I have a favourite painting. A large copy of it hangs in a white frame above the boarded-up fireplace in my living room. Perhaps it’s pretentious to tell you that I have a favourite painting. The art world feels very pretentious sometimes, doesn’t it? You have to know certain names, have a lot of money, move in certain circles. As with clothing fashion, artistic tastes change month-to-month. Value comes and goes according to the mood of the moment. Artists are fetishised by collectors. They’re seen as fringe-dwellers, punks, rebels, satirists – interesting, odd, eccentric, real.
What are collectors? Collectors are consumers in very expensive clothing. Owning things is about grounding ourselves in this life. Adorning our bodies and homes with items that please us, or evoke admiration, or envy. Collectors buy artworks because they want to own a piece of that elusive magic artists exude. They want to be in possession of something famous, talked about; something discussed with excitement by academics and cultured socialites all over the world. It is as though collectors feel that by owning original pieces of art, they somehow inherit a portion of their creators’ magic. Hermit crabs scuttling beneath shiny bottle caps.
I’m being cynical. Not all rich people are bored, vacuous sycophants. I like art for art’s sake, but so do most people. Most of us put art on our walls because it brings us joy. Sometimes we don’t know why certain paintings captivate us – they just do. That’s the wonderful thing about art when it’s separated from business. Outside of the market, art is inclusive. Anybody can create it. Anybody can view it. There’s something for everyone and if you happen to love something that’s very famous and locked up in the commercial art market, you can always buy the postcard and eventually upgrade to a larger print for your wall, which is what I did.
£22 million. That’s how much the original painting of the print that hangs above the boarded-up fireplace in my living room recently sold for. It’s called ‘A Bigger Splash’, by Bradford-born artist David Hockney.
I didn’t know it was that valuable when I first saw it on a postcard in the gift shop of the Tate Modern in London many years ago. I wasn’t even at the gallery specifically to see the David Hockney exhibition, and I didn’t see it because I didn’t want to fork out for the extra ticket. I knew nothing about him. I still don’t, really.
My eye was caught because the postcard featured bold, block colours. It was a simple square, divided in two. The bottom half was swimming-pool-blue, with a sunshine-yellow diving board and water droplets from a splash suspended in mid-air. The top half was occupied by a strip of Spanish terracotta: a sun-baked terrace, featureless but for an empty director’s chair and its small midday shadow. Then the building. Sixties modernist; classic LA architecture, flat-roof, plate-glass windows reflecting buildings and palm trees. And the sky: a few shades paler than the swimming pool; cloudless, devoid of birds, or plane trails, or variations in the atmosphere. The only details in the painting, apart from the director’s chair, were the skinny palms, a strip of almost-too-lush grass, and of course the splash: starkly realistic against the block-print backdrop.
I didn’t question what I liked about the painting. I just felt very strongly that I had to take it home with me and look at it from time to time.
I was really into Art Deco travel posters. I was obsessed with the golden age of tourism – cruise liners; the post-war Gatsby era of hedonism and rising capitalism. I was haunted by it, and possessed by it. A Bigger Splash encapsulated this feeling for me.
It was exotic. It made me think of Hollywood; of lazy afternoons by the pool, the smell of sun-cream, the sound of jazz. Fruity cocktails, the promise of glitz and glamour and glittering lights at dusk. It’s a life I’ve never had, and wouldn’t necessarily even want. It was just different.
Recently I have come to a new conclusion about why I like this painting so much.
Like all paintings and photographs, A Bigger Splash is a moment in time. A splash is by nature fast-moving: it is water displaced by a weight, and restored by gravity. But here we see it, frozen between rising and falling. The interesting thing for me is that it does not capture the moment of impact, which another artist might have found more attractive. It is the moment right after impact. There is no person or object to be seen in the water. It is the micro-second intersection between jumping and surfacing – and, now that I think about it, it is one of my favourite places to be: in transit.
I love travel – not just being in other places but the very act of travelling: sitting on a plane, or train, or driving in a car. I love being on-the-move, only passing through. No-one knows where I am, there is nothing else I can do, no matters I can attend to beyond the immediate surroundings of my vehicle. It is the ultimate calm. The ultimate freedom. Being and not being at the same time.
This is what Hockney’s painting means to me. It is absolute freedom. It is being nowhere.