-wright-on-artist-david-hockney-hes-endlessly-interesting-fascinating [accessed 9/28/2016]). Flower sent as a Gift clearly evokes Matisse’s liberation of color and form which reached its peak in works such as Goldfish and Sculpture, 1912 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), and thus becomes part of Hockney’s contribution to a noble lineage.
Later in his career Hockney abandoned depicting the figure for these more Fauve-like works, though their presence is still hinted at. The absence of people can be read as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, a theme Hockney would return to repeatedly. The vibrant palette invites the viewer into the painting, and demands that the eye move across the picture plane into the composition, trying to decipher its contents in the process. Flowers Sent as a Gift perfectly embodies Hockney’s statement: “I like clarity, but I also like ambiguity: you can have both in the same painting, and I think you should” (D. Hockney, That’s the Way I See It, London, 1993, p. 152). The energetic color and simplified forms depicted here are a reflection of his ceaseless pictorial investigations and marks the first signs of the transition into the artist’s wholly abstract work of the 1990s.