Writers On Art:

Further adventures in opticality
with David Hockney

by Lawrence Weschler

At the beginning of last year, I contributed a piece to my home base at The New Yorker, entitled "The Looking Glass," on the British-transplant, California-based artist David Hockney’s somewhat startling new theory about the way many of the greatest of the Old Masters, painters ranging from Ingres all the way back through Bellini and Caravaggio and even Raphael, had been deploying various optical devices as aids in their work long before the 1839 invention of chemical photography.

The article provoked a veritable Niagara of response. I write about all sorts of things–hell, I write about relations between Jews and Poles, for God’s sake–so I’m used to getting letters. But I’d never found myself on the receiving end of anything like this. (I began compiling one three-ring binder after another of such dispatches and sending them onto Hockney, in one case slapping the reproduction of a particularly apt Roy Lichtenstein canvas on the cover.

Image Duplicator (1963)
Roy Lichtenstein.

It turns out that the question of technical assistance may be the Third Rail of popular art history. Most people, it seems, prefer to envision their artistic heroes as superhuman draftsmen, capable of rendering ravishingly accurate anatomies or landscapes or townscapes through sheer inborn or God-given talent (talents, which in a corollary to this conviction, somehow seem simply to have dried up, for the most part, over the past hundred and fifty years). Back then, I was repeatedly told, artists just knew how to draw–they wouldn’t have needed, and certainly wouldn’t have deigned sully themselves with, cameras or lenses or prisms. Hockney’s observations were by and large dismissed as the self-serving rationalizations of an envy-addled latter-day pygmy–though sometimes in terms not quite so stark. Nor were professional historians, for the most part, any more open to Hockney’s surmise. (In fact, theirs were some of the rudest ripostes.)

Granted, such revulsion was hardly universal. Maybe a third of the letters came from individuals who’d long harbored suspicions about this artist or that, without perhaps ever having been quite able to articulate them; or else from other individuals with this or that stray scrap of information, which suddenly made sense in the context of Hockney’s wider puzzle; or from others still who were simply charmed and energized by Hockney’s vaulting speculations. (And a few historians even numbered among this group.)

One of the more unusual dispatches of this latter sort came from a professor named Charles Falco, who introduced himself as a professor in the condensed matter/solid-state physics program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He averred no particular artistic expertise, or even that much interest, unless you included his thralldom to the aesthetics of motorcycles. Living out there in the desert, he’d compiled a superb collection of vintage bikes and was known for his spare-time expertise in that field–so much so that when the Guggenheim began assembling materials for their celebrated 1998 "Art of the Motorcycle" show, they’d initially come to him for advice and to borrow the odd bike or two, and ended up marshalling his services as co-curator of the entire exhibition. One of his Guggenheim collaborators from those days had spotted my article and sent it on to him, and now Falco was contacting me to say that though his main scientific enterprise these days consisted of running an extremely high-tech lab (one of the most lavishly funded in the country, as I subsequently found out) devoted to figuring out (among other things) how to narrow the thickness of the layer of cobalt atoms arrayed on the surface of a silicon wafer from their current six-hundred down to a single one (with the consequent increase in computer-chip efficiency such a breakthough would obviously entail), this work had forced him to become expert in quantum optics, which in turn had required his becoming proficient in standard optics as well. A proficiency, he went on to suggest, that might prove helpful to Hockney in his ongoing researches.

I put them in contact with each other, and a few weeks later I flew out to L.A. to join Falco on one of his first visits to Hockney’s studio. The two had hit it off immediately: and it turned out the ride was only just beginning


Hockney, for his part, had hardly been standing still.

Readers of my original piece may remember how Hockney’s optical passion had begun, several months earlier, when, while studying several of the astonishing drawings at the recent Ingres retrospective, he’d convinced himself that he was recognizing a specific quality of assurance and speed in the early nineteenth century French master’s line ...

Portrait of Madame Louis-François Godinot (1829)
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, from Secret Knowledge p.22.

... that, as he suddenly exclaimed, "That’s Warhol’s line." Andy Warhol, of course, had often traced his images off of projected slides:

Still Life, DETAIL (1975)
Andy Warhol, in Secret Knowledge p.25.

Hockney was suddenly certain that Ingres had to have been doing some-thing similar. Following a good deal of further research and study, Hockney determined that Ingres must have been using a camera lucida, a device invented around 1800 consisting of a small prism at the end of a rod through which an artist could sight his subject as if projected onto the drawing pad beneath him, thereby quickly capturing exact measurements as to the place-ment of crucial signposts (pupils, nostrils, chin, hairline, ears, the ruffle of clothing, the splay of shadows and so forth) before then going on to the laborious work of hand, eye, and heart involved in completing the final draw-ing. Presently Hockney started noticing the resultant "optical look" in many earlier artists: Velazquez, Vermeer, Holbein, and perhaps most conspicu-ously Caravaggio, all of whom he came to feel had been deploying various configurations of lenses, drapes, and darkened chambers to similar effect.

Many readers–and certainly many of my correspondents– convinced themselves that Hockney in effect was accusing such Old Masters of "cheating" (a perhaps understandable misapprehension, especially considering the fact that on the newsstand, the magazine had featured a banner headline, which neither Mr. Hockney nor I had vetted, baldly asking "Did the Old Masters Cheat?"). In fact, on the contrary, Hockney was insisting that the labor, the genius involved in such works was every bit if not more worthy of marvel: such devices were mere aids to a certain kind of measurement, deployed only briefly at the very outset of the process. But such a way of proceeding did have implications–profound implications, as Hockney came to feel--and it did result in that definite identifiable "optical look," which in turn carried its own freight of significance. Hockney argued that that look dominated European painting for centuries–just how far back he wasn’t yet sure–and that it only lost its hold on Western artists with the invention of the chemical process, in 1839, after which painters, now despairing of matching the chemical photograph for optical accuracy, finally fell away: awkwardness returned to Western painting for the first time as generation after generation of artists –impressionists, expressionists, cubists and so forth–endeavored to convey all the nuances of lived reality (time, emotion, multiple vantages, etc.) that a mere photograph couldn’t capture. ("An ordinary photo is okay," as Hockney had noted as far back as the early eighties, "if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops, for a split second," whereupon he’d embarked on a several-year-long series of ever more complex Polaroid and then Pentax photocollages to prove his point.)

The question of "cheating" aside, many historians were no less scandalized by the lack of "evidence" buttressing Hockney’s vaporous claims. As several of my correspondents pointed out, with most of these artists, we have detailed archival records, death-inventories, contemporary biographies, accounts of students and sitters, instruction manuals and the like. How come none of those mention lenses or any of these alleged variously arcane procedures? Hockney had answers for such critiques (for example, that artists were notoriously secretive about their methods, and in the early days had to be, lest they be seen as consorting with dark powers during a time of inquisition) but foremost among these was the fact that the drawings and paintings themselves constituted overwhelming evidence, if only one knew how to look. (He often wondered whether art historians were any longer in the business of looking at the works they were so busy deconstructing, problematizing and socially contextualizing at all.)

But, as I say, he was hardly standing still or bothering to bat aside such individual aspersions. Instead he was plowing forward. For one thing he’d launched out on a series of camera lucida portraits of his own, probing the medium (for both its promises and limitations) and honing his skill ("It’s not that easy," he insisted. "The truth is, if you need the device in order to be able to draw, it won’t be of much use at all. On the other hand, if you don’t, it can be immensely useful.") Most of his subjects were friends and new fellow explorers (notably including Martin Kemp, the Oxford historian whose The Science of Art is arguably the premier book in the field and who became a frequent fax correspondent in the months ahead), and by the spring he was mounting a show of forty such "Likenesses" at UCLA’s Hammer Museum. Later that season, as his contribution to the millennial Encounters show at London’s National Gallery, in which over twenty contemporary masters had been invited to perform riffs on masterpieces by their predecessors lodged in the museum’s bounteous collection, Hockney chose to honor Ingres himself by performing a variation on that master’s feat of capturing perfect like-nesses of British aristocrats who’d visit his Rome studio for a single session in the midst of their European Grand Tours. Reversing the class polarities, Hockney had the Museum select twelve guards, previously unknown to him, whose images he now endeavored to capture, likewise (or so he insisted) in a single sitting, and likewise through the initial deployment of a camera lucida. Although Hockney made no claims for the relative parity of the resul-tant images (Ingres, after all, being one of the greatest draftsman of all time), the effect was nonetheless quite powerful: for one thing, visitors to the museum often got to witness Hockney’s version side by side with the living models. (The guards, normally invisible watchers, were thus suddenly transformed into objects of intense scrutiny themselves--had that guard there been one of Hockney’s subjects; how about that other one there? For that matter, forget the art, look at the density of that living face right over there! For a short period, strolling through the museum, one was invited to gaze upon passing faces with the same focussed regard an artist might.)

9 Museum Guards
David Hockney, in Secret Knowledge p.31.

Beyond that, there could be no doubt as to the similarity of the "look"; and in fact, more uncanny yet, many of the guards turned out to a startling degree to look just like several of Ingres’s own aristocrats, as Hockney, with his encyclopedic visual knowledge of the latter, was able to demonstrate with a sly grid alignment of his own.

9 Portraits
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in Secret Knowledge p.30.


In London, with the protean assistance of David Graves, his tall, lanky and astonishingly competent aide, Hockney continued burrowing into libraries and archives for any further scraps of evidence they could muster. (Hardly an intellectual by background, Hockney, the product of a lower middle class Yorkshire upbringing followed by a fairly standard art-school education, is nevertheless one of the best read individuals I’ve ever encountered, omnivorously curious and almost scarily dogged in pursuit of any of his frequently upwelling passions.)

Back in his Hollywood home, with Graves still in tow, Hockney now cleared the long two-story high wall of his hillside studio (the studio retains the general dimensions of the one-time tennis court over which it was built), installed a photocopier in the middle of the space, and, drawing on his brimming private horde of art books and monographs, effectively proceeded to photocopy the entire history of European art, shingling the images one atop the next–1300 to one side, 1750 to the far other, Northern Europe on top, Southern Europe below–a vast, teeming pageant of evolving imagery (and in some ways Hockney’s most ambitious photocollage yet).

The Great Wall, DETAIL (2000)
In Secret Knowledge p.7-10.

When, he was asking, where does that optical look first emerge? And with the procession of European art splayed out like that, the answer was as patent as it was unexpected: far before Caravaggio, and not even in Italy. Rather, in Bruges, basically across the single decade on either side of 1425, when a group of Flemish masters–the Master of Flemalle (who was most likely Robert Campion), Van Eyck, Van der Weyden–from one seeming moment to the next, without any awkward groping toward proficiency, but rather evincing a seemingly instantaneous mastery (as if from one moment to the next European painting had simply put on its glasses)…. There it was, out of nowhere, the optical look, which would now rapidly spread and, as Hockney would indicate for visitors with a triumphant sweeping gesture, dominate European painting for the next four hundred years.

The claim was almost literally revolutionary, a turning of the traditional account on its head. Italy, after all, had long been deemed the font of the Renaissance, from which the rebirth of classical knowledge spread outward in the early 1400s, in particular owing to the (re)discovery and elaboration of a mathematically rigorous and idealizing one-point perspective. Van Eyck and his cohort were often referred to as "Netherlandish primitives" as they had yet to attain that new knowledge (they were only able to portray things as they were, went the traditional critique, not as they ideally ought to be). But here Hockney was (he’d lately taken to loping up and down the Wall, sport-ing a V-neck T-shirt emblazoned with the legend "I KNOW I’M RIGHT!") ...

"I Know I'm Right"
Collection the Author.

... both discounting the importance (and the pervasiveness) of Italianate one-point perspective, and highlighting the countervailing spread of the Northern optical look. "It’s easy to see how the early art historians got it wrong," Hockney would cluck to visitors before the Wall. "Modern art history gets going more or less around the same time as the invention of chemical photography, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and by then, if you were a British or a German academic, where were you going to want to be spending your summers, in dilapidated industrial Bruges or amidst the golden rolling hills of Tuscany?" (He ought to know, this child of low-skyed dreary Yorkshire who’d long ago transplanted himself to sunny Southern California.)

For all Hockney’s certainty (and Graves’s steadily mounting corroborating research), the theory was still subject to substantial qualms. Apart from the evidence of the pictures themselves (and Hockney’s insistent claims that he could plainly make out a lens-based optical "look"), much of the rest of the corroboration was circumstantial (for example, indications that lenses of a certain type might indeed have existed at such and such a moment, somewhat before they were supposed to have). Skeptics were quick to advance other possible theories, and meanwhile, there was precious little evidence that lenses had been in any widespread use in Bruges, of all places, as early as 1420.

This was the state of play upon Falco’s arrival on the scene early that March. Hockney had immediately led him up to the studio, that first day, and the two had traipsed up and down the Wall, like a pair of generals reviewing their troops, with Falco on the lookout for a specific sort of image, a picture with a particular set of characteristics of an image like… like… like THAT ONE THERE. He’d speared a reproduction of a painting by the Venitian master Lorenzo Lotto, the Hermitage’s "Portrait of a Married Couple," dating from around 1543 (which is to say a bit more than a century after Van Eyck and half a century before Caravaggio); he’d taken it down and brought it over to the worktable, just as he was doing once again now for my benefit on this, his second visit.

Husband and Wife (1534)
Lorenzo Lotto, in Secret Knowledge p.60.

"See," he explained, with the two Davids looking on, " the husband and wife are sitting on the far side of an intervening table and, as it happens, there’s a Turkish carpet draped over the table, with that regular repeating triangular border pattern running along the edge facing us." Falco, a mustashioed dervish, may be the only person I’ve ever met who can even begin to approximate Hockney for sheer exalted enthusiasm. "Now, whether that’s centimeters or inches, whatever, those triangles make up a regular repeating pattern, and the point is we can use their modular dimension as the basis for a series of measuring determinations." He whipped out a notepad and threw himself into a dizzying array of calculations, muttering merrily away about image size and subject size, lens-image distance, magnification, average spacing of eye-pupils and shoulder-blades (though such calculations seemed entirely second-nature to him, he was leaving even Graves in the dust), presently emerging with the claim that Lotto would likely have been using a lens of roughly 2.4 centimeters in diameter with a diopter strength of, let’s see, 1.86 diopters ("roughly the equivalent of a pair of reading glasses") with a depth of field (the depth before the image went out of focus) of about 22 centimeters.

But what sort of claim was this? "Well," he went on, "it’s a scientific hypothesis, which we’d now need to test against other details in the image. And see, here--" he jabbed his finger at the middle of the table ...

Through the Looking Glass continues below...

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