David Hockney, self portrait with red braces, 2003. Watercolor on paper, 24 x 18 1/8 inches. © David Hockney. Photo by Richard Schmidt. 

David Hockney Spills the Tea on the Old Masters’ Collusion with Photography

In GARAGE No. 6, we examined how the British artist shocked the art establishment at the turn of the 21st century by asserting a deeper link between the Old Masters and photography than had previously been suspected.

by Gabriel Morgan
Jun 27 2018, 3:29pm

David Hockney, self portrait with red braces, 2003. Watercolor on paper, 24 x 18 1/8 inches. © David Hockney. Photo by Richard Schmidt. 

In 1999, David Hockney took time away from painting for a vast research project on Old Master and Renaissance artists from Jan van Eyck to Frans Hals, Caravaggio, and Vermeer, eventually publishing in the 2001 book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters his now-famous theory: that a camera lucida or camera obscura were used far earlier and more widely than had previously been thought, in order to achieve a more realistic effect when painting from life. The hubbub was enormous, pitting scientists against each other and putting art historians at odds with their own ilk. The computer scientist Dr. Antonio Criminisi, a researcher at Microsoft, and the physicist David G. Stork said it was impossible. The optical physicist Charles Falco said it was certain, and he became a co-signer of the artist’s thesis. Hockney also had the help and advice of brilliant historians such as David Graves, and specialists in the science of Renaissance art, such as Oxford’s Martin Kemp, but his personal audacity was beautiful. His path to understanding the Old Masters was not scholarship, primarily, but the long hard stare of a fellow painter.

The year Secret Knowledge was published I was in Mali, where I filmed and met Ali Farka Touré, that Mark Twain of the Niger, who was born on the river, worked on the river, and became with his guitar one of its voices. In a country where myth, history, and music had been the privileged domain of hereditary griots, Touré presumed to rival them. He spoke seven of Mali’s many languages and, knowing a teenager’s name and village, he could recount the exploits of the boy’s ancestors in true griot fashion. Like Hockney, Touré was a blessed trespasser, anointed by the river if not by caste. He communicated with the Djimbala, or spirits of the river, by pure affinity, just as Hockney communed with Hals and Vermeer like a member of their guild with whom they would share their secrets.

The BBC series David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge shows him more charmingly absorbed in his inquiry than an astronomer in a meteor shower. He delights especially in reenacting great paintings and drawings, whether he believes Filippo Brunelleschi stood in order to project the Baptistery into the darkened room behind him, or whether arranging the grapes and setting the lighting for a tableau vivant of Caravaggio’s Self-Portrait as Bacchus, circa 1593. In his inspired play, Hockney is undaunted by the hallowed ground he treads, that of a trillion dollar industry of art, which rests in turn on the virtuosity of these departed geniuses who must not be humanized or humbled in any respect.

David Hockney, A Bigger Matelot Kevin Druez 2, 2009. Inkjet print on paper, mounted on dibond. 63 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches © David Hockney.

In 1993, the former Communist Antonio Bassolino became the first elected mayor of Naples, even though his opponent had a stronger brand - she had done two Playboy covers and was Mussolini’s granddaughter. In the fiscal disarray following a kickback scandal that saw half of Italy’s parliament indicted, the path was cleared for new ideas and Bassolino was free to include some socialist experiments in his program of urban renewal. Art tourism was a priority. There was an idle surplus of sanitation workers and a shortage of art historians and art curators, who were too expensive to hire in any case. Why not transfer some workers from sewage to art? It would be cost and time prohibitive to train them fully in art history, but what if each worker were assigned to a single artwork?

While some of these new art laborers were mere ushers, some became cultish enthusiasts, like a certain Signor Angelo Esposito, who fell in love with his assigned masterpiece, Caravaggio’s The Seven Acts of Mercy from 1609, which is in the church of the Pio Monte della Misericordia. The second and third acts of mercy are visiting prisoners and nourishing the hungry, represented together in the famous detail of a woman offering her breast to a bearded prisoner through a barred window. Esposito was no historian and knew nothing of iconography, so where a scholar might have recognized a classical allusion in the suckling prisoner, he saw only the subversive power of the scene: the needs of the unfortunate being met in defiance of all social convention. Under the painting’s influence, he also began to see the laundry that hung above the streets that raised him transfigured into an angel’s wings.

Caravaggio, The Seven Acts of Mercy (detail), 1607. Oil on canvas.

In David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge, the British artist arranges the sleeves of a pope, allowing that it is only a “Hollywood pope,” and apologizing for the inferiority of his silk. The brush can fix that. Velázquez demystified the pope in his 1650 Portrait of Pope Innocent X: not a divine agent but a carnal and apprehensive man in a costume. Hockney similarly cuts through mists of hyperbole around the Velázquez: not a divine inspiration but a well-executed commission. The portrait is part of material culture, part of a commodity exchange. A pope can afford a portrait and a painter can immortalize a pope. A pope can, and has, blessed Lamborghinis. The painter can now perhaps afford a Lamborghini. What goes around comes around.

His contention that live projections were used to make these artworks leads Hockney to radically describe Renaissance art as part of film history, asserting “a single lineage of the moving image which leads from the camera lucida to television and passes right through Renaissance painting.” Hockney reminds me here of Thomas Hobbes’s paradox, “If we will reverence Age, the Present is the Oldest.” We are the ancient people, and those before us were the younger ones, playing with light as they could, attempting television as they could. The distance between us and them is only technical. Until recently, the Second World War was as visually remote as the Civil War because it was photographed in black and White. When color film and photographs were found, it caught up with us.

Practitioners of various disciplines hold up literary distinctions among the images that we see and remember. A 50-ft long image of the Evian girl looking seductively down at a city street is an “advertisement,” while an animated mermaid is a “myth.” A penis in the sun is an “archetype,” while a leaping jaguar is a “logo.” Visually, these distinctions are as hollow as that between the real pope and the Hollywood pope—just the slightest change in hue. Perhaps the webcam girl is just an updated pre-Raphaelite muse who owns her copyright. Like Jane Morris, she is willing to be Queen Guinevere or Persephone for a price.

There have been relatively static traditions in art history “reverencing age,” such as Byzantine imagery, in which it took centuries for the infant’s hand to reach the Madonna’s cheek. But in the workshops of the image, there have always been those ready to welcome the newspaper, the comic book, the train, or in Hockney’s case, the Polaroid camera, the iPad, the inkjet printer, and the digital recorder. “I have got an iPad, what a joy! Van Gogh would have loved it, and he would have written his letters on it as well,” wrote Hockney in a text to a Bloomberg reporter in 2010, as the artist entered his seventies and began drawing on the screen with his fingers, emailing the results to friends, or printing them out. Yosemite 11 is an example from this extensive visual journal that includes hundreds of flowers dashed off and sent digitally to friends, “so they get fresh blooms every morning.”

Hockney used Polaroids in the 1980s to make his Joiners, a series of photomontages that seek to correct the dishonesty of the camera and render vision as it is, with multiple vantage points and shifts of focus. In Secret Knowledge, Hockney is fascinated by the placement of figures in Caravaggio’s 1594 painting The Cardsharps, reminding him of statuettes dropped into a Christmas créche. The reason there is no single perspective, in this view, is because the canvas was moved around while different actors took turns being projected onto it from the same spot. The result is more intimate than Brunelleschi’s strict vanishing point or Dürer’s applied geometry. Hockney’s own work is animated by his impulse to correct the stigma of the camera lens and the Renaissance fixation with perspective. His non-mathematical, multipoint perspective constantly refreshes itself, as human sight does, jumbled with memory.

Between 2005 and 2012, Hockney repeatedly and in all seasons painted Yorkshire, his native ground. Woldgate Woods (2006) is an eerie sight. Seeing is instantaneous, at the speed of light, while painting and image making are laborious, a contrast that the painting embodies. The six canvases that comprise it do not join cleanly but have slight distortions at their edges, not unlike the shifts of focus in the Lorenzo Lotto tablecloth, which Hockney offers in Secret Knowledge as proof that the context lens used to project the image had been moved. Saturating this very constructed space is drenching light and motion. Imagine a magic trick in which a single ripple spreads concentrically through six discrete glasses of water several inches apart on a table. Such is the painting’s subconscious impact.

The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 is comprised of 61 iPad drawings. The seams are cleaner, but the contrast between the composition and a sense of the moment are the same. The work looks as patterned as a tapestry or a stained-glass window, but it is also sun in your eyes through trees.

The stuttered light is on The Arrival of Spring invokes yet another experiment in light projection. If you were driving in a car past the vibrant stand of trees, with your eyes closed, the sunlight would strobe through their trunks onto your eyelids. If the pulsations of light were sustained they would mount to a kaleidoscopic display, altering your brain waves, inducing reverie. You would be receiving one of those mundane clues from nature that, like the inverted reflection of a room in a teaspoon or the magnification of a limb underwater, have obsessed artists and physicists—what Yeats called, “hands…pointing the way into some divine labyrinth.”

In the late 1950s, another British artist, Brion Gysin, mounted a tall, stenciled cylinder on a record turntable. The assembly spun around an interior light source to induce lucid dreams in subjects who received its alpha-wave strobe on their closed eyes. Here was a television of the subconscious. Instead of contemplating reproduced image, the mind could actually project itself for itself. This almost seemed to end the long lineage of light projections that Hockney has described as passing through painting, film, and television, as if the journey that had begun with a Neolithic torch was ending with a candle.

Gysin naively predicted that his dream machine would be mass-produced, replacing television in American homes. Twenty years after he conceived of it, you had to go to the basement of the Centre Pompidou in Paris to find one. Instead of becoming a mass-produced psychic utensil, it was relegated to the status of a forgotten objet d’art. But in the internet age, anyone can download the stencil and build their own.

In a flickering lineage that Hockney identified, still images move and moving images freeze. We have machines to capture everything, but only the eye can translate it. For further evidence, see Hockney’s 2012 video montage The Jugglers, as shown at the Whitney in June 2013. Its 18 cameras record a procession of jugglers, and the action is illuminated, diffuse, and fluttering, to the tune of John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” If you were a camera, you could not follow the motion here. Having revealed that apparatus as the secret animator of our collective visual imagination, Hockney makes a quantum leap beyond it, into the quivering light of relativity.

A version of this story appeared in GARAGE No. 6.

David Hockney, The Jugglers, 2012. 18 digital videos synchronized and presented on 18 55-inch NEC screens. 22 minutes, 13 seconds © David Hockney.
David Hockney
Old Masters
Camera lucida