O.K., what's the deal? The little I know about art history I've learned from the very well informed people here. Alex, in particular has been quite a good teacher. And I know I learned all about the use of the "camera obscura" by many of the great painting masters (most notably Vermeer?) This was presented to me as a well known fact. But now I keep reading everywhere (here, here, here, here - links from here) that David Hockney has a new book out where he supposedly floats this "new" and "controversial" theory.

Is it really new? Does Hockney have any claim to this idea? Or is this just a rehashed controversy being trotted out to drive book sales?
- jim 11-11-2001 6:03 pm

Hockney's been floating the theory for a few years now that the camera obscura was in wider use by painters than previously suspected. Without reading the book, I'd say his painter's eye could be trusted to detect machine influence as well as or better than any art historian's. That said, so what? The camera (or camera obscura) is a useful shortcut for drawing, but ultimately it's the sensitivity and/or eccentricity of the painter's eye and hand that makes a "masterpiece." In fact, it's the little subjective distortions--as opposed to perfect point-for-point correlations between depiction and depicted--that make even the most "accurate" paintings interesting.

Which sounds unabashedly romantic, but even in a major "realist" work like David's Consecration of Napoleon I, it's the subjective decisions--the placement of figures, the rendering of surfaces, lighting--which work together to create an overwhelming, convincing fiction of Imperial Power. A painting (or even a photo) can be breathtakingly accurate but still be dead, as far as its effect on us. There are plenty of examples of French and Russian academic painting that demonstrate this. Anyway, all this is to say that the means of visual representation is ultimately less important than the ends.
- tom moody 11-11-2001 7:04 pm [add a comment]

This is a major nonissue for me (wasn't this already pretty well established with out the Hockney band name) but the newyorker listings dept provides this web address for add'l info about a conference on the subject.
- bill 11-27-2001 6:15 pm [add a comment]

  • Here's what the conference is about:

    "Most art historians believe the majority of European painters since the Italian Renaissance deployed elaborate systems of mathematical perspective to achieve their effects. Over the past several years, however, Hockney and Falco have been arguing that, on the contrary, most artists in the High Tradition, going all the way back to Bruges in the 1420s, were deploying a variety of optical devices (ranging from concave mirrors through lenses and cameras obscura and lucida). In effect they suggest that painters (from Van Eyck through Caravaggio, Lotto, Velazquez, Vermeer, Chardin, Ingres, etc.) were using precursors of photographic cameras for centuries before the invention of chemical fixatives in 1839; and that it was only with the spread of such chemical fixatives that European painters, suddenly disenchanted with the "optical look," began to undertake the critique of photography implicit in impressionism, expressionism and cubism and the rest of the modernist tradition. Needless to say, these claims (up till now mainly advanced in peer-reviewed scientific journals) are highly controversial: if true, they would have far-reaching ramifications upon our understanding of art."

    I agree, Bill, that the question of "how early and/or widespread was the use of photographic devices in painting?" isn't a very interesting issue, for reasons I mentioned above. The conference organizers seem to think it's an issue because they see modernist tendencies in painting to be rooted solely in the "critique of photography." If that "critique" had been going on for centuries, then modernism would have to have other causes. Well, of course it had other causes! Many tendencies in art--an interest in relativity and simultaneity, the quasi-religious search for "essences," art-for-art's-sake aestheticism--were also going on in music, theatre, and literature: fields completely unaffected by the invention or non-invention of photography. The only theory of modernism Hockney's upsets is an utterly simplistic (and I'd say wrong) one.
    - tom moody 11-27-2001 9:47 pm [add a comment]

    • I think it's partially the myth of tallent that puts me off. That we like our painters to be spontaneously gifted and genius with the skills of painted illusion (and dumb to scientific cheating).
      - bill 11-27-2001 10:07 pm [add a comment]

      • Well, that's not what the conference organizers are saying. Do you think all this concern for the inception date of modernism is just a smokescreen, that what people are really upset about is that Hockney is exposing our heroes as...gasp...cheaters? That's even dumber! You could spend a day in an art school and see dozens of people with the eye/motor/spatial reasoning skills that give them the ability to render something "just like a pitcher" almost instantly. You realize something that comes that easily to so many people is just not that impressive, especially if their "pitchers" have no punch.
        - tom moody 11-27-2001 10:40 pm [add a comment]

        • I realise that but they and their target (wide as possible) audience seam comfortably bedded in a mythic status quo of what determines artistic tallent and yes, their attempt to reevaluate what made late 19th c. avant-garde work important is fruitless.
          - bill 11-27-2001 11:04 pm [add a comment]

          • Personally, I'm all for the artist-as-heroic-genius, I'd just rather it wasn't based on simple rendering skills. That's where the wider audience could use some "edumacation."
            - tom moody 11-27-2001 11:58 pm [add a comment]

            • Evidently Hockney's target audience (buying into the myth of rendering-skills-as-genius), includes Susan Sontag. From Today's Papers, on Slate: "The LAT fronts artist David Hockney's contention that many of the Old Masters—Rembrandt, Vermeer, etc.—used a 'camera lucida' to project images of their subjects onto canvas, thus allowing the artists to trace their paintings. Hockney, whose theory was the basis of a symposium this past weekend, insists that though some artists used an extra tool, it doesn't diminish their achievements. But Susan Sontag doesn't buy that, 'If David Hockney's thesis is correct, it would be a bit like finding out that all the great lovers of history have been using Viagra.'" I can't believe the person who wrote "Notes on Camp" and "On Photography" said that.

              - tom moody 12-03-2001 7:24 pm [add a comment]

              • And since when did Viagra make anyone a good lover?
                - steve 12-04-2001 4:54 am [add a comment]

                • Yeah like ol' Bill Traylor using his cardboard straightedge to draw dogs upside down.
                  - frank 12-20-2001 7:39 am [add a comment]

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