Secret Knowledge - The Book & The Movie
By David Hockney

November 05, 2001 /
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secret_knowledge_1Photo: Phil Sayer
David Hockney drawing with the aid of a camera lucida, 1999

The book, "Secret Knowledge" - rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters, is fascinating.

David Hockney became gripped by a desire to find out how the artists of the past had managed to depict the world around them so accurately and vividly. For two years, he sacrificed his own time as an artist to follow this mystery trail, obsessively tracking down the hidden secrets of the Old Masters.

In the movie, produced by BBC, David Hockney demonstrates how, four hundred years before the invention of the photograph, artists were using simple cameras to capture realistic images.  Hockney takes us to Florence, Bruges, Ghent, and a specially designed set in Hollywood, to demonstrates his findings.

The movie, "David Hockney's Secret Knowledge", is currently showing at the Louisiana Museum in connection with an exhibition: David Hockney 1960 - 2000.

secret_knowledge_2Photo: Richard Schmidt
Back Cover
"The Great Wall" (detail)
David Hockney (2000)

Now, for the first time, Hockney recounts the story of his quest as it unfolded. He explains how he uncovered piece after piece of scientific and visual evidence, each one yielding further revelations about the past. With the benefit of his painter's eye, he examines the major works of art history and reveals the truth of how artists such as Caravaggio, Vel‡zquez, van Eyck, Holbein, Leonardo and Ingres used mirrors and lenses to help them create their famous masterpieces.

He compares van Eyck's "Ghent Altarpiece" (1432) to his own "Pearblossom Highway" (1986) concluding that multiple viewpoints (many, many windows) have a similar distancing effect on a two-dimentional surface as a bird's-eye view, but that it is contradicted in details.

Hockney's "Pearblossom Highway" photographic collage consists of approximately 750 individual chromogenic print and, it is historically known, that van Eyck made lots of drawings of various elements and then "drew" the whole painting out of details from them.

secret_knowledge_3David Hockney
Pearblossom Highway
© The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

secret_knowledge_4Jan and Hubert van Eyck
Adoration of the Lamb
Panel from the Ghent Altarpiece
St Bavo, Ghent

Hockney also, convincingly, demonstrates how Brunelleschi, the first architect to employ mathematical perspective to redefine Gothic and Romanesque space, used a mirror for the perspective picture of the Baptistry of San Giovanni; a painting that, around 1412, astounded Florence.

secret_knowledge_5The Baptistry of San Giovanni

Hockney had been taught that the 30 centimeter square painting was based on abstract geometry - but how was it conceived? Did Brunelleschi see something first?

To prove his point he went to Florence to do an experiment.  For twenty minutes, he was not allowed more, he positioned himself two meters inside the doorway of the Santa Maria del Fiori, in the same place where Brunelleschi painted the picture, and made a perspective picture with a mirror. Using the mirror could only produce a small picture, but by extending the lines Brunelleschi could create what all artists wanted; a bigger space and a bigger picture!

"Optics, perspective, Brunelleschi and us"

"Alberti's story of Brunelleschi and the "discovery" or "invention" of perspective is well known.  Published in 1435, it was really contemporary with van Eyck and Robert Campin in Flanders.

Brunelleschi demonstrated perspective by painting a small panel (half a braccia square). To paint this, he stationed himself just inside (some three braccias inside) the central portal of Santa Maria del Fiori, in short, in a dark room looking out to the light.

The mirror-lens produces a poerspective picture. The viewing point is a mathematical point in the centre of the mirror. Perspective is a law of optics. So was it "invented"? It happened in Florence in 1420-30. Today, it is the window through which the world is seen, with television, film and still cameras. The Chinese did not have a system like it. Indeed, it is said they rejected the idea of the vanishing point in the eleventh century, because it meant the viewer was not there, indeed, had no movement, therefore was not alive. Their own system, though, was highly sophisticated by the fifteenth century, Scrolls were made where one journeyed through a landscape.  if a vanishing point occured, it would have meant the viewer had ceased moving.

Did the mirror-lens originate in Bruges and then was send to Italy by one of the Medici agents?  Arnolfini was an agent of the Medici bank. Did Brunelleschi show the mirror-lens to Masaccio? Is that why his heads are so individualistic? There was certainly no precedent for that "look" in Florence before Masaccio. It occurs at almost the same time as Campin and van Eyck in Bruges. Did Brunelleschi devise the rules of perspective to make the picture bigger than those the mirror-lens could produce?

All of this has interest beyond art history or the history of pictorial space, because the system of perspective led to the system of triangulation that meant you could fire cannons more accurately. Military technology had a jump from it, and it is clear by the late eighteenth century the West's technology was superior to that in China, hence the decline of China in relation to the West.

The vanishing point leads to the missiles of today, which can take us out of this world.  It could be that the west's greatest mistakes were the "invention" of the external vanishing point and the internal combustion engine. Think of all the polution from the television and traffic."
David Hockney

In the book Hockney also points out that Andy Warhol, known for tracing, never could have drawn the Cologne Cathedral without tracing from a slide projection. The drawing would not have looked like this if he had stood in front of the Cathedral and drawn it from straight life. His skill was to know which lines were the most important.

secret_knowledge_6Cologne Cathedral Photograph

secret_knowledge_7Andy Warhol Drawing

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Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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