David Hockney spent the summer of 1976 on Fire Island, New York, with art curator Henry Geldzahler and poet Christopher Isherwood, reading the poems of Wallace Stevens.  He especially loved the long poem entitled The Man with the Blue Guitar, which had been inspired by Picasso’s painting The Old Guitaristof 1903.  Hockney had admired the works of Picasso for a long time, and he was excited by the way Stevens had woven an allusive and musical text around the theme of the interplay between reality and imagination.Hockney made a series of drawings inspired by the poem and owing a great debt to Picasso that summer, and then back in London he painted some small canvases continuing the theme.  Dissatisfied with these, he decided to make a set of coloured etchings instead which would stress the artist’s freedom of imaginative response to reality and illusion.  He gave them the title The Blue Guitar, etchings by David Hockney who was inspired by Wallace Stevens who was inspired by Pablo Picasso, and they were published both as a portfolio and as a book in spring 1977.

In his introductory note, Hockney wrote: The etchings themselves were not conceived as literal illustrations of the poem but as an interpretation of its themes in visual terms.  Like the poem, they are about transformations within art as well as the relation between reality and the imagination, so these are pictures within pictures and different styles of representation juxtaposed and reflected and dissolved within the same frame.

The disparate images are not easy to read as interpretations of the poet’s themes, but what holds them together is the continual reference to the example of Picasso.  The etching Figures with Still Life shows a man measured up for perspective watching a cubist woman playing a mandolin.  The man was taken from a photograph of Chico Marx and the woman from a Picasso painting of 1909.  Both figures are just as real or unreal as each other.  In Etching is the Subject, a pen draws Hockney’s friend Gregory Evans and leaves blobs of ink behind.  The pen and the portrait are illusions but the blobs are real.  What is this Picasso? has a realistic curtain drawn back to reveal a stylised head which copies Picasso’s 1937 portrait of Dora Maar.  And in A Picture of Ourselves, a woman copied from a classical sculpture in a plate from Picasso’s Vollard Suite of 1933 contemplates two images of herself, one a surrealist sculpture from another Vollard plate and the other a bestial image in a mirror derived from Picasso’s Two Nudes on a Beach of 1937.

The Blue Guitar is a fascinating attempt to demonstrate the power of the imagination to question the world of appearances.

- Peter Webb

Extract from Portrait of David Hockney, Chatto and Windus 1988


David Hockney

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David Hockney was born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1937. He was a brilliant draughtsman, the best known painter of his generation, and gained...