Copyright 2001 Associated Newspapers Ltd.
The Evening Standard (London)
December 21, 2001
Arts: Old Master Hockney's big book of nonsense
According to David Hockney, painters as diverse as Caravaggio, Fragonard and Da Vinci achieved their effects by use of the camera obscura.
Tosh and piffle
HOCKNEY strikes gold," proclaimed one ignorant reviewer, and such words as thrilling, fascinating, entertaining, revealing, delightful, stimulating and captivating flowed from the lips and pens of others. We are accustomed to such hyperbole in the context of Hockney the great painter, but this was in the context of Hockney the great art historian, scientist and man of letters, the writer of a book with such "big new things to say" that it turns topsy-turvy the whole history of western art.
Page after page of the intellectual broadsheets has been devoted this past autumn to Hockney's Secret Knowledge "... an enthralling intellectual journey ... an amazing detective story ... about the lost techniques of the Old Masters ...
revealing secrets of the past ..." and even sceptical reviewers have felt constrained, recognising the whole nation's supposed affection for the author and, particularly, the power of the publisher to blight books of their own, to commend Hockney's wretched thesis for such vague reasons as "it makes you see things too, in a way you may never have done before". Indeed, it is intended to make you see things that simply are not there. Put in a nutshell, Hockney's notion is that as soon as lenses and mirrors became more or less widely available in medieval western Europe, artists began to use them as a means of scrutinising the things or people whom they wished to paint, and that these scrutinies, caught in detailed drawings, were then pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle to construct a composition. If the junctions happened to be blurred by loss of focus at the edges, or details were taken from minutely different angles (thus disrupting the geometrical perspective that, until now, we have all assumed to be the underlying unifying element in paintings), or details were taken from precisely the same angle with precisely the same focus no matter whether they were for the centre or theperimeter of apicture, then these disjunctions could be sufficiently fudged by the painter to deceive the patron and the critic. In other words, all peculiarities perceived by Hockney, no matter how contrary (and no matter how much imagined or erroneously observed - many of the errors inexcusable from a man with a supposedly sharp eye), are proof that painters from the early 15th century to late in the 19th relied heavily on optical devices.
Apart from mirrors, flat, convex and concave, and lenses, convex and concave, two contraptions came into play - the camera obscura and the camera lucida. The camera obscura - literally, dark room - was known for many centuries for it is a natural phenomenon tamed, so to speak; essentially it was a small room, shed or even tent, from which all light was excluded but for one small hole on the sunny side; by some seeming miracle, through this hole, the sunlit world outside projected its image onto the inner wall opposite, but on a dull or wintry day there could be no clear image, for very strong light is essential.
On a summer day, if an artist had pinned a bright white sheet of paper where the projection fell, he could follow with his pencil, pen, chalk or charcoal the outlines of the projected image with, according to Hockney, an accuracy impossible to achieve by looking and drawing. To him, the fact that the projected image was upside down is neither here nor there, nor the fact that the artist himself was working in darkness made more blinding by its contrast with the bright light outside.
The camera obscura could be rigged within any house, or in tent form could be carted about the countryside by every landscape painter wanting to achieve topographical accuracy (why then was the bird's-eye swooping view so common for so long?) or, in Constable's case, the perfect cloud formation. The artist no longer needed to look at his subject and make a mark on his paper, look again and make another mark, and so on until his study was complete - all he had to do was follow the outlines of projected images and the essential work was done, and if a wealthy merchant had been his subject, then every detail of the portrait was absolutely in its place and the patron could not dispute its accuracy. "No, Mr Arnolfini," we can hear Jan van Eyck arguing, "that is precisely how you look. You may think yourself a handsome dark Italian, but my camera obscura proves that you are as pale and ugly as an upturned Dover sole - and the camera cannot lie."
Hockney goes further with the Arnolfini portrait; informed by the authorities of the National Gallery that no trace of preparatory drawing has been identified beneath the ornate candelabrum, he asserts that van Eyck "could have hung" his portrait upside down in the camera obscura instead of a sheet of paper, the bright white gesso priming of the panel having much the same effect, and painted directly the projected image of the candelabrum rigged to hang in the sun outside. Imagine the complications of this procedure; the candelabrum had to be suspended at precisely the right height outside on a windless, sunny day and the panel had to be fixed upside down at precisely the right height and focal length in the darkness within the camera.
Within the darkness, van Eyck then had to duck his head and shoulders so as not to obstruct the projection, organise his brushes and paints, get his tones and colours absolutely right and somehow imagine and adjust the range of light and shadow of his painted candelabrum so that these were consonant with the light and shadow in the painted bedroom of this nuptial portrait, in which early-morning light falls strongly through the windows on the left.
Hockney asserts proof of this idea with the instruction: "Notice how the chandelier is seen head-on (not from below, as you would expect).
This is the effect you would expect with a mirror-lens, which must be level with the objects you want to draw or paint."
Hockney is wrong; even to the most inexperienced eye the candelabrum is obviously seen from below, its perspective in general agreement with that of the room.
"Could have hung." The book is littered with such evasions - could have, may have, seem to have, surely it is no coincidence that, optics could account for, seems to suggest and could be explained by. As with van Eyck's candelabrum, he constantly asserts that details are seen head-on when they are not and, by urging us on with the intellectual sleight of the magician, he forces everything to fit the argument.
If a detail is crystal clear, it proves his point; if it is fuzzy at the edges, it proves his point; if preliminary drawings survive in quantity, or are utterly unknown, they prove his point - and his point seems to be that everything from the most meticulous verisimilitude to the most crass inaccuracy, elongation, disproportion or plain bad drawing, demonstrates that every artist from Jan van Eyck to Andy Warhol depended on lenses and projections for his realism or lack of it.
His interest in this nonsense began when, at the National Gallery's exhibition of portraits by Ingres three years ago, he failed to realise that the discrepancy between the care with which this master draughtsman of the 19th century drew heads in portrait drawings, and the seeming carelessness in his treatment of the bodies, was then characteristic of much portrait drawing all over Europe. For Ingres, who tended to eliminate this discrepancy for his English clients and treat every detail of clothing with minute scruple, this was both a stylistic and a functional matter - the likeness of the faces was important but the details of dress not necessarily so and these could be dismissed with a fluent, but often quirky, shorthand.
For more than half a century, from 1810 until the 1860s, the portrait drawings of Ingres are consistent in this discrepancy, but Hockney does not attribute this to the portrait painter who looks at his model and diligently makes delineating marks until the face is finished and then, with rapid strokes, dashes in the rest to give the head pictorial support or, in a more annotating hand - in case a painted portrait might be commissioned from it - describes details that will recall for him a patterned or embroidered material.
Whether dashing, annotated or minutely finished, Hockney attributes every different characteristic to the use by Ingres of the camera lucida, a simple English invention of 1806 in which a prism is employed to project an image onto paper so that the draughtsman has no more to do than follow the outlines slavishly. It has many advantages over the camera obscura - ordinary light is sufficient, the image is the right way up and, without too much squinting, the draughtsman can see both the subject of his drawing and the projected image at the same time.
NO evidence, however, supports Hockney's assertion that Ingres used the camera lucida, and though a great deal of the old boy's personal and professional life was recorded by his possessions, no such instrument was found among them.
"Aha!" says Hockney, "artists were secretive and kept such matters to themselves - that's why it has taken me, an artist, to discover what mere art historians could never know." But it was not just the artist's secret in this case, for the hundreds of sitters who sat to Ingres kept the secret too; yet in 1855, a writer on Ingres as a then contemporary painter told the world that with the help of a photograph by Felix Nadar, Ingres could compose the most admirable portrait without a sitter's presence; Nadar himself in 1857 published a caricature of Ingres chasing a camera that is running away on its tripod.
How odd of Ingres to be so open about the conventional camera and yet so deceitful about the camera lucida - but then that, according to its inventor, William Wollaston, was designed to make drawing easy for those "without an adequate knowledge of the art".
The camera obscura, too, seems to have been a thing for amateurs.
"Nothing can be more amusing for great men, scholars and ingenious persons to behold," wrote Giambattista della Porta in 1558. "For the mathematician rather than the painter," wrote Henry Wootton in 1620. Joshua Reynolds, who owned a portable camera obscura, discoursed against the contraption, the consequence of its use "little and mean", the artist disdaining it a man of "additional superiority" and George Adams, instrumentmaker to George III, who made and sold all sorts of refinements to the camera obscura - even a "heliostate" for directing the sun's rays on a particular spot for several hours - wrote that "the most able and successful artists ... trust mostly to their eye and habit for success".
THERE is no doubt that lenses, mirrors and optical deceits existed throughout the period covered by Hockney's book, but he has not proved one single example of an artist's using them, not even with Vermeer and Canaletto, the two cases most easily half proved.
For every one of Hockney's proofs of their use of these technical aids by Caravaggio, Vel zquez, Zurbar n, Fantin-Latour, Fragonard, Frans Hals and even Leonardo da Vinci with his Mona Lisa, there are far more reasonable and powerful explanations, and among all the portraits of artists by artists, not one is at work with a camera obscura or lucida.
I must ask Hockney what part either camera played in the production of the Martyrdom of St Sebastian by the Pollaiuolo brothers and the portrait of Madame Moitessier by Ingres - popular pictures in the National Gallery.
The Pollaiuolo is an example of the Florentine Renaissance struggle to apply linear, single-disappearing-point perspective to an extensive, upright landscape dominated by figures, at a time when aerial perspective (colour softening with distance) was just coming into play - no evidence of camera, mirror or lens. Ingres took 12 years to complete his portrait; the sitter aged from girl of 23 to matron of 35, her daughter was put in and then scraped out, two earlier dresses, handsome and expensive, fell out of fashion and lie beneath the furnishing fabric of her final dress, her hairstyle changed from bouffant to severe and her jewellery changed; how many times did Ingres fix her behind his camera lucida and try again?
And my final question is, if the camera obscura was fundamental for drawing as the preparation for pictures, what has Hockney to say of preparatory drawings for sculpture? Did artists who were both painters and sculptors - Verrocchio, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Canova among them - really change their practice with their medium? Did Leonardo look at horses upside down through a little lens for his Battle of Anghiari, but draw them freehand from life for the Sforza and Trivulzio monuments? Of course not, any more than he asked an old man to pull a face and hold the expression while he drew it as a caricature, any more than he had a real dragon, tank or flying machine standing in the sun outside his studio.
This is a silly and meretricious book, a demonstration of naive obsession, of remote improbabilities presented as hard facts, of shifting ground for every argument, self-indulgently subjective, a farrago of feeble nonsense that should never have been published and, had it been sent to Thames and Hudson by Uncle Tom Cobleigh or Jack Sprat, would not have been.
Secret Knowledge by David Hockney (Thames and Hudson, GBP 35).