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Through the looking glass: David Hockney explains how a question about some Ingres drawings led to a whole new theory of Western art. (Point Of Departure).

EARLY IN 1999, I went to an exhibition of portraits by Ingres at London's National Gallery, and was captivated by his very beautiful portrait drawings. I was struck by how small his drawings were, yet so uncannily accurate. What made Ingres's achievement all the more astounding was that the sitters were all strangers (it is much easier to catch the likeness of someone you know well) and that the drawings were drawn with great speed, most having been completed in a single day. Over the years I have drawn a great many portraits and I know how much time it takes to draw the way Ingres did. I was awestruck. `How had he done them?' I asked myself.

What followed led me on a path towards a new thesis: that from the early fifteenth century, many Western artists used optics -- by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two) -- to create living projections. Some artists used these projected images directly to produce drawings and paintings, and before long this new way of depicting the world -- this new way of seeing -- had become widespread.

Many art historians have argued that certain painters used the camera obscura in their work -- Canaletto and Vermeer, in particular, are often cited -- but, to my knowledge, no one has suggested that optics were used as widely or as early as I am arguing.

I had a hunch that Ingres, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, may have occasionally used the newly invented optical device called the camera lucida. This is, basically, a prism on a stick that creates the illusion of an image of whatever is in front of it on a piece of paper below.

I tried drawing using a camera lucida. At first I found it very difficult to use: you must use it quickly, for once the eye has moved the image is lost, and the artists must learn to make very quick notations to fix the position of the eyes, nose and mouth to capture a `likeness'. I began to take more care with lighting the subject, noticing how a good light makes a big difference when using optics, just like with photography. I also noticed how much care other artists -- Caravaggio and Velasquez, for example -- had taken in lighting their subjects, and how deep their shadows were.

Like most painters, I imagine, when I look at paintings I am as interested in `how' it was painted as `what' it is saying or `why' it was painted (these questions are, of course, related). Having struggled to use optics myself, I found I was now looking at paintings in a new way. I could identify optical characteristics and, to my surprise, I could see them in the work of other artists -- and as far back as the 1430s, it seemed! I think it is only in the late twentieth century that this has become visible. New technology, mainly the computer, was needed to see it. Computers have allowed cheaper and higher-quality colour printing, leading to a great improvement in the last fifteen years in the standard of art books. And now with colour photocopiers and desktop printers anyone can produce cheap but good reproductions at home, and so place works that were previously separated by thousands of miles side by side. This is what I did in my studio, and it allowed me to see the whole sweep of it all. It was by putting pictures together in this way that I began to notice things; and I'm sure these things could only have been seen by an artist, a mark-maker, who is not as far from practice, or from science, as an art historian. After all, I'm only saying that artists once knew how to use a tool, and that this knowledge has been lost.

I discussed my observations with friends, and was introduced to Martin Kemp, professor of art history at Oxford University and an authority on Leonardo and the links between art and science. From the start he encouraged my curiosity and supported my hypotheses, albeit with reservations. Others, though, were horrified at my suggestions. Their main complaint was that for an artist to use optical aids would be `cheating'; that somehow I was attacking the idea of innate artistic genius. But optics do not make marks, only the artist's hand can do that, and it requires great skill. And optics don't make drawing any easier, far from it -- I know, I've used them. But to an artist six hundred years ago optical projections would have demonstrated a new vivid way of looking at and representing the material world. Optics would have given artists a new tool with which to make images that were more immediate, and more powerful. To suggest that artists used optical devices is not to diminish their achievements. For me, it makes them all the more astounding.

Other questions I faced were, `Where are the contemporary writings?' `Where are the lenses?' `Where is the documentary evidence?' I could not answer these questions at first, but I was not put off. I know artists are secretive about their methods -- they are today, and there's no reason to suppose they were ever any different. They were probably even more secretive in the past: in medieval and Renaissance Europe, for instance, those who revealed the `secrets' of God's kingdom might have been accused of sorcery and burned at the stake! I was to find out later that there are, in fact, many contemporary documents which support my thesis.

I had begun to juxtapose images -- Ingres and Warhol, Durer's and Caravaggio's lutes, Velazquez and Cranach -- before I was invited to speak at an Ingres symposium at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and with the addition of my own drawings done with a camera lucida, I put together a slide show. The evidence I was presenting was the pictures themselves -- but I had learned a great deal by making those drawings, and felt my experience as a practitioner must count for something. This was followed by up an article in the New Yorker, and I soon began to get letters from all over the world. Some people were shocked at my suggestions; others were excited by the implications or said they had noticed similar things themselves.

I was already aware that this was a big subject, and this reaction showed me it was of interest to a great many others. I realised that if others were to be convinced by my arguments they had to be presented with the visual evidence I had observed in the paintings. A book seemed the best way to do this. The central argument had to be visual, I decided, because what I had found came from looking at the pictures (which, as art historian Roberto Longhi pointed out to me, are primary documents).

In February 2000, with the help of my assistants David Graves and Richard Schmidt, I started to pin up colour photocopies of paintings on the wall of my studio in California. I saw this as a way I could get an overview of the history of Western art, and as an aid to the selection of pictures for the book. By the time we had finished, the wall was seventy feet long and covered five hundred years more or less chronologically, with northern Europe at the top and southern Europe at the bottom.

As we began to put the pages of the book together, we were also experimenting with different combinations of mirrors and lenses to see if we could re-create the ways in which Renaissance artists might have used them. The projections delighted everyone who came to the studio, even those with a camera in their hands. The effects seemed amazing, because they were unelectronic. The images we projected were clear, in colour and they moved. It became obvious that few people know much about optics, even photographers. In medieval Europe, projected `apparitions' would be regarded as magical; as I found out, people still think this today.

It seems to me that my insights open up a vast range of issues and questions. The book is not just about the past and the secret techniques of artist: it is also about now and the future, the way we see images, and perhaps `reality' itself. Exciting times lie ahead.

David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters is published in October by Thames & Hudson, UK price 35 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-500-237859.
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Author:Hockney, David
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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