Eyeballs v. Optics

Julian Bell

  • Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters by David Hockney
    Thames and Hudson, 296 pp, £35.00, October 2001, ISBN 0 500 23785 9

David Hockney’s new study, Secret Knowledge, sets out a thesis with vast implications, both for the way we look at Old Master paintings and the way we think about painting’s relation to photography. The more attention you give the thesis, however, the more Hockney’s presentation starts to frustrate you. What you get is, first, a brisk illustrated lecture explaining how he hit on his ideas, a lecture that involves rushing every which way round the National Gallery, pointing out telling visual evidence and adding speculative asides. Next comes a gathering of supportive excerpts from art history; then, forming the bulk of the text, Hockney’s correspondence on the subject over the last two years, chiefly with the art historian Martin Kemp, author of The Science of Art (1990), a magisterial study of painting and optics. David and Martin, seemingly unedited, exchange chitchat, aperçus and mutual encouragement between Los Angeles and Oxford, artlessly and highly repetitiously: you really have to dig for the nuggets. An unexpurgated documentation of his thought processes is a less generous offer than Hockney seems to imagine.

The thesis is primarily historical: he wants to modify certain assumptions about the course pursued by Western art over the last six centuries. It’s hard to get the measure of what he’s saying without first recapitulating these assumptions. They are to do with the way in which Western painting has developed its claim to ‘imitate nature’ and I take them to run something like this.

Before the late 13th century, the imitation of nature, or the simulation of outward appearances, term it how you will, seems a relatively minor aspect of picture-making. What comes after, however, is a gradual accumulation of methods to capture ‘the look of things’, some more compatible with their forerunners than others, though none has been wholly supplanted to this day. To squeeze in six centuries under nine headings, these ways are: 1) from about 1300, illusionism – with Giotto, 3D qualities such as volume and recession start to loom large in painting. 2) Over the following few generations, observation: painters increasingly work with drawings taken from objects set directly before them (what Hockney calls ‘eyeballing’). 3) In 1420s Florence, perspective: Brunelleschi shows artists how to draw collections of objects as seen from a single static viewpoint, so that the picture becomes a ‘window’ set between them and the viewer. 4) In 1430s Flanders, oils: Campin and van Eyck take up the medium to expand the tonal range and textural diversity of painted objects. These ‘Northerners’, however, show each object coming forward separately to meet the roving eye of a mobile viewer. About eighty years later, we get 5) ‘painterliness’: Giorgione, emulated by Titian, leaves off applying colour to already drawn objects to rely on the open-ended, fluid brushstroke, as a way of prompting the viewer to share the painter’s pleasure in the process of conjuring up the object. Then in 1600 there is the phenomenon known in its own time as 6) ‘naturalism’, when Caravaggio starts to treat painting as the reception, rather than the construction of appearances; that’s to say, as a way of capturing the light that falls on the bodies in his studio, rather than of using light to enhance the volume of previously defined objects.

During the next two centuries: 7) this principle of light-catching naturalism is extended through its pairing with the ‘painterly’ manner (Velázquez, Hals, Chardin); through the development of plein-air practice (Velázquez, again, through to Constable); and through the assistance of optical devices that project images through a single aperture onto a plane where they can be transcribed (Vermeer, Canaletto). These devices climax, you might say, in 1839, with 8) the advent of photography. Now that the recording of appearances can be a mechanical process, it will increasingly be regarded as best done mechanically. Finally, during the later 19th century, we arrive at 9) Impressionism and its offshoots: Monet and then Cézanne bring to a head a century-old tendency for painters to treat outward appearances as the inward experiences of an embodied, mobile and motivated viewer. Painters working in Cézanne’s wake move decisively away from the notion of copying ‘what’s out there’.

This potted history concentrates, of course, on a single strand in Western art, disregarding the factors that stop painting ever merely ‘imitating nature’: the demands to emblematise, to idealise and to deliver an autonomous aesthetic experience. You might broadly argue that these were in the ascendant during the 20th century and, with very different results, during much of the 16th and 18th. But these concerns are peripheral to Hockney’s main theme.

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