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Life Painting for a Diploma is a large paint and collage work on canvas by the British artist David Hockney, which presents an almost-nude male figure painted on a cream-coloured background. Although the man has a toned physique, an effect achieved through Hockney’s use of colour to indicate light and shade around the muscles, his body is not anatomically correct, particularly his torso, which looks shortened. The man smiles as he poses, resting his right hand on his hip and extending his left hand out so that it almost reaches the right edge of the canvas. The only parts of the figure that are covered up are his genitals, over which is depicted a white triangle of cloth. The words that make up the work’s title are painted in black across the canvas, leading towards the triangle of cloth so that the ‘a’ of the word ‘diploma’ is adjacent to the cloth’s left side. To the left of the painted male figure is a tall, rectangular piece of paper that is attached to the surface of the canvas, which features a detailed drawing of a skeleton shown in profile. Across the top of the painting the word ‘PHYSIQUE’ is painted in large red lettering, only the bottom half of which is visible, and there is a solid line of black paint running across the bottom of the image behind the calves of the male figure.
Life Painting for a Diploma was created by Hockney in London in 1962. To make the work, the artist applied oil paint thickly onto a linen canvas primed with white and cream paint, although close inspection shows that the artist left more than half of the primed surface unpainted. The skeleton was drawn in charcoal on a piece of paper that was then attached to the canvas, introducing a collage element to the work. Hockney also inscribed the date and the word ‘unfinished’ in graphite at the bottom right of the picture.
The title of the work is a reference to the fact that it was made as part of Hockney’s diploma course at the Royal College of Art (RCA), from which he graduated in the same year that the painting was made. Hockney’s choice of subject for the work was brought about by his distaste for the life models selected for study at the RCA. As Hockney recalled in 1976:
I said the models weren’t attractive enough; and they said it shouldn’t make any difference, i.e. it’s only a sphere, a cylinder and a cone. And I said, Well, I think it does make a difference, you can’t get away from it.
(Quoted in Stangos 1976, p.88.)
Rather than using the RCA’s models for Life Painting for a Diploma, Hockney chose a figure that appealed to him: a male bodybuilder that had appeared on the cover of a recent issue of Physique Pictorial – an American magazine that was officially dedicated to exercise and bodybuilding but for which the primary market was gay men. Having taken the male figure from a popular source, Hockney then placed it in the context of an academic painting by labelling the work a ‘life painting’ and contrasting the image of the bodybuilder with a traditional-looking a drawing of an anatomically precise skeleton. In doing so, Hockney may have been offering a pun on the use of the word ‘life’, comparing the skeleton’s limp, fleshless form with the lifelessness of the RCA’s approach to artistic instruction, while also demonstrating his ability to draw from life accurately.
Hockney’s graduation from the RCA was itself controversial, with Hockney refusing to write the essay required for the final examination. In response to the RCA’s threat to prevent him from graduating, he produced another work in 1962, The Diploma (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney), an etching that depicts the Principal of the RCA as a large figure with a Hitler-like moustache and five of Hockney’s fellow students being crushed beneath the weight of a framed diploma. In response to this work, the RCA decided to honour Hockney’s talent, changing its regulations so that he could be awarded the diploma. In this sense The Diploma bears thematic resemblance to Life Painting for a Diploma – both satirise the RCA through witty depictions and references to the institution’s rigidity.
At the time of its production, Life Painting for a Diploma served to further growing interest in Hockney’s art in Britain. Hockney was photographed in front of Life Painting for a Diploma for an article in Town magazine in September 1962, as part of an issue of the magazine entitled ‘The Young Take the Wheel’. During the 1960s Hockney produced several works featuring male nudes, some of which were painted from photographs or magazines and others from life, such as those produced during Hockney’s frequent visits to California (where he eventually moved in 1964; see Man in a Shower in Beverley Hills 1963, Tate T03074). The painting can also be seen in the context of the development of pop art in Britain during the 1960s, in particular through its appropriation of imagery and typography from a popular magazine.
Nikos Stangos, David Hockney by David Hockney, London 1976, p.88.
Paul Melia (ed.), David Hockney, Manchester 1995, pp.18, 48, reproduced p.17.
Christopher Reed, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas, Oxford 2011, p.171.