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Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters Hardcover – 12 Oct 2001

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson Ltd; 1st Edition edition (12 Oct. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500237859
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500237854
  • Product Dimensions: 30.8 x 3.1 x 24.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 183,366 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

David Hockney's brilliant Secret Knowledge is the fruit of his practical and historical investigation into how artists from the 15th century onward produced such vividly realistic drawings and paintings. Hockney's conclusions are simple but devastating. He argues that, "from the early 15th century many Western artists used optics--by which I mean mirrors and lenses (or a combination of the two)--to create living projections". The results are extraordinary. Secret Knowledge carefully explains how Masaccio, Van Eyck, Holbein, Caravaggio, Vermeer and Ingres all used optical aids, as it carefully takes apart the paintings and recreates the instruments and techniques used by artists from as early as the 1430s.

Hockney concedes that his opinions have been attacked by the mainstream art world that has complained that "for an artist to use optical aids would be 'cheating'; that somehow I was attacking the idea of innate genius". As a practising artist himself, his response is persuasive: "optics would have given artists a new tool with which to make images that were more immediate, and more powerful". Hockney concludes that this does not "diminish their achievements. For me, it makes them all the more astounding". Hockney's evidence is compelling and convincing, and brilliantly conveyed in this beautiful book, complete with details, foldouts and over 400 illustrations in sumptuous colour. Secret Knowledge also contains a collection of primary evidence detailing artist's use of optical devices, and Hockney's correspondence on the subject over the last two years. This book will revolutionise how we look at the art of the past. As Hockney himself suggests, "exciting times are ahead". --Jerry Brotton


'This book enriches the reader's understanding of the painting process and encourages us to look at paintings afresh. A valuable edition to any art educator's library.'
--Start Online

'A book of distinction which reshapes a valuable period of art history' --The Sunday Business Post

'Sumptuously illustrated, intriguing' --What's On in London

'A fascinating insight from an artist's viewpoint into the methods of great painters from Giotto to Cezanne, and also a stunning gallery of major paintings' --The Artist

'A theory that has shaken the art world to its roots ... a great excuse to look at the Old Masters in a new light'
--The Daily Express --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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157 of 163 people found the following review helpful By on 14 Oct. 2001
Format: Hardcover
This is a seismic publication. It will rock the art world right down to its foundations. Hockney blows the lid clean off the secret practices of the Old Masters. He shows, with stunning clarity, that conventional European art historians have simply never understood the central and defining importance of optics - the cameras (obscura and lucida), mirrors and lenses that were all used to project images only flat surfaces. These made for very accurate painting. Artists liked it - so much easier and quicker. Clients liked it - so life-like, so real and so desirable. It was optics that made possible the uncanny, almost superhuman precision of Caravaggio, Canaletto, Vermeer, Holbein, Velazquez and many, many others. Not all the old masters used it, but most did and the rest were certainly influenced by it. Optics created realism in European visual art.
Why has all this come out now? Partly because the Old Masters were guild members and, for purely commercial reasons never revealed the tricks of their trade. They were too valuable. And partly because Hockney, ever the persistent and gleeful iconoclast, smelled a rat. Why were Ingres' exquisite pencil portraits so small, all the same size, so accurate and so quickly executed? How come Vermeer's paintings were so mathematically precise that a computer can exactly recreate his studio from the measurements taken from them? Why did so many Old Masters make very obvious errors in human anatomical proportion? Why did it all start in 1430 AD? In a riveting account Hockney describes his two-year journey to the certain realisation that it was all down to optics. He also shows that optics, in a tyranny of cold one-eyed precision, dominated European art for 500 years. Impressionism and, later, Modern art liberated it.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By I. Carstairs on 20 Nov. 2006
Format: Hardcover
Great book! I read it in one sitting! Hockney may well be derided as "popular artist" by the serious art world, but all fields of endeavour have their jealous guardians who stake their existence on consistency; a new viewpoint is rarely made welcome by them, and an outsider contradicts them at his own peril.

Nevertheless, the arguments about moving vanishing points, inconsistent perspective, left handed prevalences, optical distortions completely accurately rendered and so on are not going to just go away. They are well thought out, tightly argued and well illustrated (and were completely new to me!). It seems obvious with this in mind that any artist making a living from his skill would be very stupid not to use a tool to enhance the realism of his work and cut the time needed to churn these portraits out. Hockney entertainingly shows how this process had to include the use of lenses and mirrors.

More to the point, the use of such aids does not diminish the painters' skill. Their style is always recognisable and painters today would be hard pressed to create anything comparable. But it helps to know how human beings managed, in some cases, to achieve impossible levels of observational accuracy. So after a lifetime of interest in drawing, I immediately ordered a camera lucida to try it for myself!

A great read! Buy it!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Peasant TOP 500 REVIEWER on 18 Oct. 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a book which only a working artist could have written; Hockney's insight comes not from a mad conspiracy theory but from his own expert knowledge of the process of drawing. It is worth noting that Hockney himself is a poor draughtsman who has struggled all his life with that aspect of art which consists in converting one's 3D view of the world - 3D because of binocular vision and parallax - into the 2D surface of a drawing or painting. If Hockney was a fluent draughtsman, he might never have asked himself the questions which led to this book.

Hockney's starting point is Ingres, a draughtsman of such genius that other artists are struck dumb with awe. Why, then, did Ingres in so many of his drawing and paintings, produce errors of proportion which a novice would have avoided. Something must be over-riding Ingres trained eye for the natural "canons" of the human body. What could it have been? Hockney is the first person to ask this simple yet iconoclastic question.

This book is produced in an epistolary style, allowing the reader to follow Hockney's thought processes as he explores the role that optical devices have played in the work of a number of artists. He supports his exploration with documents, opinions from relevant experts and, most compelling of all, the evidence of the paintings. By the end of the book, we have a fully developed argument with more proof than an unbiased audience would require.

Despite this, Hockney has been attacked repeatedly by readers and critics who have not understood his thesis. Proper reading of the book shows that Hockney does not consider the use of optics "explains away" the skill of artists who used them.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By J. Tait on 5 Mar. 2010
Format: Paperback
I am very impressed by this book. Not only does it offer a masterly and thorough account of how artists might have worked over the ages but
also advances an imaginative idea that the make up of our current society and culture has been influenced by a lens oriented view. This is held to have conditioned and even restricted our notion of reality. I am currently in the middle of a PhD study on drawing machines and this book has been helpful
in extending the context within which my study sits. David Hockney can justifiable claim to be one of our most original thinkers on art history as he does not only write about it but can practice it to the highest standard. Jack Tait
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