The Mobile Art of David Hockney

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It is always interesting to observe how the media presents the “news”. When independent artists, especially not well-known, turn to Social Media and mobile technologies, journalists and pundits use them for case-studies. They profile the use of social networks, various online or mobile tools that enable artists to make, publish and broadcast their art to a wide audience, at a potentially low cost. At certain point this even stops being “unthinkable” and becomes something that we almost expect an artist to do: to have a website and some online “profiles”.

Then David Hockney takes to draw a painting on his iPhone and emails it to friends – and this instantly becomes the case of one of the celebrated British artists still being “at the cutting edge of art“.

To think about it, Hockney is not the only “old master” who explores the new media. Already three years ago I briefly mentioned that both Peter Greenaway and David Lynch proclaimed the decline of “traditional” cinema and turned to the new technology. In this regard Hockney isn’t doing anything remotely novel – but it is the conclusion he draws that counts:

One morning recently, I made a drawing on my iPhone while I was still in bed, of flowers through the window, and the sunrise, which I could then [email] to 12 people, without it ever having been photographed or printed, and that’s very new.

We are very aware of the instantaneous quality of online publishing, yet what seems hard to register with us is that it’s still very new in comparison to centuries of traditions based first on handwriting and then on printing press. And yet it is new, and what this means for the artist like Hockney is that his work could be projected straight on the gallery screen or posted to the website immediately as it was finished. For a writer who posts straight to the blog online publishing also creates the precedent of making the work available for a larger or smaller circle of readers immediately as it was composed. Musicians, actors, dancers, even sculptors can use live streaming to show their work in process and in progress. Arguably, the more this is done in the way that Wollheim and Hockney appeared to do it, the better we understand “how art is made”.

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The article in The Daily Telegraph introducing Bruno Wollheim’s documentary about David Hockney is thought-provoking. Like Henri Cartier-Bresson earlier, Hockney turns away from photography to painting. But he does this with a twist, the reaction to which I find amusing:

He’s still obsessed by Secret Knowledge, to which he devoted two years of his life in the aftermath of his mother’s death in 1999. The book and film were controversial, arguing that, for the past 500 years, artists in the West had used lenses and mirrors to aid their work, so presenting the world in photographic terms. Most art historians poured scorn on his researches, but fellow artists tended to agree with him.

I’ve just written about how oblivious the historians can be to their own faults, and it seems that art historians follow in their footsteps. I never studied painting, and I cannot draw, but I will argue in Hockney’s favour, which will certainly prove that he is more right than wrong. This is the story of Filippo Brunelleschi introducing the perspective as early as 1425:

…Brunelleschi secretly painted a small, highly realistic image of the Baptistery of San Giovanni as it would have appeared in a mirror-reversed perspective when seen from a single point of view located just inside the portal of Santa Maria del Fiore. […] For purposes of his demonstration, Brunelleschi also drilled a small hole in the painting of the Baptistery at the point that would have been exactly opposite the point within the portal of the Duomo from which the perspective of the Baptistery had been constructed. […] Brunelleschi then set up his painting between the Baptistery and the entry to Santa Maria del Fiore, and called for volunteers to look through the peephole from behind the surface of the painting with one eye, while holding a mirror at a mathematically correct distance in front of the painting. […] The effect of the mirror was to minimize the viewer’s awareness of the presence of the painted surface and to intensify the sense of depth of the painting. […] By thus demonstrating to the public the breathtaking realism of his newly discovered system of linear geometric perspective, it seemed to Brunelleschi’s contemporaries that he had discovered how to re-create the world through the power of an art that precisely reflected physical reality as it is seen by the detached observer.

William Scrots, Anamorphic Portrait of Edward VI Tudor

To carry on, why not remember the Renaissance admiration for anamorphic images? Their popularity had to do with the advances in the optical research, apart from the sheer amusement they provided. This famous portrait of King Edward VI Tudor even has a special slot on one side for a narrow tube through which the painting could be seen “properly”. Hans Holbein the Younger didn’t resist the call of fashion in the famous Ambassadors. Anamorphosis made its way into Michelangelo’s The Last Judgement; and in the whimsical arrangements of Arcimboldo’s works it probably played a moralistic, as well as entertaining, role.

Hans Holbein, Ambassadors
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement(detail)
Ludovico Archimboldo, The Cook

 

Parmigianino,
A Self-Portrait in Convex Mirror
Jan van Eyck,
The Arnolfini Family

There are many examples of mirrors appearing in paintings. The more “traditional” approach would ascribe their presence to some ethical argument on the part of the artist, but what if in truth those artists who included mirrors in compositions simply gave away their “trade secret”, while also indicating that artists and people and objects in their paintings inhabited a three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional, space? Here is Parmigianino’s self-portrait that he made while looking at himself in a convex mirror. But what if mirrors were introduced to revert, or elucidate, but either way to “personalise” the story in the painting? We may start with the famous Arnolfini portrait where the mirror in the background reveals the “other side” of the story we are watching. And then, to skip through several generations of painters, we could cite Velazquez’s Las Meninas, or better what Kenneth Clark wrote about this painting:

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas

 

With these speculations in mind I return to the Meninas and it occurs to me what an extraordinarily personal selection of the facts Velasquez has made. That he has chosen to present this selection as a normal optical impression may have misled his contemporaries, but should not mislead us. […] It is true that the Infanta dominates the scene, both by her dignity_for she has already the air of one who is habitually obeyed_and by the exquisite beauty of her pale gold hair. But after looking at her, one’s eye passes immediately to the square, sullen countenance of her dwarf, Maribarbola, and to her dog, brooding and detached, like some saturnine philosopher. These are in the first plane of reality. And who are in the last? The King and Queen, reduced to reflections in a shadowy mirror. To his royal master this may have seemed no more than the record of a scene which had taken his fancy. But must we suppose that Velasquez was unconscious of what he was doing when he so drastically reversed the accepted scale of values?

Here the celebrated photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo – who took much of his inspiration from paintings – would most likely remind us that “this phenomenon of instantaneous choosing is exactly the same thing that happens when I am taking photographs”. Isn’t Las Meninas a potent enough example of making a selection for a painting, akin to capturing the Bressonian “decisive moment” on camera?

Lastly, there will be the artwork by Philip Scott Johnson that stunned millions of viewers around the globe with a precocious arrangement of female portraits from the last 500 years. But I noted specifically that the video (which is a morphic art, as a matter of fact) somehow revealed that artists were painting their models from the more or less same angles for 500 years. Not only did this quality of female portraiture made Johnson’s own work possible – it also potently questioned the originality of form in Western art.

I am not aware of examples Hockney cited; neither do I know exactly why art historians found it hard to agree with the idea that the world was indeed presented in photographic terms throughout the last 500 years. It is quite clear even from the given examples that lenses and mirrors not only were an important part of a creative process (i.e. in the case of a self-portrait) but also affected the techniques, compositions, and “stories”. This may explain perhaps why already Turner’s contemporaries found it hard to “understand” his paintings: because they represented the world as a mixture of elements, untouched by an optical, geometrical arrangement. And the same elementary chaos is what apparently attracts Hockney today:

He is radically re-working his methods, going for speed and directness, using Rembrandt drawings and Van Gogh as his guides. This is his way to make painting escape the stranglehold of the camera.

While his painting may be escaping the stranglehold of the camera, his life in art has finally been caught with the very medium Hockney has abandoned. Whether this is paradoxical or ironic, time will tell; and in the meantime David Hockney: A Bigger Picture is to be broadcast on BBC1 on 30 June.

Illustrations:

William Scrots, The Anamorphic Portrait of Edward VI, 1546
Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533
Michelangelo, The Last Judgement, 1534-1541
Guiseppe Arcimboldo, The Cook, 1570
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434
Parmigianino, A Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, 1524
Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656

I am very grateful to a reader in Australia who introduced me to the figure of Adi Da Samraj in 2008 and shared several articles, one of which, by Gary J. Coates, I used in this post.

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