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David Hockney's 1963 'Play Within a Play'


Abstract and Figures

David Hockney's 1963 oil & plexiglass painting of his art dealer Kasmin is a multi layered and playful exploration of historical approaches towards figurative painting, performance and symbolism. In this paper I explore some central aspects of this work and its links to historical painting which Hockney was aware of and has spoken openly about.
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24th March 2013
David Hockney Play Within a Play (1963)
183 x193 cms oil painting with plexi-glass
Hockney’s 1963 oil painting with plexi-glass celebrates theatrical, performative, illusionistic,
symbolic and decorative elements of Painting.
The central focus of the painting shifts between a standing figure facing the viewer, a chair to his
side and a large tapestry hanging to the floor behind the figure. The style of drawing and painting
within the painting is whimsical and overtly symbolic stylistically.
Within the painted tapestry backdrop human form is stretched beyond the bounds of the
believable. What should read as shadows cast from a large figure to the viewer’s right, and two
figures to the right of a tree form are variously blue shadows cast across an abstracted red, white
and blue ground plane almost bisecting the canvas in half.
The central figure is a portrait of John Kasmin, Hockney’s art dealer, in smart casual clothes with
arms raised facing the viewer in a pose reminiscent of classic mime. The figure appears pressed
against a sheet of plexi-glass Hockney placed in front of the paint surface. The figure of Kasmin
Play Within a Play
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stands upon a perspectival rendering of floorboards running from a central point of the canvas
outwards either side of the chair and figure. There is an illusionistic shadow painted below the
tassels of the tapestry’s bottom edge intimating a secondary realistic depth to the painting where
the symbolism of the tapestry defies any realistic interpretation or reading.
The figure is trapped[1] [] within the
painting while the plexi-glass is real. The frame the figure is surrounded by is illusory yet as real or
more so than the figure, whose hands suggest the whitening of skin pressed against a window but
is not painted in any super or hyperrealist style. They are more readily readable as palm prints or
impressions, the kind almost every child at kindergarten returns home with at some time in their
early childhood. Within an Australian context the hands pressed against the picture plane, yet
denying or emphasizing their theatricality through the use of a physical prop, the plexi-glass; and
can be seen to reference indigenous palm paintings from caves across Australia where identity,
age, kinship, decoration and occupancy are celebrated.
It is within the conundrum of being able to ‘read’ a fifty year old painting reproduced within a 1970’s
catalogue from a French exhibition of David Hockney’s work which influenced me to study art and
which I have kept with me as I have traveled around the world and opened it in Western Australia
that the complexities and simplicity of being able to ‘read’ an image across time and cultures
emphasizes the innate and abiding power of painting as a medium. The hands and figure within
Hockney’s 1963 painting were the reason for my foray into the past and particularly the work of
David Hockney.
Hockney is acknowledged as an artist who has explored technologies throughout his career
utilizing historical and new technologies in his research, inquisitive approaches and stylistic shifts
across a range of practice embracing film, video, theatre, opera, printmaking, drawing,
photography and painting. David Hockney is also acknowledged for his ongoing research into
perspectival constructs and spatial representation. His work defies categorization on some levels
where his subject matter changes immensely yet the core focus remains where he is seeking to
explore ways of representing figures in space and time.
‘Play Within a Play’ clearly links Hockney’s interest in the past. In 1963 he was influenced by
Egyptian styles and motifs that can be seen within the painting and others from that year, ‘Great
Pyramid at Giza with broken head from Thebes’ 1963[2] [http://jeremy-] . In both paintings Hockney introduces spatial
props, the chair and tapestry in ‘Play Within a Play’ and a cubist (Leger) style faucet projecting into
the picture plane. It is from this point I wish to explore the idea that David Hockney was arguing for
a significant reappraisal of painting’s possible multicultural imperatives for the future.
Hockney’s view has, throughout his career, been holistic and all embracing. He appreciates past
and new tools to stimulate and feed his practice from photocopiers, fax machines, Polaroid
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cameras, film, video as well as established art and craft techniques such as ancient drawing
devices, paper making, lithography and etching. His early paintings explore a range of cultures
Egyptian, Indian, European, American and styles Figurative, Abstraction, Field Painting,
Decorative, Graphic, Cubist, Minimal, illustrative as well as genres History painting, Narrative,
Surrealism, Portraiture, Still Life. Across this range of work Hockney exhibited inventive and
playful approaches, where he has sought to explore rather than refine one specific technique or
approach. His graphic skills in drawing privileged Hockney’s explorations. Championing Picasso’s
Cubist period flew in the face of current English contemporary Art School teaching based on
American Abstract Expressionism as a start point for students and where any mention of Picasso
was shunned.
Hockney has spoken his mind from the established tradition of skills based training and practice
linked to exploratory and academic reflection from the visual interrogation of an artwork and has
entered many arguments regarding contemporary art practice emphasizing Visual Art training as a
central and clearly understood position where ‘the eye’ is trained, working in tandem with the mind
from a visual academic grounding.
‘Play Within a Play’ offers significant opportunities for multiple readings through Hockney’s playful
and intellectually witty approach to what could in lesser hands have been overtly oppressive and
dark subject matter. The painting can be seen simply for itself yet also as a metaphorical
statement on the role and position of the artist in contemporary society; where they are trapped
and mute within a decorative one-dimensional world they inhabit as if it is real. Hockney’s work
from this period is rich in playing with devices and techniques yet Play Within a Play offers
historical (Egyptian freeze) symbolic figures a role within its construction and reading. At this point
Hockney concurs with Paul Gauguin’s recommendation to look at the work of Ancient Egypt for a
way forward in Painting[3] [] .
Gauguin sought to redefine figuration from a new and savage perspective, turning away from the
atelier systems of Europe and looking beyond for inspiration.
Peter Abbs[4] [
id=dSQgA2T4g7wC&redir_esc=y956706927866#_ftn4] argues for broader appreciation of historical
understanding to aide and assist contemporary teaching of the arts from a literate and poetic
appreciation of language across the arts and beyond the constraints of scientific validity. In
Hockney’s painting the celebration of the decorative overtly challenges any prior understanding of
realism. He adheres to late twentieth century art education’s distillation of Pointillist and
Impressionist techniques, where black is absent from the creation of shadows yet his use of blue
as a cast shadow would be more related to theatrical presentation or a child’s interpretation of
those transient shapes which shift in believability as the eye travels through them.
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Domenchino & assistants 1616-18 ‘Apollo Killing the Cyclops’
Fresco transferred to canvas & mounted on board 316.3 x 190.4 cms
National Gallery London.
The fresco (transferred to canvas) comes from a series painted in the Stanza di Apollo in the garden pavilion at the Villa
Aldobrandini, Frascati.
The Fleur-de-Lis
Hockney’s ‘Play Within a Play’ is a direct transcription from Domenchino’s 1616 -18 fresco of
‘Apollo Killing the Cyclops’ (National Gallery, London). Hockney acknowledges this [5]
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Around the edge of the tapestry within ‘Play Within a Play’ is a blue border with white Fleur–de-Lis
surround. This motif is a symbolic form dating back to ancient European history[6]
[] and significantly associated with French cultural identity. The
power of such a symbol would have been appreciated by Hockney as well as its multiple meanings
through time.
The linkage between the Fleur-de-Lis and its association with French culture is echoed throughout
the image where Blues, Whites and Reds (Bleu, Blanc, Rouge of the French Tricolor) are repeated
throughout. Behind the main figure a Red, White, Blue (British reading of the Union Jack flag) or
Blue, White, Red Crescent form, depending which way the motif is read from, stretches upwards
from a ‘sea’ of horizontal brush strokes in Blues, Reds and White. Again this could be read as a
part of Hockney’s Play Within a Play where the artist plays with notions of national identity through
colour, effectively celebrating multiple cultures simultaneously and emphasizing the power of the
visual as an International language beyond borders of ordinary language or belief. The emphasis
of the Fleur-de-Lis may more readily be a celebration of Hockney’s aesthetic allegiances in 1963
although in the same year Hockney embarked on his Hollywood paintings prior to visiting America.
The painting is a vehicle for Hockney to travel within. In his art he assumes and explores differing
aesthetic identities through style and content. The use of symbolic form as decoration within
painting has a long history within artistic practice. The viewer is taken on a cultural tour of
aesthetic exploration, an archaeologist examining ancient symbols or language. Within the
context of this painting Hockney exhibits an ambitious and grand reclamation of the decorative in
art. The presence of the Fleur-de-Lis within ‘Play Within a Play’ frames and accentuates flatness
in the composition, apart from the perspectival device of the floor plane leading the viewer’s eye
into the illusionist’s trap.
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The Fleur-de-Lis has a long and extensive symbolic presence in French history. Its presence within emblems,
coats of arms is readily documented to 14th century France. It has been used within religious and cultural
contexts as an unofficial symbol of French identity appearing on stamps and city emblems. French historian
Georges Duby identified that the three leaves represent the medieval social classes: those who worked, those
who fought, and those who prayed. [7] [] Hockney’s tapestry border is significantly
simpler in form than the original of the 17th century Domenchino work. Hockney’s gestural paint use within the
1963 painting references earlier works of Matisse or Picasso than any contemporary emphasis other than his
Detail from Domenchino
Detail from Henri Matisse
Hyacinths & Lemons,
Fleur de Lis background 1943
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Detail from Hockney
David Hockney’s appropriation of imagery, devices, symbols or style at the start of the 1960’s in England,
from the position of an informed historically aware cherry-picker, opened up approaches for painting
previously suggested by Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Hockney’s ability to drill down through history
in seeing and using elements from past masters and times in contemporary style is characteristic of artists
throughout history who have looked to art for inspiration and information as much if not more so than their
everyday experiences. Hockney’s use of the Fleur-de-Lis is a direct appropriation from the original work of
Domenchino. For Hockney it would have been part of the transcription process but his extreme and overt
sexualization of the historical symbol revitalised the image from the contemporary perspective of the
dawning of England’s “Swinging Sixties’; now much celebrated for its expressive individualist and
exploratory cultural highpoints of the late 20th century.
The symbolic in contemporary art
Symbolism as an artistic style or movement is a contested and broad descriptor for a variety of
styles and technical approaches across the Visual Arts mainly extant and developed during the
late nineteenth century across Europe[8] [] and later the
Paul Gauguin is credited as being a Symbolist where his influence upon the younger Emile
Bernard is well documented[9] [] . Gauguin had called for
the reassessment of ancient Egyptian friezes where profile representation was stylistically
emphasized as a way of investigating and implementing revised approaches in artistic
composition. Gauguin implemented his theories in many of his Tahitian paintings where figures
are reduced to processions of silhouette / profiles across a canvas. Hockney’s inclusion of profile
figures embedded within the tapestry background of ‘Play within a Play’ creates a tension between
the three flat figure forms, the lollipop tree between the first and remaining two figures as well as
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the Fleur-de-Lis border and the central figure facing the viewer directly. The tension is playful in its
structure where they eye is contained by border of the symbolic Fleur-de-Lis yet returning back
‘inside’ the image through the use of the various blues incorporated as shadow forms.
The pre-dominant theory within contemporary art in the early 1960’s was American. Clement
Greenberg’s theories on modern art dictated the way a painting or artwork functioned through the
perception of ‘push and pull’ in that a work projects itself beyond its surface where the viewer
reads it from either a given perspectival position, optimal view, or from where the artist readily
observed the work in progress. Greenberg also considered this as a way for an image to pull the
viewer into the work itself. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Hans Hoffman were
promoted as direct examples of the theory’s relevance which remained a significant influence
across the teaching of Western Art painting in the 1960’s to the 1970’s in terms of colour
relationships within a work. Hockney would have been not only conscious of Greenberg’s
theories, as a figurative painter he would have been acutely aware of the desire to promote
abstraction, and American abstraction in particular, as the dominant and culturally relevant form in
the early 1960’s. Hockney’s early paintings play with modernist ideas regarding painting, the ‘push
and pull’ of a work, emphasis of ‘flatness’, the introduction of Cubist style modeling or trompe l’oeil
techniques, as employed in the floor plane of ‘Play Within a Play’.
Hockney’s breadth of references across his work expand significantly beyond the moment of
execution or as examples of Zeitgeist (Spirit of the Age), which has become a dominant
conceptual model for many contemporary artists. In this sense Hockney’s focus is more classical
in its vision where he refers to a broad, sweeping inquisitive and informed overview of historical
contextual awareness as the basis for his work. He has extended understanding and proposed
many significant developments for printmaking, photography and video as well as painting. Within
‘Play Within a Play’ Hockney’s balancing act between performance and reflection are dynamically
juxtaposed within the decorative frame of painterly painting.
A story within a story is a literary device or conceit in which one story is told during the action of another
story. Mise en abyme is the French term for the same literary device (and also refers to the practice in
heraldry of placing the image of a small shield on a larger shield). A story within a story can be used in
novels, short stories, plays, television, films, poems, music, and even philosophy[10]
[] .
Around this time Hockney also got interested in the notion of the "Picture within a Picture", derived from
the theatrical conceit of the "Play within a Play", hence one can see these works as paintings of paintings
with no moment of intention or even genesis. Their lightness is serious and they do not immerse you in the
past, all is kept open through confidence, rivalry with other artists, and most of all by very uncompromised
sexual politics[11] [] .
Hockney’s use of symbolism within ‘Play Within a Play’ is clearly evident when comparing his work with
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the 17th century Domenchino stated as being the influence for his work. The figures within Hockney’s
painting are ancient symbols rather than any attempt at relating Apollo’s slaying of the Cyclops. A
significant painter whose work Hockney would have been aware of in early 1960’s England would have
been Alan Davie who by the early 1960’s was highly regarded and utilizing mystical symbolism from a
variety of sources.
‘In the mid 1950’s he [Davie] started to become interested in both Zen Buddhism and Jungian psychology
and found the emphasis on releasing the subconscious from the strictures of the everyday very appealing.’[12]
Alan Davie
‘Terrible Tom’ (1961)
oil on canvas (48 x 60 inches ) 121.9 x 152.4 cm Gimpel Fils, London
Hockney’s paintings from the early 1960’s, until 1966, display significant otherworldly elements ‘Painting
emphasizing Stillness’ 1962 has a wild cat leaping down towards two naked male figures with an archetypal
detached suburban house in small scale to the side of the figures. ‘Domestic Scene, Los Angeles’, 1963,
where two young males are engaged in showering, one washing the other’s back as he stands immediately
beside a decorative armchair. ‘Great Pyramid at Giza with Broken Head from Thebes’ 1963, a large bent
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pipe or faucet projects into the picture plane where a centrally located pyramid is bisected by a large palm
tree with a figure standing next to a free standing broken statue head. These ambitious and expressive
Hockney works straddle Surrealism and the symbolic while Hockney’s graphic strength as an artist creates a
tension where the believable is established simultaneously with the realization of impossible absurdities.
The use of plexi-glass, as stated by Hockney, not only emphasized his central figure study of John Kasmin’s
entrapment within art but also added a filter of contemporary practice then developing in America within the
work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg where ‘real’ objects, not readily associated as art materials,
were incorporated within their work; relating directly to Clement Greenberg’s lectures on the possibilities
raised by the work of Marcel Duchamp[13] [
play.html] .
David Hockney’s ‘Play Within a Play’ offers a rich and multilayered experience of painting where history,
reflection, transcription, decoration and playfulness abound. The painting immediately references
performance through the central figure of Kasmin’s pressed form against the additional plexi-glass form
external to the paint surface. Symbolism, photorealism, gesture and construction co-exist within a single
work. The painting operates on decorative or art historical levels, apart from its own history as a work
within Hockney’s oeuvre. It suggests ways of celebrating the painted form from an historical reflection and
the future where Hockney’s blending of time, techniques and imagery presents an early Post-Modern vision.
The painting also reasserts Paintings’ historical privilege as an academically studied discipline where it has
been revitalized from an academic, experimental and playful position where a young artist at the start of
their career is mixing elements they find attractive or of relevance to their personal vision. Theory is
expressed in a visually convincing yet playful form as a believable construct within an otherwise absurd
dimensional plane.
[1] [] House, G. (1974) ‘David Hockney ‘
Musee des Arts Decoratif Paris, British Council p28.
[2] [] House, G (1974) ‘David Hockney ‘
Musee des Arts Decoratif Paris, British Council p29.
[3] [] Blank, J. (1981) ‘Paul Gauguin, The Savage
Inspite of Himself’
[4] [] Abbs, P (1989) A is for Aesthetic
[5] [] Willats, J, (1997) ‘Art and Representation: New
Principles in the Analysis of Picture’
[6] [] -
cite_ref-14 Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages, Dictionnaire Languedocien-François, contenant un Recueil des
principales fautes que commettent, dans la diction et dans la prononciation françoises, les habitans des Provinces
Méridionales, connues autrefois sous la dénomination générale de la Langue-d'Oc, 1765, p. 253 (accessed 22.03.2013)
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[7] [] Georges Duby, France in the Middle Ages
987–1460: From Hugh Capet to Joan of Arc
[8] []
(accessed 23/03/2013)
[9] [] Blank, J. (1981) ‘Paul Gauguin, The Savage Inspite of Himself’
[10] []
[11] [] David Hockney, 1971 first appeared in Texte zur Kunst No. 67, September
2007. Dedicated to David Hockney.
[12] []
(accessed 24.03.13)
[13] [] Greenberg, C. (1971) ‘Seminars at
Bennington’ pt1.
Posted 24th March 2013 by Jeremy Blank
Location: 7 Boston Quays, Mindarie WA 6030, Australia
Labels: Alan Davie, Clement Greenberg, david hockney, Domenchino, John Kasmin, performance in painting, Play
Within a Play, symbolism in Hockney's early painting
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
The Savage Inspite of Himself
  • J Blank
[] Blank, J. (1981) 'Paul Gauguin, The Savage Inspite of Himself'
Dictionnaire Languedocien-François, contenant un Recueil des principales fautes que commettent, dans la diction et dans la prononciation françoises, les habitans des Provinces Méridionales, connues autrefois sous la dénomination générale de la Langue-d'Oc, 1765
  • Pierre-Augustin Boissier De Sauvages
Pierre-Augustin Boissier de Sauvages, Dictionnaire Languedocien-François, contenant un Recueil des principales fautes que commettent, dans la diction et dans la prononciation françoises, les habitans des Provinces Méridionales, connues autrefois sous la dénomination générale de la Langue-d'Oc, 1765, p. 253 (accessed 22.03.2013)
Paul Gauguin, The Savage Inspite of Himself
  • J Blank] Blank, J. (1981) 'Paul Gauguin, The Savage Inspite of Himself' [10] [] (accessed23.03.13)
Seminars at Bennington' pt1. Posted 24th Play Within a Play, symbolism in Hockney's early painting
  • C Greenberg
[] Greenberg, C. (1971) 'Seminars at Bennington' pt1. Posted 24th March 2013 by Jeremy Blank Location: 7 Boston Quays, Mindarie WA 6030, Australia Labels: Alan Davie, Clement Greenberg, david hockney, Domenchino, John Kasmin, performance in painting, Play Within a Play, symbolism in Hockney's early painting
David Hockney ' Musee des Arts Decoratif Paris
  • G House
[] House, G. (1974) 'David Hockney ' Musee des Arts Decoratif Paris, British Council p28.
Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Picture
[] Willats, J, (1997) 'Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Picture'
Seminars at Bennington' pt1. Posted
  • C Greenberg
  • Clement Greenberg
  • John Domenchino
  • Kasmin
[13] [] Greenberg, C. (1971) 'Seminars at Bennington' pt1. Posted 24th March 2013 by Jeremy Blank Location: 7 Boston Quays, Mindarie WA 6030, Australia Labels: Alan Davie, Clement Greenberg, david hockney, Domenchino, John Kasmin, performance in painting, Play Within a Play, symbolism in Hockney's early painting