Battlepanda: Is David Hockney right?


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Is David Hockney right?

Are the Old Masters' paintings so, well, masterful because artists of yore "cheated" with optics? Occam's razor says "no" -- David Hockney claims that he detects the use of optics in the work of artists from Van Eyck to Ingres. For this practice to persist so widely over so many years yet remain completely undocumented and unrecognized simply beggars belief.

Then again, it also seems to beggar belief in a way that, if this technology was available, generations upon generations of artists who made it their life's work to create lifelike representations and obsessive verisimiltitude would spurn this undoubtedly powerful shortcut. Remember, the advent of photography made realistic depictions cheap, but back in the days of the old masters, a lifelike image is of great value in and of itself. Even the two-dimensional images obtained using any optical equipment is upside down and impermanent. Unlike a photograph, a projected image is not something you could hold and own. It seemed to me that given the tremendously high value placed on realistic images, artists would take advantage of this technology with impunity, though they might prefer to keep mum about it in front of their patrons, the same way they keep other aspects of their craft hidden, such as the grid structure that they use to painstaking ensure details and patterns are correct.

So, I think both Hockney and his distractors are wrong. The real answer probably lie somewhere in the middle -- I've no doubt that the old masters would explore any technique or avenue that gives them more insight or facilitate the painting process, but the use of optics is surely not the key to their mastery. After all, there are plenty of artists who paint from photographs now, and while many create fascinating works, nobody is recreating old-master type paintings. Whether or not this is A Bad Thing is up for debate. I certainly find Hockney's theories fascinating, and whether or not he is ultimately right, he has given me a new avenue into looking at the work of Old Masters and he has added a lot more of interest to the discussion than his reactionary adversaries, who frankly seem to have an ideological need to believe that Hockney is wrong.