Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters by David Hockney

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while ago. More recently than usual, though. This was something I got access to through work. 

The idea of “secret knowledge” has an allure that sells itself, so much so that I had to be cautious as I read this book not to be seduced by that idea, to allow Hockney’s arguments and reasoning to work rather than to be taken as proof without examination. Of course, I’m so unfamiliar with the history of visual art that in the end, I don’t know what to make of his thesis: I’ve read Hockey’s view, and I’ve read the counter-arguments by some, like Christopher Tyler, who think he places the start of artists using optics far too early. Tyler does note how many of Hockney’s arguments rest on subjective evaluations… and yet there may be some qualitative elements that suggest at least some of his subjective evaluations might actually be correct.  

Still, the truth is that I know too little about the subject to weigh in on the controversy. Even so, as someone with a background in music and music history, I can say that many musical artists in the past were extremely eager and aggressive in the early adoption of new technology—be it new instruments, new refinements of older instruments, new tuning systems, new implementations of existing instruments, recording technology, electronics, and so on. All of that does run counter to our romanticized ideas about musicians—who, like artists, often court that romanticization and obscure their process in order to heighten it. The truth is that every instrument, musical tool or technique, notation system, and stylistic device known to us today was, at some point, a radical innovation, a fact that often is invisible to us… almost as invisible as the innovations that have slipped through our collective fingers and been forgotten. 

If that’s true of music and musicians, why would it not be true of visual artists? Still, that’s an analogy, not evidence of anything concrete.

What’s compelling to me about Hockney’s idea is the contention that some visual artists may have been using technologies that allowed them to perform a kind of proto-photography, going back even as far as the 1400s: that photography didn’t come out of nowhere, but actually forms a logical progression from the use of lenses and prisms in the branch(es) of visual art that for a long time strove for realism. That’s a wild and bizarre idea, when you put it that way, and as some of Hockney’s critics point out, during part of the time period Hockney’s discussing, lenses and mirrors may not have actually been decent enough at the time to do all the things he suggests they were used for. Still, his core question goes beyond, “Why did European painters suddenly leap into hyper-realistic depiction styles when they did?” to asking, “Why, when they embraced this intense stylistic realism, did so many of their subjects also suddenly end up being presented as left-handed? Why did perspective and sizing of heads to bodies often get so wonky despite all the hyper-realism? Could it really have been intentional? Why did specific lighting patterns start dominating that that time? Why did so many suddenly get so good at detailed depictions not just of faces and facial expressions, but also of fabric, clothing, and armor, and why do some of them leave behind sketches that seem so utterly effortless? And why do some of them also leave behind paintings so absurdly proportionally similar to those effortless sketches?” Whether the assertions tucked into these questions are factual, I can’t say, and would leave to experts. Whether Hockney’s cherrypicking examples that suit his thesis, I also cannot say, though he’d be far from the first person in history to do that in support of a “radical” thesis. Still, the examples included in his book did catch my attention, as they were supposed to do. 

One might argue that it’s all circumstantial—and I would agree, I suppose, with the caveat that sometimes circumstantial evidence is all that’s left, and that, if Hockney’s accurate about the frequency of those little tells, it sure would be a little suspect. Not suspect as in, “They were cheating!” because as Hockney himself points out, even with technical aids, the work he’s discussing is the product of amazing skill and sensitivity. It’s just that there’s a set of circumstances that suggest maybe there was more than just freehand drawing going on here. Not that I am convinced either way: I simply don’t know, and I will say that sometimes mastery makes the difficult seem effortless. (Every musician has heard another musician playing who startled them with the question, “How in the world…?”)

All that said, it doesn’t really strike me as unusual that artists could have used optical tools as aids to drawing and painting, even earlier than previously acknowledged; and because (unlike with a lot of technological innovations in music until the 20th century) the product obscures what those innovations might have been, it also doesn’t seem unusual to me that such optical tools might have something that, if they didn’t actively keep it secret, they might not have publicized much. 

Does that mean I’m running out to get a camera lucida for my wife, who is studying botanical illustration now? No, although I asked her if she wanted one. (She doesn’t, as she’s happy eyeballing things when she draws them.)

However, it does make me feel a little less guilty about faithfully drawing from references—or, occasionally, tracing a photograph—when I draw on my iPad. It also has me thinking about how AI art could be so much more than it is; what if it had been designed from the ground up as a collaborative tool for artists to use, instead of what we ended up getting? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that, since a fond fantasy of mine for decades has been that software might be able to accompany a solo musician—a saxophonist like myself, say, or a singer—performing spontaneously generated accompaniment following a predetermined song structure. What if AIs could learn “lead sheets” for jazz songs? Not that I think traditional jazz would be the best implementation of this (though it could be an interesting one): rather, new and unimagined musics are what I think would be the finest fruit of such innovation, but training one up to interactively and idiomatically improvise alongside—or play an accompanying role in—a jazz ensemble would be a pretty amazing proof of concept. 

Instead, we’ve ended up with just more War of the Business Nerds Versus the Artsy Kids: programmers building AIs that rip off creative people and put them out of jobs. Or so it seems, from the discussions of AI we see out there. 

In any case, going back to Hockney: for those who cannot get their hands on the book, or want to see the visuals, the BBC documentary based on the book is on Youtube (for now). I haven’t seen it, and from what I hear there’s some silly-sounding calculations and “You see? The numbers match!” stuff in it… but it’s probably an interesting watch all the same. 

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