A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford

I’ve always thought that David Hockney’s real subject was an exploration of the gap between how the world is, how our brains process visual information and present it to us (perception, in other words), and how that can be represented. You can, I think, draw a straight line from Cubism to Hockney.

The introduction to this beautiful and stimulating book has an epigram which captures something vital, I think: ‘any picture is an account of looking at something’. To be clear that means a picture isn’t primarily an account of the thing being drawn, (which might be though of as a ‘noun’), but it is a document that records the act of looking — the ‘verb’. That turns any discussion of drawing into an analysis of something active, not passive. Recognising this crucially shifts the emphasis of any discussion of drawings.

As you’d expect, it’s a richly illustrated book and it’s pleasing to see visual connection connections being made in the page. A still from Walt Disney’s Pinnochio sits alongside a 19th Century Utagawa Hiroshige woodblock print of a whirlpool, and Caravaggio is credited, plausibly, with ‘inventing Hollywood lighting’. Picasso’s depiction of drapery (or is it space?) in Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon is compared to El Greco’s painting The Vision of Saint John and its mannered representation of cloth. Nothing, it seems comes from nothing. Even a radical work like Picasso’s, Hockney argues, has traceable antecedents.

At the heart the book is a dialogue between Hockney and art historian Martin Gayford. All the text is presented as speech, with ideas being batted back and forth. Two of the most important strands of thought are a critique of linear perspective and the way photography and painting are linked. Each discussion is informed by a lifetime of looking, and looking hard, complimented by conventional art-historical knowledge. There’s a real sense that the research method that Hockney has undertaken is led bu a practical eye; he recognises things that link across centuries and, not surprisingly, likens the use of a camera obscura to photography. All that’s missing is the chemical process to ‘fix’ an image on a plate.

I recently saw Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ in the flesh and it’s pretty clear that the ‘still’ part of the picture — the town itself — is handled in a radically different way from the sky and the water. This backs up the central argument here, that Vermeer used an optical device to assist in the drawing of his works. Interestingly, there are only Vermeer paintings, and no preparatory work.

This book provides food for thought for those interested in the ethics of picture-making, too. What, in the age of Photoshop is a ‘true’ visual record? The issues have always been there, but they are sharpened somewhat in the presence of such accessible editing software.

In summary, anyone interested in pictures and representing the world ought to find something here of value. As an accessible primer on those issues it’s hard to beat. Read it, go and look at some of the work discussed in it, then re-read it.

3 Comments

  1. Stan Dickinson 7 February 2018 at 1:14 pm

    I have just read this book & would strongly support Bryan’s recommendation. Beautifully illustrated and highly readable (so a nice alternative to dry theory!), it is, nonetheless, consistently insightful and thought-provoking. And it’s relevant to anyone working with visual representation – drawer, painter, photographer, designer, whatever.

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  2. Jennifer 9 February 2018 at 11:29 am

    Reading Hockney’s earlier perspective-related books has been a significant influence on the art I’ve ended up making, so I’m now off to buy this one, too!

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  3. Gail Seery 9 February 2018 at 3:40 pm

    This is one of my favourite books. The discussion type format makes it easy to absorb, and Hockney’s comments are thought-provoking. Lovely to see it featured here

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