I am, as you probably know by now, fascinated by interpretation and symbolism of paintings. It fascinates me to read what art experts say about the meaning of certain aspects of a painting and of course in the majority of works the artist has died many years if not centuries ago. This of course gives the experts and critics alike, free rein to interpret what the artist was thinking as he or she put brush to canvas without fear of the artist publicly announcing that their views are nonsense. I guess in some small, and on isolated occasions, I have dipped my toe into the waters of interpretation and pontificated on what I believed the artist was thinking and meaning by his painting, knowing full well that the artist wouldn’t add a comment to my blog telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about! Today I need to tread carefully with my discussion of My Daily Art Display featured painting as the artist is still alive and although I doubt very much he will be reading this, I don’t want to be belittled by adverse comments from the great man.
My featured painting today is entitled Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy by David Hockney. Hockney painted this between 1970 and 1971 and it is of the English fashion designer, Ossie Clark, and the textile designer and his then wife Celia Birtwell. It was painted just after the couple’s wedding at which Hockney, a long term friend of the groom, was the best man. It was a time when we had just emerged from the Swinging Sixties. She also worked from home designing textiles for Ossie Clark, who would use his skill in cutting and understanding of form, and so together with her knowledge of fabrics and textures they produced haute couture for the emerging ‘sixties culture. Celia Birtwell acted as Hockney’s muse and model for some time after this painting.
Here before us we have a double-portrait which harks back to a couple of double-portraits I have featured earlier in My Daily Art Display, such as The Arnolfini Portrait by van Eyck (Nov 27th 2010) and Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough (May 2nd 2011). However, unlike those paintings, today double-portrait is not awash with symbolism but we still have a chance to interpret what we see. Ossie Clark, who looks out at us with a somewhat anxious and questioning glance, is seated, slightly slumped in a tubular chair in a very relaxed posture and standing across from him his Celia Birtwell. The mere fact that she stands and he is seated could allude to her dominance in the partnership. They are set apart by the vertical separation of the room’s full length casement window through which we can see a small balustraded balcony. I wonder if the fact that they are set so much apart was a reference to their independent careers and lives.
The setting itself, although not devoid of accoutrements, is quite minimalistic and informal, which is the complete opposite to the way nineteenth century family rooms were depicted in family portraits of that time. Then it was important that the artist made the viewer aware of the wealth of the people depicted and who often had commissioned the work. Ornate furniture with rich tapestries and sumptuous clothing were the standard trappings of such works of art and we were left in no doubt with regards the class and wealth of the people depicted. In this painting, despite its lack of ostentatious wealth, we are aware that this is not a room of the poor. The room, through its muted and plain colouring, gives it a cool feeling but amidst the cooler shades we do have the red in her dress and the blue of his jumper which stand out. The book with the yellow cover makes an admirable contrast to the pale blue of the table. On the floor sits a white plastic 60’s telephone.
On the lap of Ossie Clark is the white cat which according to the painting’s title is called Percy. Actually, although the couple had a cat called Percy, this was their other cat, called Blanche. So why switch the name of the cat? One reason could possibly be that the cat, because it is sittings upright on the man’s crotch, should have the slang term for a penis, Percy!!! Cats were also symbols of infidelity and envy and if we are to believe rumours of the time Clarke was bisexual and had many affairs which eventually lead to the break-up of their marriage three years later in 1974.
On the table we see a vase of white lilies and these flowers symbolise female purity and are often symbolic editions in paintings of the Annunciation. So was this just a coincidence? Probably not because at the time of the painting Celia Birtwell was pregnant
The painting is outstanding and featured in the final 10 of the Greatest Paintings in Britain Vote in 2005 and it was the only work by a living artist to do so.