Portrait of a market gone mad also paints triumphant picture for art
To pay $90.3m for a Hockney seems insane, but tells us something significant about the values we still attach to art
Above all, it is a great romantic image. High in wooded, sunlit mountains a young man looks down into a pool, where another man, his body distorted by the rippling patterns of the water, is swimming. The young man on the bank is rather beautiful: a manicured hippie.
There is a sense of pensive yearning, not so much in his expression as in his demeanour and, indeed, in the entire mood of the painting. Does this concern the person under the water – another long-haired young man – or is he preoccupied with something else entirely?
While the setting might pass for Spain or Italy, this being a painting by David Hockney, we know that Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972) is, of course, in California. The young man standing at the side of the pool is Peter Schlesinger, a former student of Hockney’s and the great love of his early life – arguably of his entire life – and the subject of many of his most famous paintings.
Schlesinger may be looking into the pool at his new lover, but it’s this ambiguity, even mystery, that makes the painting compelling. The subject matter, for Hockney, at least, is iconic. The setting is aspirational: somewhere we’d all like to go. It dates from his most classic period, when he was moving on from the raw-edged experimentation of his pop-art years to a more realistic, even classical approach.
If you were to choose one Hockney that might break the record for the most expensive work by a living artist, this would probably be the one to go for.
A work of art – as your estate agent will no doubt have told you in relation to your property – is worth “whatever someone is prepared to pay for it”. On one level, then, the $90.3m (R1.2bn) price tag is nothing more than another confirmation that the art market is bonkers.
Yet, if you compare this painting with the previous holder of the record – Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog (Orange), a gigantic, shiny children’s toy rendered in stainless steel – which sold for $58.4m in 2013, this is significant.
Where the Koons was a brash exercise in hubris, a flamboyant “up yours” to traditional good taste, the Hockney shows us that we still value art that tells a story, art that touches on universal emotions and art that takes us to a place that feels just a little bit better than where we already are.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited