The First Marriage is a large painting depicting a couple seen in profile. The man stands behind the woman who is seated, although there is no support beneath her. As in several of Hockney’s painting made in the early 1960s, much of the canvas has been left in its natural state so that most of the background is empty. The figures drawn and painted onto it have a cartoon or child-like quality. The couple are in the centre of the image, both looking towards the left. Behind them, to the right, stands a primitive representation of a palm tree in the form of a tall white trunk tipped with violet and red fronds. It grows out of a narrow section of white ground on which strips and strokes of green represent grass. In the top right corner, concentric rings suggest the sun as well as making reference to contemporary abstract painting. The rings are echoed on the woman’s earring, peeping out from behind her red and blue headdress or hair, as well as on her breasts. Hockney painted the male figure in modern dress in a simplified and semi-naturalistic, but also caricatured, way. While the upper half of his body, comprising his jacket and face, has a realistic appearance, his legs and feet are distorted in form and flat in colour. The female figure is also painted in a mixture of styles. Her face is a monotone red and her eye delineated as though viewed from the front in the manner of ancient Egyptian wall painting. Below the neck, her body disintegrates into raw canvas on which the contours of her seated frame and one arm have been sketched. Her breasts are pointing cup shapes bearing red concentric rings and stick-like nipples. A semi-transparent swathe of white descending from her head suggests a bridal veil. To the left of the couple, a grey pointed gothic arch shape is painted over an abstract area of colours. Hockney has said that he added this ‘for its ecclesiastical connections with marriage’ (quoted in David Hockney: Seven Paintings, [p.3]).
Hockney graduated from the Royal College of Art, London in the summer of 1962. The First Marriage was painted in September after a trip to Germany made with an American friend. On a visit to the Pergamon Museum in (East) Berlin, Hockney saw his friend standing in profile at the end of a corridor, next to an ancient Egyptian seated wooden figure. He explained: ‘from the distance they looked like a couple, posing as it were for a wedding photograph’ (letter to the Tate Gallery, 15th August 1963). He was interested in the idea of a ‘marriage’ between these two people, ancient and modern, real and unreal and the accompanying idea of a ‘marriage of styles’. Hockney has acknowledged the influence of French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) on his graffiti-like pictures of the early 1960s, saying ‘it was his style of doing images, the kind of childish drawings he used that attracted me’ (quoted in David Hockney: Seven Paintings, [p.2]). In 1960 he had begun a series of four numbered ‘Love’ paintings, in which he combined painted text with semi-abstract images. These parodied the prevailing fashion, adopted by such British painters as John Hoyland (born 1934), for titling abstract paintings with numbers only. In The Second Marriage 1963 (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne) Hockney developed the theme of The First Marriage, becoming more involved with perspective and pictorial space.
David Hockney: Paintings, Prints and Drawings 1960-1970, exhibition catalogue, Whitechapel Gallery, London 1970
Stephanie Barron, Maurice Tuchman, David Hockney: A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Tate Gallery, London 1988, reproduced p.120, pl.12 in colour and p.121 (detail)
David Hockney: Seven Paintings, exhibition brochure, Tate Gallery, London 1992, [p.3], reproduced [p.3] in colour
Catherine Kinley/Elizabeth Manchester
February 1992/March 2003