In the past, David Hockney has frequently irritated art history professionals with his insistent theorising about how certain kinds of Old Master paintings were made, with, as he claims, the use of various optical devices.
The historians claim that there is, in most cases, no absolute contemporary proof that this was the case. Why they ask, did those who might have spoken up at the time keep shtum about it? Hockney retorts, first, that these devices were in fact much more fully recorded than prissy academics and critics, in love with the notion of untrammeled genius, care to think. He adds that they were, in fact, a kind of trade secret that practicing artists understandably preferred to keep to themselves: what mattered to them was not the process but the result. Non-professionals were not encouraged to worry their silly little heads about processes that might confuse and upset them. And he adds that the proof that such methods were used is in any case blindingly obvious: you only have to look at many of the masterpieces of the past with a properly educated eye – the kind of eye he probably possesses himself – in order to see how things were done. But he doesn’t insist that the mechanical device is king. Early in the book, there is a rapturous passage in which Hockney describes a little Rembrandt drawing showing a child being taught to walk.
“The trace of Rembrandt’s hand is still alive. One’s eye can go back and forth between brown in – sister; fast mark – mother. How rewarding this is, to move from the physical surface of the paper to its disappearance when one reads the ‘subject’, and then back again. How many marvelous layers dos this drawing have?”
Yes, I wish I had written that.
Yet the handsome new book, written as a dialogue with the critic Martin Gayford, remains unlikely to soothe expert irritation with some of Hockney’s obsessions. He is just as keen as he ever to ram his technical theories down the throats of disbelievers. However, if this makes it seem as if the text might be hard going, this is absolutely not the case. It is conspicuously transparent in style, and the words are supported by a great many fascinating and always relevant illustrations – only a few of which are actually images produced by Hockney himself so that there is no sense of an overweening ego at work. Almost the only thing wrong with it is the cover. A book entitled A History of Pictures surely ought to have a picture on the jacket, not just some scribbled words in Hockney’s familiar handwriting.
The most important feature of the book is not its plethora of technical theories, though these are often fascinating enough, but its central idea that making pictures – representations of things that we see or can be persuaded think we could have seen (however unlikely that might actually be) – is a continuity that spans a huge variety of actual techniques. For Hockney and Gayford there is no real break to be found between picture-making with paint and all the various picture-making processes connected with and created by today’s up-to-the-minute technology. The cave-artists of the Paleolithic period and today’s digital virtuosi for them remain intimately connected. Photography does not, for them, represent a radical break with the past. They cite many techniques and forms of picture making that can be regarded as proto-photographic. The chief photographic innovation, when what we know as photography appeared at the very end of the fourth decade of the 19th century, was not the discovery of a new way or ways of seeing. It was – much less radically – finding new ways of preserving images seen with the aid of a lens. And lenses had already been used by makers of pictures for centuries previous to this.
In addition, Hockney and Gayford clearly have no interest in purely abstract art – in art, that is to say, which makes no reference of any kind to the external world and the images to be found there. Art that insists on existing entirely in its own right, from mature Mondrian to the American Minimalists, is of no interest to them. Equally, this is not a book that makes any reference to art in three dimensions. Sculpture has no role. It is what happens on a flat surface, but which nevertheless reflects an external world existing fully in three dimensions, that fascinates them. Even more, perhaps, they are fascinated about how we actually perceive that world – by what one might describe as ingrained human habits of seeing, inherited from the remote past.
A History of Pictures, by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. Thames and Hudson, £29.95. Published October 6th