Secret Knowledge – David Hockney

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Artist David Hockney reveals startling evidence which suggests that cameras have been a secret tool for artists since the 15th century, a discovery that solves century-old mysteries surrounding famous paintings. Presented by Kirsty Wark, and filmed in Bruges, Florence and a stunning Hockney-designed set in Hollywood.

Youtube: taylordiabennett Published on Nov 23, 2011

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Candid camera

In Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, David Hockney reveals how artists caught nature with lenses and mirrors. It took a painter to show us, says Peter Robb
Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters
David Hockney
296pp, Thames & Hudson, £35

David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge is a short and thrilling book with big new things to say about European painting. Hockney has followed his painter’s technical curiosity into questions that have mostly been ignored by academic art history.

Were the great leaps in verisimilitude achieved by European painters after the middle ages enabled by the use of mirrors and lenses?Illustrations are a large part of the story here. Linked by an exiguous text that breathes an engaging Boys’ Own practical enthusiasm, the pictures create a tension between your desire to linger on the gorgeous images and your eagerness to turn the page and see where Hockney is going.

This essay is followed by a very useful little anthology of writings on optics over the last 1,000 years, followed in its turn by an intermittently interesting sheaf of letters exchanged between Hockney and various academics on his research.

Hockney started from a conviction that Ingres used a camera lucida – basically a small prism on a stalk – to draw rapid portrait likenesses on paper. This is not very exciting. The big questions lie in painters’ use of the camera obscura to cast images of the real world on to a darkened wall.

Secret Knowledge presents a series of simple but immensely suggestive technical notes on a series of paintings, especially on the qualities of perspective or proportion or finish that give clues to how they were made. Any medium or technique for making art creates a set of possibilities and limits that bear on the artist’s activity at every point and are inseparable from what is achieved.

Some of Hockney’s best thoughts on the optics implicit in the art are almost thrown away here. The richness and precision that a projected image helped make possible in painting, he remarks, also involved the painter in another kind of tyranny or falsification, that of the monocular view of the single lens, unlike the binocular vision of the human eyes.

He also points out that painters using a camera obscura were likely to have only one small part of their life models in focus at any time. So they worked moving from one small area of the composition to another, during which time the light source – the sun – and the shadows it cast would move, and a sense of time and motion would be incorporated into the finished work.

Meanwhile, the painting of complex works with several figures, done part by projected part, would create problems of depth – eyelines that didn’t meet, for instance – that enhance the dreamlike vividness and the spatial enigmas of some of Caravaggio’s work.

Although Hockney argues that optical devices were used by European painters from the early 15th century, 1600 was the moment when the look of European painting changed. The agent of change was Caravaggio. Some – not all – of Caravaggio’s painting uniquely compels you to grope for words in order to describe the optical novelty and disturbing immediacy of the images. They’re at once coldly precise, voluptuously real and strangely oneiric. They’re certainly alien to the geometrical perspectives of renaissance art.

These paintings were all done in Rome in the decade from 1595, when Caravaggio was part of an intensely scientific and experimentally minded milieu in a household frequented by Galileo, who was then developing the telescope. His patron, Del Monte, owned one of the few copies of Leonardo da Vinci’s still-unpublished writings on art and science.

Della Porta’s book on natural magic, which described clearly and vividly how the camera obscura worked, had begun circulating widely in a new edition just before Caravaggio arrived in Rome. His very first paintings don’t yet use this technique (this includes one, the Sick Bacchus, which I think Hockney misreads, since it was done before Caravaggio had access to the new technology of image projection and is a self-portrait painted, as a contemporary wrote, looking at a mirror).

Later, when he was on the run, Caravaggio had to abandon the technique altogether.
In Rome, Caravaggio owned and used mirrors and compasses. Contemporaries agreed that he painted directly from life. He didn’t draw, and so never worked in fresco, which needed a preliminary drawing. Unlike other painters, he marked out the limits of a few forms, a kind of elementary tracing that left tiny grooves in the wet priming of his canvases, as if to fix the components of a projected image. These techniques were secret because they were dangerous. Science and magic were equally suspect. Della Porta had run foul of the Inquisition, and Galileo would too.

Hockney shows how simply this projection could be made. All Caravaggio needed was a concave mirror and a strong light source, though he might have used more. It will now be hard to deny that Caravaggio, in these central Roman years, painted from images projected like colour slides on to a flat surface. Together with the utterly different Vermeer, half a century later in the Netherlands, Caravaggio is the great instance in favour of Hockney’s case. Other painters used optical devices, but Caravaggio and Vermeer made their optics central to the way they saw the world. That is why, in the 17th century, optics in art suddenly mattered.

The delight of Hockney’s book is the stimulus it gives us to look afresh at paintings we know well, to think and see for ourselves. His remarks on visual detail are brilliant. I think his larger thesis is essentially right, if not equally pertinent or fruitful in all its parts. New insights sometimes have to fight the tide of a faintly tedious obsession with the minutiae of mechanical technique. Are the portrait sketches of Ingres, let alone the tracings of Andy Warhol, interesting enough for us to care much how they were done? But with Caravaggio and Vermeer and Cézanne – who is the great contrary instance – Hockney strikes gold.
It took a painter to show us.