Portrait of an Artist: ‘A Bigger Splash’ (1973)

The end of the affair, and the beginning of reality TV…

“When you go into the world of David Hockney, it’s easy. The set is designed for you. It’s all planes – it’s almost like a film set.” – Jack Hazan, 2003.

Five decades on, just what is it that makes Jack Hazan’s documentary A Bigger Splash so enduring? It’s at once of its time – capturing the painter David Hockney and his Notting Hill retinue in all their groovy, early ‘70s Boho chic – and ahead of its time thanks to its semi-fictional format during the era of cinema verité documentary film-making as pioneered by the likes of D.A. Pennebaker.

Assembled from two years of fly-on-the-wall footage intercut with ‘staged’ scenes and semi-contrived interactions to create a narrative around the themes of relationships and creativity, love and loss, A Bigger Splash invented the ‘staged documentary’ format beloved of compelling Reality Soaps such as The Only Way Is Essex, Made In Chelsea and Geordie Shore.

The film has been has been acclaimed as a “masterpiece of queer cinema” (Jude Dry, IndieWire) and “truly revealing, not only in the startling-for-its-time-and-even-now casual and copious use of male frontal nudity, but its exposure of the artist in most intimate moments, both working alone and in the company of his nearest and dearest.” (David Noh, Gay City News)

Taking its title from Hockney’s iconic 1967 artwork, A Bigger Splash ultimately captures the creation  of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) – which sold for a record-breaking $90.3 million in 2018 – and was the result of Hazan following around Hockney and his friends from 1971 to 1973.

As well as following the protracted birth pangs of Hockney’s masterpiece, A Bigger Splash takes us inside the artist’s enclave: Hockney’s friend, doleful Mo McDermott, who doubles as Hockney’s conscience (“We just seem to be wasting time – I’m worried”) and the film’s narrator/audience identification figure; museum curator Henry Geldzahler and gallery owner John Kasmin, while textile designer, the delicately beautiful Celia Birtwell acts as confidante to both Hockney and his freshly-single, lover, model and muse Peter Schlesinger, seen here at the peak of his youthful beauty.

It’s Hockney’s break-up with Schlesinger that provides the spine of the film, as film-maker Hazan crafted a narrative around his footage in the cutting room once he realised what was happening:

“We didn’t know what the film was about at first — no idea. We’d managed to get sporadic access to Hockney and his friends throughout, and we knew there was a story somewhere.”

“It was constructed over such a long time, we would look at what we had in the cutting room and we would decide what we wanted next to make a narrative meaning. We realized what the narrative was when Peter left David. We said this would mean that he was having trouble completing Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), which was true. He said, “I wasn’t emotionally hung up, preventing my completing this painting. It was a technical problem.” I said to him, “Yes, a technical problem prompted by your emotional turmoil”.

Hazan recalled: “As his relationship with Peter was collapsing, there were all these other couples around them, whose marriages were also collapsing. That was supposed to be the idea.”

This motif is established with Mo McDemott’s repeated refrain, “When love goes wrong, there’s more than two people suffer”, as we see relations between Hockney and his patrons and exhibitors tested by the artist’s creative inertia, Birtwell and husband Ossie Clark’s marriage straying into fragile ground as Clark becomes a non-presence (“Ossie can’t bear sickness and depression”), and the Kasmin Gallery, where Hockney held his first exhibition in 1963, going belly-up: As art historian Chris Stephens noted, “the closure of the Kasmin Gallery coincided with a hiatus in Hockney’s art. Uncertain of his way forward and recovering from the end of his relationship with Peter Schlesinger, the artist moved from home to home and almost gave up painting completely.”

The film chronicles the emotional ripples that Hockney’s separation from Schlesinger casts on their coterie, as Hazan observed:

“David’s breaking up with Peter has an effect on all the relationships in the movie. They’re all a series of marriages. There’s the marriage of David and Peter, which is the prime marriage. Surrounding that is the circle of friends – Celia and Ossie, Mo and Mick [Sida]. Once Mo goes to pieces, once he’s got nothing to rely on anymore, Mo breaks down, and therefore Mick breaks down and out he goes. These are all marriages of the sixties…” – Hazan, Metrograph, 2019.

What makes A Bigger Splash stand apart from other ‘artist at work’ documentaries is its format and presentation. The viewer is immediately tipped-off that this is, in Philip French’s words “neither fly-on-the-wall cinema vérité nor formal documentary”, as the film’s players are introduced in a “starring…” opening credits sequence more akin to an ensemble drama, credited individually against hand-drawn portraits, against austere modern chamber music composed by Patrick (The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes) Gowers; the title sequence evokes nothing so much as a 1970s BBC dramatisation of an Iris Murdoch or Muriel Spark potboiler. There’s even a ‘written by’ credit, betraying the film’s authored conceit in plain sight for all but the most inobservant.

To give the viewer a closer insight into the world the film’s ‘stars’ inhabit, as well as filming Hockney and go. going about their daily business (“Ethical or not, we were intrusive..”), Hazan and editor/producer David Mingay loosely manufactured unscripted scenes by giving the participants prompts for conversation, and rolling the camera.

Hazen recounted the process to Eileen G’Sell in 2019:

“Their conversations were more or less set up … the night before I filmed, I’d come up with one or two questions that would prompt a conversation — usually between two people. Sometimes they would say ‘yes’ and sometimes they would say ‘no.’ If they’d say yes I knew I’d get some sort of reaction.

“I would set the dialogue the night before, maybe write a couple of lines for one of the actors — or shall we say, performers. I’d say, ‘Can you ask this question to Celia?,’ and that would maybe prompt something and vice versa. As I was also the camera operator, I couldn’t have anything too complex, just something to trigger a reaction.

“That’s how Warhol filmed his characters. They’re not actors, so you cannot disturb them. You cannot move the camera and ask them to do it again.” – Hazan, Hyperallergic, 2019.

Hockney went along with Hazan’s conceit for the most part, and is relaxed and unstarry when captured chatting candidly with friends, listing his latest beau’s qualities after Schlesinger’s departure with his friends (the way he unrolls the phrase, “He’s… SEXY”, like Alan Bennett with a sex drive, is particularly memorable) or singing the praises of Italian men while sprawled on a divan in a New York apartment, and gamely allowed Hazan to film him showering naked; he was less comfortable with the more ‘staged’ sequences, which were the most time consuming for Hazan to prepare and shoot:

“It wasn’t easy. Every single time, it hung in the balance as to whether I met him there or not. I mean it really is a massively anxiety-making enterprise. Sometimes he’d say yes, sometimes he’d say no. I think most of the time he said no! Only a mad man would entertain this kind of thing. You’d have to be very self-effacing, and very, very patient. And possibly I was.” – Hazan, Indiewire, 2019.

To his credit, in one of the film’s most stylised indulgences – a series of vignettes where Hockney’s coterie recreate the poses from his portraits – when David walks in on Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, frozen in time in a recreation of Hockney’s famous double portrait of the pair, he can barely keep a straight face.

There are some sequences that are almost a textbook example of how to create drama from raw footage and clever use of cutting and music, as Hockney is seen destroying an abortive first attempt at the Schlesinger/pool study, depicted as a painful moment of grief and catharsis and ostentatiously scored to Puccini’s Nessum Dorma, rather than (in reality) routine practice by artists to ensure unfinished works do not fall into unscrupulous hands.

As Hockney recalled in 2019, “The point where I actually destroy the canvas and start again is made a big emotional climax in the film… I can’t remember how he did the scene where I appear to cut up the picture and destroy it. I was in such a panic to finish the picture that I certainly wasn’t going to arrange anything for Jack. I wasn’t going to let him slow us down.”

Throughout A Bigger Splash, Schlesinger is virtually mute, an artist’s muse transformed into a fantasy figure of boyish beauty, fetishized by the camera in dream sequences meant to suggest Hockney tortured by the loss of his partner, as we see him cycling through the deserted streets of North London (at once both a time capsule of a time when fewer cars were on the road, and also weirdly prescient of lockdown London in 2020), grooving to Batti Mamzelle in his underpants, dry-humping and snogging a nameless male lover, and in the most memorable scene, frolicking naked in a Californian swimming pool with three other young men.

A Bigger Splash’s upfront nude scenes still feel refreshing in a film world where male full frontal nudity is still treated coyly and it’s important to note that A Bigger Splash was revelatory to a whole generation of young gay men upon its original release, in that it portrayed gay male sexuality as a matter of fact, without coyness, commentary or sensationalism. “It was very provocatively portraying gay life as normal. It was very provocative. Just seeing someone’s genitals was provocative. Male genitals.” – Hazan, Gay City News, 2019.

Critic Ian Massey remembers how “enthralled” he was by “the open depiction of gay sex at a time when I was still uncertain of my own orientation.” (Sight and Sound, March 2012), and Jack Hazan proudly states:

“What I’m quite happy about is that after the film came out, David would receive phone calls in the UK from boys who’d somehow gotten his number, crying and saying, ‘So it’s not wrong to be in love with another boy?’ “‘Of course, it’s not,’ he’d say. ‘It’s totally normal.’ At that time, homophobia was considered normal, but we treated this as something normal. I didn’t know how else to do it. And it certainly was normal in Hockney’s milieu. It wasn’t something I invented, I just reflected it.” – Hazan, Gay City News, July 2019.

Hockney himself said of this particular aspect of the film, talking to Metrograph’s David Robinson in 2019:

“If you’re thinking about the fact that it describes a homosexual love, well, I’ve never made any secret of my sexuality. I think one of the good things about the film is that it does describe people and things as they are, without trying to see anything remarkable or sensational in what it is.”

The film has additional historical value as a document of gay pop culture, boasting rare footage of Andrew Logan’s first Alternative Miss World ball in all its down-at-heel glory, complete with Derek Jarman as ‘Miss Issipi’.

Much as Hazan may strain to suggest Hockney as an artist in torment in the more stylised sequences, he was at a crossroads personally and professionally, and we see him musing with Birtwell about possible new locations from which to find a new seam of inspiration (David: “I think nostalgia’s a bit kind of decadent and yet I’m always going back to the same kind of places”/Celia: “I think that fantasy’s all burnt out”/David: “I wish I could convince myself that it was…”), pushed and pulled in different directions by the commercial demands of his patrons whose livelihood is dependent on a new line of work:

Kasmin: “My main worry is when can we have a show? You don’t know the pressure on me that your new pictures which people want to see come out of this country sight unseen? I don’t understand exactly how you’re planning your time?”
Hockney: “I think I’ll go now. Okay?”

This is one of many telling scenes shedding a light on the relationship between art and commerce, reflecting in critic Glenn Kenny’s words, the “economic anxiety” behind “the concerns shown by some people who live in close proximity to if not reliance on the Hockney machine of the time.”

There’s never any sense of self-pity from Hockney, and when he gets to work and rolls up his sleeves to break his deadlock, working day and night, the results speak for themselves, as Mo McDermott’s voiceover enthuses, “He’s coming along really strong like he used to” and alludes to Hockney’s attention to detail as we see Portrait of an Artist pieced together from the countless reference photos taken in the South of France: “He’s terribly fussy about his photos. If I left one out he’d soon know!”

Despite the intrusions, the film itself contributed to the completion of the artwork in an unexpected way, Hockney remembers:

“He filmed me taking some photographs of Peter in Hyde Park. They were to use for the painting – that was real. He knew I had only two weeks to finish the picture and he asked me if he could keep coming in and filming progress. “O.K.,” I said, “but to me my painting is more important and fuck your film. You can only come in very late at night or early in the morning before I start. Otherwise, you’ll be in the way.”

“What is interesting is that he brought all those marvelous bright lights into the studio and left them here for two weeks. And the light in my studio is not very good at night; so that we were able to use these lights and work much longer hours than we otherwise could have done. So that, for me, was a very happy result of the film. I was working 18 hours a day for those two weeks and it was wonderful.”

Once the final piece has been produced, there’s a disarmingly honest, unapologetic, conversation between Hockney and Kasmin about the tortuous process that led to the artwork’s eventual genesis which couldn’t be bettered if it were scripted as an illustration of the creative method:

Kasmin: “There are a hell of a lot of people. Waiting for pictures.”
Hockney: “Well that’s too bad isn’t it. What can I do?”
Kasmin: “It’s the ones which held you up for so much. You spent six months working before you achieve what you set out to do.”
Hockney: “Well I mean, what’s wrong with that?”
Kasmin: “Well often, it seems to upset you too. I mean you haven’t actually enjoyed the six months working on the picture.”
Hockney: “Yeah but then I redid it. In two weeks.”
Kasmin: “Perfectly true which is the bit you remember the most.”
Hockney: “Yeah but I can’t.. I couldn’t have done it in that time unless I’d wasted all that time on the other. I mean it’s all, what I mean is the picture that took two weeks really took six months and two weeks.”

In 1923, Pablo Picasso wrote, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand”. A Bigger Splash is a film that is in service to Picasso’s dictum, as Hockney, Birtwell and co. reveal more about themselves via these semi-staged scenarios than they could have imagined.

Hockney was totally taken aback by the end product, Hazan recalled – “He was completely wiped out when he saw it” – and reportedly considered paying Hazan £20K for the negative; but the painter’s attitude would mellow over time: I know, say 10 to 15 years after the film, he felt it was kind of a calendar, a document of his life.”

Last June (2019), Hockney told Metrograph’s David Robinson:

“I was shattered by it and so were a few of the other people. I think anyone would have been if it happened to them. To think about this nice quiet guy making a movie for three or four years and have this vague idea it’s going to be an inoffensive film about an artist and his paintings, and then suddenly to see this. We’d none of us taken into account the way the film is pieced together. I had the impression Jack had only filmed two or three scenes with me – which is why I was startled when I first heard he’d made a feature-length film.”

In the same interview, Hockney went on to say:

“In a way, when I saw the film first, a lot of the emotions in it were still going on. And the film is in a way closing some of them off for me, making me more detached. That’s an interesting side effect of it.”

According to one anecdote from Hazan, Celia Birtwell was less inclined towards reappraisal:

“I saw her at David’s retrospective at the Tate Gallery [in 2017]. She looked at me and said, ‘Do I know you?’ And I said ‘You should.’ When she found out who I was, she wasn’t particularly nice to me. I think she feels I exploited her and made lots of money from the film. It wasn’t true because, if anything, it stopped my career.” – Hazan, Gay City News, 2019.

Birtwell’s former spouse, Ossie Clark, however, accurately and instinctively approbated the film’s value better than most, telling Mingay, ‘This film is truer than the truth. What more do you want?’

Clark’s verdict echoes down the decades, to the present day, where Hazan and Mingay’s film can be appreciated on many levels, and the results are here for all to enjoy, in a fresh HD remaster on DVD and Blu-Ray from Fabulous Films that is well worth the price tag.

❉ ‘A Bigger Splash’ (Jack Hazan, 1973) is released on April 6th 2020 by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises. BBFC Cert 15. Running Time: 105 mins. Blu-Ray RRP £17.99/DVD RRP £12.99. Click to pre-order.

❉ James Gent is the editor of pop culture webzine We Are Cult, and has previously contributed to volumes such such as 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, Blakes Heaven: Maximum Fan Power, You and 42: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams and Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s. He is the co-editor of Me And The Starman (Cult Ink), available to buy from Amazon, RRP £11.99. UK: https://amzn.to/30ZE8KE | US: bit.ly/starmanUSA ISBN: 9798664990546.



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