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Hockney's 'Lucid' Bomb At the Art Establishment

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I have to say that in my gut I think David Hockney is right.

The British-born artist and art-establishment provocateur has triggered a squall of caterwauling from critics and academics over his contention – first outlined in a New Yorker article and then expanded into a coffee-table book – that old master painters going back even before the Renaissance used optical devices to help them create their stunning works on paper and canvas.

To put this most harshly: Hockney is saying that Vermeer, Holbein, Velazquez, Hals, etc. – even Rembrandt – most likely "cheated" by tracing their images before painting them, through the use of such things as the camera obscura, the camera lucida, mirrors, or a combination thereof. While it long has been assumed that some painters of this period had access to lenses and prisms, and used them, Hockney insists that the practice of optical-assisted image-making goes back much further – to the early 1400s in fact. At this time, noted Ingrid Rowland in the New York Review of Books, "[Hockney] identified a perceptible change in European drawing and painting that spread in the early fifteenth century from the Low Countries south to Renaissance Italy, soon coming to dominate the aesthetics of European art. This change...had to do with what [Hockney] calls 'optical characteristics,' essentially involving the plausible representation of figures in space."

But David Hockney, who at 66 is one of the most widely acclaimed artists of his generation, would never be so rude as to say these great painters cheated. "Optical devices certainly don't paint great pictures," he has declared. "Let me say now that the use of them diminishes no great artist."

However, you would never guess that from some of the criticism Hockney has generated. His lavishly illustrated doorstop of a book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (Viking, $60), seems to have overturned any number of rocks in the garden of the fine art establishment, and prompted indignant huffs that Hockney's theory is just an elaborate way for him to explain away the fact that Rembrandt and many other master painters were able to depict the real world and real people a hell of a lot better than Hockney ever could. Since a "great" modern artist like Hockney can't draw like the masters, his critics say, Hockney has convinced himself that the masters must have relied on mechanical devices to achieve their greatness.

To my mind the vehemence with which some have attacked Hockney not only is unfair, it betrays an interesting side-prejudice against photography and its ability to freeze imagery in an instant. It also betrays the wounded pride of people–academics and art critics – who have lionized certain painters for genius and who now can't abide the self-evident notion that any artist, genius or not, would use any tool possible to make his or her job easier.

Hockney had his own personal revelation about all this several years ago when he contemplated drawings by the 19th century French artist Jean-Dominique Ingres and saw parallels between them and the projection-trace drawings of modern artist Andy Warhol (who, it should be said, had no qualm about using photographs to make his iconic pop art portraits.) To be sure, Ingres' depiction of faces shows the meticulousness of a superb draftsmen, but his seemingly effortless rendering of the folds in clothing [See #1] made Hockney suspect that Ingres used a camera lucida, an instrument that appeared in the early 1800s mainly as a measuring device for artists. Basically, a prism on a stick, the camera lucida is a bear to use, but once mastered it can, as Hockney says, "create the illusion of an image of whatever is in front of it on a piece of paper below." Hockney is convinced – as am I – that Ingres used the camera lucida to help capture in his drawings the difficult drape and fold of fabric.

This discovery – this hunch – prompted Hockney to begin a retrospective project that would take years. "I am confident that Ingres used some form of optical device in his art," Hockney ultimately wrote, "probably a camera lucida for drawings, but perhaps some form of camera obscura for the meticulous detail in the paintings..." [The camera obscura – literally "dark room" – lets light from the outside world in through a small hole, or aperture, and projects an inverted, upside-down image onto the opposite wall. The practice can be refined through the use of lenses, etc., but the basic optical "miracle" is the projection of a recognizable image into the darkened room that an artist then can trace.]

"But Ingres was not the first to use optics," Hockney declared. "Vermeer was thought to have used a camera obscura....Was he the first or were artists using optics before him? I started to look through books and catalogues for whatever evidence I could find. I began to see things I had never noticed before..."

What followed was a lavishly illustrated treatise that makes what I feel is a strong case that artists, even going back to Jan van Eyck in the early 1500s, employed optical help. [See #2]

A key "eureka moment" for Hockney came when he learned from optical scientist Charles Falco that a concave mirror has the optical quality of a lens and can project an image (albeit upside down) onto a flat surface. Falco assumed this was common knowledge, but to Hockney it was a revelation – and helped him finally to explain why he had seen such a sudden change in verisimilitude in painting of the early 15th century, long before the introduction of lenses and prisms.

Certainly, David Hockney is something of a showman with a strong ego. A revelation to me, one can imagine him saying, must be a revelation to all. He looms large in his coffee table book, which also seems to rankle his critics.

I, however, was fascinated with the many ways Hockney himself demonstrated the use of optical devices, often with remarkable results. He even goes beyond the gee-whiz observation of how artists depicted draped fabric, or captured a fleeting expression on paper and canvas, [See #3] to describe how some obvious errors in early paintings might be traced to optics.

Just as a novice photographer using a view camera might be unable to master all its optical tilts, shifts and swings, so too, Hockney argues, did early artists using lenses and mirrors fail to see changes in perspective when they moved their equipment. This resulted, he says, in otherwise beautifully rendered paintings in which figures betrayed odd or awkward proportions. [See #4] Anyone who has used a view camera will know exactly what Hockney is talking about.

What I also find fascinating is that the rise of photography – arguably the truest way to depict reality – actually may have helped midwife the birth of modern, abstract art in the 1870s. I frankly never thought of it quite this way, but Hockney makes the arresting parallel. If we mark the birth of photography at around 1839 or 1840, when a lens-produced image finally could be permanently fixed to a surface, and then give the process a couple of decades to mature and grow more accessible to the general public, we find we suddenly are in the era of impressionist painters like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Manet. "Vanguard painting now wants to distinguish itself from the lens," Hockney argues, "and so steers...sharply away from [it]. This is the birth of modern art. Awkwardness returns. Advanced painters begin to look outside Europe and towards the art of the Far East, which offers alternative ways of seeing..."

Hockney's not altogether original theory on optical-assisted painting and drawing has prompted discussion, to be sure, as well as symposia at which the pros and cons have been debated with enthusiasm, of not actual passion. Essayist Susan Sontag, for example, whose last notoriety came after she opined in print that we deserved the September 11th terrorist attacks, proclaimed at one such gathering:

"If David Hockney's thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra."

But Sontag's tepid imitation of Oscar Wilde pales by comparison to the bile of Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post's new art critic. This Canadian import (he once toiled for the Toronto Globe and Mail) went on at such overheated length last year in a Book World review of Secret Knowledge that you had to wonder if there were something more than mere art criticism in play.

"It's hard to imagine how you could fit more errors of fact, technical ignorance, philosophical incoherence and logical inconsistency between two covers," Gopnik declared. "This book is a mess, in fact and in thinking....But because Hockney has achieved a modicum of fame in one domain – his stylish, photo-based paintings from the 1960s might get a paragraph or so in future histories of modern art – he is guaranteed an extra-large sized soapbox to spout off from, and a crowd of uninformed onlookers predisposed to trust what the Great Man says..."

[I need to remember to cross this guy off the review list for my next book.]

At the risk of being lumped in with all the other "uninformed onlookers," I repeat my belief that Hockney is on to something. And I say this, not as a critic – which I am – nor as an academic – which I am not – but as a working artist. That is: someone who actually works, day in, day out, in the visual arts, creating pictures.

There is something that simply feels right about virtually all of the circumstances that Hockney outlines to make his case. I defy any fellow artist to read Hockney's thesis – to view his examples and compare them to his or her own work – and not experience what writer Tom Wolfe calls the Shock of Recognition.

Any contemporary artist who has worked from photographs [as so many do without compunction or any reason not to] knows how the "optical characteristics" of a photograph can help strengthen a drawing or painting by giving it at least a true-perspective underpinning.

It stands to reason then that a Renaissance artist, given the aid of a concave mirror or a camera obscura to achieve the same end, would have done exactly the same thing at the start of a project.

Genius, if it were to happen, would occur later, after the mechanical tools were put away. Then God-given talent would put paint to canvas, and give it life.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

Note the superb draftsmanship in this 1816 drawing by Jean-Dominique Ingres. But David Hockney also noticed a contradiction: how the work on the face seemed precise, meticulous, while the folds of the subject's sleeve and dress were drawn rapidly, almost without effort. Ingres is believed to have used a camera lucida to make many of these drawings – and that started Hockney on his quest back in time. [All images from Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters]

Made nearly 300 years earlier, Hans Holbein's drawing of Thomas More's son shows an almost identical technique – clearly raising the question of whether Holbein also used optical devices to aid in his image-making.

I find this stunningly lifelike portrait by Velazquez (made in 1628-9) to be one of the strongest arguments to support Hockney's theory that artists centuries ago used optical aids. There is an almost photographic quality to the image, marked by strong, dramatic lighting. But it is the expression that rivets. "The face...is smiling, not only with his mouth but with his eyes," Hockney says. It is a fleeting expression, all but impossible to "eyeball," i.e.: draw freehand from memory, but much easier to capture with an optical tool.

It's not just the accuracy found in earlier paintings – e.g.: incredible detail in folded gowns and gilded crowns. The mistakes help make Hockney's case as well. For example, this Frans Hals portrait of a nobleman, made in 1636, shows a common fault in portraits of the period: unnatural elongation of the subject, probably made by combining several different optical "exposures" of the subject over varying periods, often from different perspectives.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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