Sunday, August 15, 2010

David Hockney, continued

The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1766
Take a look at the painting on the left... does it not remind you of a photograph?  Could you not imagine the scene staged and lit?

If David Hockney's theory has merit, then there are many implications.  Take, for instance, our veneration of the Old Masters.  I never thought they used lenses and/or cameras to project the three dimensional world into two dimensions.  We were taught that they were great masters of drawing, that they could draw anything by eye-balling, and it was this skill which they built upon that allowed them to become masters of painting.  It also means that the chiaroscuro effect that we associate with many Renaissance artists, namely, Caravaggio (as Hockney points out), was simply an artifact -- that in using a lens, subjects had to be strongly lit in order to be seen, and thus cast deep shadows which were then simply captured in painting.  In other words, this rather sudden concern for realism was the consequence of a technological innovation and not a purely aesthetic movement.  Ironically, it was the invention of the photographic print that spurred artists to found the Impressionist movement.  Artists did not want to imitate a print... in a sense, they wished to remain relevant and prove that they could do something only a human being could do, and not some piece of machinery.  So, if Hockney is correct, then artists of the Renaissance were capturing the two dimensional image they saw projected onto their canvas.... they were the "developers" of the image.  They fixed the image onto paper or canvas using paint/pencil/ink, and were then replaced by a copper plate and some mercury and silver when the daguerreotype was invented.     Ironic, isn't it?  Could it be so?  Were artists simply performing a mechanical type of work?  Were they simply trained to paint... by numbers, so to speak?  Is art as expression of an aesthetic sense only a "modern" concern caused in part by inventions such as cameras and now computers?  Is art (and literature and music and dance and all other creative endeavors) all that is left to assert our humanity?  And, if so, shouldn't we prioritize these endeavors instead of pushing them aside, thinking that they are useless, frivolous pastimes for the elite?  Isn't it time to reclaim our humanity?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

David Hockney

Caravaggio, 1598-9, Judith Beheading Holofernes
I just finished David Hockney's Secret Knowledge, cover to cover. Intriguing. If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. I don't totally agree with everything he writes, but certainly, his thesis merits deeper investigation, even more than what he has already found. Basically, he claims that early in the 15th century, artists used lenses (a camera obscura) to help them draw and paint the world. And that even if they had not actually used the lens to draw, certainly they were influenced by paintings that were drawn with the aid of a lens; ultimately, paintings have a certain "look" when painted with the aid of a camera obscura. From my own experience, I can tell you, that certainly painting from a photograph is absolutely, 100% different than painting from life. There is a certain look to it that betrays its photographic lineage. It could be that when one is working from a photo, it feels as if there is no time limit... so, naturally, the hand slows down, the lines become static and too sure. Live models are fleeting. Muscles settle and move, expressions change, fruit decay, light fluctuates. But, mostly, you see differently. I see objects and can feel they are dimensional, they continue beyond what one can see, they continue to exist in time as well. Photographs are flattened and the dimension of time is lost, and it shows even when one tries to paint them. Hockney says the "look" of the camera obscura is the chiaroscuro, the dark deep shadowy background with the intense lighted foreground, all figures nearly lined up on a plane. Also, the sudden development of the fleeting expression, such as the smile. And, now when I see paintings, I cannot help but see them in this new light. I used to go often to the Norton Simon in Pasadena and think the same thing... why weren't there smiling people in paintings? Then again, a smile is a little disturbing. It would seem a little psychotic if a smile were perpetually frozen in a painting since smiles are supposed to be fleeting.  Smiles are natural expressions of joy/menace/deceit...  Why, even Pepperidge Farms had to leave some goldfish unsmiley. So, why is it that people always want to capture people smiling in photos?