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.