Through a Lens Brightly

In 2001 David Hockney published his book Secret Knowledge, arguing that many Old Master painters used optical devices. The idea has been hotly debated, but most art historians remain unconvinced. Yet, as Hockney tells Martin Gayford, he is sure this will change. Portrait by Derry Moore.

David Hockney is now almost as well known for his ideas about art history as he is for his own paintings and drawings. His views about the techniques used by great painters in the past received massive publicity when they were first presented in 2001, in a book, Secret Knowledge, and a BBC television film. This was not surprising. He is among the best-known contemporary artists, and his theories attempt to overturn the received notion of the development of western painting from the early 15th century onwards. What Hockney was saying was so unorthodox that his argument has been neither decisively refuted nor accepted.

Despite a second edition of the book in 2006 his ideas remain in intellectual limbo. Nonetheless, what Hockney and his collaborators are saying about such great masters as Caravaggio cannot be ignored. Yet it presents evidence of a kind – deduced from the optical clues in paintings, or practical experiment – that is alien to art history as it has grown up since the 19th century: a text-based discipline, ultimately depending on the scrutiny of written historical sources. Hockney’s activity as a painter and his newer, alternative role as a revisionary art historian are linked. As an artist, although quite conservative in subject-matter – he generally continues to work in such time-honoured genres as landscape, portraiture and still life – he has always been extremely innovative in using new technology.

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One Response to Through a Lens Brightly

  1. w.bastiaan BLOK says:

    Mr.Hockney is one of the very few intelligent artists.He also has the guts to take on a fossilized,inherently scared and thus aggressive world of “art academians”,who will block any progressive insight,because of a possible threat or just plain green envy.It is my conviction that those ones who seek the limelight,are about as corruptable as the Roman Catholic Church in their “better days”.And every year the university cranks them out in their thousands,and they will all need jobs,with ego’s bigger than many an artist.Let the likes of David Hockney stand up,and do some real research,such as creating a database for canvas,wood,size or even more interesting,hairs from brushes or from the painter himself! What is there against a DNA database of these materials,so one can at least be sure in which surroundings an artwork has been created? Create a family tree of pigs,cows and sable marters, human hair and skin flakes;the FBI has been doing this for ages,so the technology is there.To the “art connaisseur” in that cackling parliament I say:”Be gone you rogue,you have sathe here long enough!”

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