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152 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revolutionary view of European Art History.
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...
Published on 14 Oct 2001 by mrevans.holywell@virgin.net

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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Has been thoroughly debunked.
I don't know why David Hockney came up with this theory, but it's been debunked quite well, I believe. (Most notably Scientific American December 2004.)

The other 1-star review talks about Hockney's lack of drawing skill, and I'm afraid I have to agree about that. Don't get me wrong, he's a great artist--I love his use of color especially. His artwork is very...
Published on 5 Feb 2011 by Felicity


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152 of 158 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A revolutionary view of European Art History., 14 Oct 2001
By 
mrevans.holywell@virgin.net (Holywell, North Wales, UK) - See all my reviews
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. So now visual art can once again be human, eccentric, two-eyed and wonky.
Secret Knowledge is a big book and it's not cheap. But it's worth it. Fully half of it is devoted to beautiful, full colour reproductions of the great art works that Hockey uses to demonstrate his argument. His writing is not at all academic. It is crystal clear, cheerful, blunt, engaging, honest and totally persuasive.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Utterly convincing!, 20 Nov 2006
By 
I. Carstairs (Hitchin, Herts United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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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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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ENVY AND JEALOUSY, 4 April 2012
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This review is from: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (Paperback)
The art world is well known for the prevalence of jealousy and envy among artists for the more successful among them. It's understandable, as many hard working, highly skilled artists are ignored while others, equally or even less skilled, become world famous, either by accident or because of superior marketing skills. For example, one often STILL reads that Picasso or Dali could not draw or even paint "properly", in spite of the fact that several world-travelled exhibitions of their works have featured early drawings and paintings by both artists showing draughtsmanship skills of the highest order and the ability to produce skilful representational paintings. In both cases, however, as they grew up and developed, they chose to take a different path and be judged by the results. Hockney has joined this exclusive group and produces uniquely stylised paintings, instantly recognisable, only because of the skills acquired in his classic training in drawing and painting, honed by hard work, dedication and long experience.

Life is unfair. Hockney has become a National Treasure, because he is an excellent artist, but also, perhaps, because he has not only survived to a ripe old age but achieved "grumpy but lovable old fart" status. Yet many of his contemporaries, equally skilled, are completely unknown or known only to a few knowledgable fellow artists.

Of course Hockney can draw. Anyone who says he cannot draw or paint "properly" is either blinded by professional jealousy or simply does not know what he is talking about. There is ample evidence on record in his published work. His teenage paintings and drawings show ample evidence of a great artist in the making. His few representational portraits, throughout his career, as well as many conventional pencil and colour pencil drawings, are clear evidence of classic drawing and painting skills. I am a particular admirer of his charcoal drawings, which show a remarkable ability to convey softness and tonal range as well as the high contrast and hard edges more typical of this medium.

As for his theories on the use of optical aids by great artists of the past, there can be little doubt that leading artists have, when required, used every aid technically available to achieve precision when needed - and why not? Grids, shadowgraphs and the camera lucida are techniques which would have been fascinating and irresistable to a skilled artist seeking to perfect his craft. Such techniques are taught in the better art schools alongside the more traditional skill of draughtsmanship.

It is also unarguably true that some great artists have, by hard work and enormous dedication, achieved the ability to reproduce the three-dimensional world they see onto a two-dimensional surface with extraordinary perceptual skill, so as to make the image appear convincingly accurate, without the use of instrumental aids. Some of Hockney's early paintings show that he was quite competent at that when he wanted to be.

Whether particular artists used optical aids to the full extent hypothesised by Hockney cannot now be known for sure. Nor is the Scientific American article a definitive "debunking" as claimed. It is a contrary opinion as subjective as Hockney's. We shall never know for sure, but the single-minded skilled professional striving for perfection is not something that has appeared only in the last century, and I suspect Hockney's theory, if not 100% correct, is nearer the truth than the denials of his critics.

This book is a fascinating exposition of some of the clever techniques the Old Masters could have used, and probably, in many cases, did use to achieve their extraordinary results. In no way does it denigrate their skills - on the contrary, it shows the amount of study and research needed to become a great artist. If you are interested in the craft of painting, this is required reading.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An artist's study of other artists, 18 Oct 2010
By 
Peasant (Deepest England) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
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. Instead, he considers the use of lens and mirrors a natural extension of the range of techniques available to artists from the Renaissance onwards. He links the use of optics to the scientific enquiries going on at the time, improving our understanding of the historical milieu in which artists worked.

Alongside his study of artists who used optics, Hockney examines the work of painters such as Raphael and Rembrandt who used the eye alone; he shows how their work develops differently as a result. He brings the study into the 19th century and links it to the knowledge we have about the way painters reacted to photography. His musings on the dominance of the lens in modern visual culture make the argument complete and well-rounded.

Throughout this book is exceptionally well illustrated with examples of what Hockney is talking about and diagrams of what is going on in the paitings, and how optics functioned for the artist. Anyone who wishes to read other studies of the use of optics should read Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces by Philip Steadman, and The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century by Svetlana Alpers

For a thought-provoking book on Hockney's theories, read Hockney on Art: Conversations with Paul Joyce
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most interesting overview of drawing history, 5 Mar 2010
By 
J. Tait (Wales UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (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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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The authority of a practitioner, not a critic - for a change, 28 April 2002
By A Customer
A lavish book of quality reproductions, that alone makes it worth owning. For me Hockney presents enough convincing argument that intrinsic genius is a myth - a myth that all artists and illustrators working today who are capable of painting like the 'masters' know it is. It's always good to see the deification of artists challenged. Hockney presents plenty of examples of all the reasons he believes optical devices were used while still appreciating these paintings for the fantastic examples of the artist's skill that they are. A well balanced viewpoint is presented and the reader is invited to make up his or her own mind. One point he missed that I noticed was how many of the pets (dogs, cats etc) are of a lessr 'quality' of realism than the people in the paintings - not so good at sitting still but then the artists always had access to stuffed animals.
However, to see David Hockney's viewpoint on the matter I think it helps greatly if you have spent years and years of hard work developing your observational skills as a painter and draughtsman and you are not afraid to use the technology at your fingertips in your work, then I think you can completely understand your peers of centuries past.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So that's how they did it!, 29 Aug 2002
By A Customer
For me, Hockney's theories answer a lot of my wonder about works of art and artists, and it's a thoroughly good read, whether you paint/draw or simply admire art.
What I would say is that I'd thoroughly recommend trying to recreate the techniques Hockey illustrates, so you can fully admire the technical achievements of those pioneering artists, whose aims were often very different in the time before the invention of the camera.
An excellent book, well researched and well written - will be debated by art scholars for years to come!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Behind the lens, 17 July 2011
By 
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This review is from: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (Paperback)
Hockney is on top form in this book; he presents his argument very convincingly. I remember the backlash he suffered when the TV programme was aired a few years ago but I think it's difficult to argue with him here.

It's a very easy read, makes total sense and who is going to argue with one of the greatest draughtsmen of our age?

If you think that drawing and painting are dvine gifts, don't read this. If you think that there's technique behind most things, even though they may have been lost, this is for you.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous book, 11 July 2011
By 
G. Findlay "Bambo" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (Paperback)
What a glorious read A fantastic insight into the mind of a current master as well as 'old' masters. Stunning, quality images throughout a hefty book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new perspective, 20 Feb 2008
By 
A. Byrnes "Andie" (London, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters (Paperback)
A friend of my father's loaned this book to him, recommending it very highly. I picked it up when I was visiting my parents and became glued to it. I read it in one sitting because it is written and presented in a very digestible way, and the content is fascinating.

Whether you agree with Hockney's conclusions or not his thesis presents some very interesting ideas and he made me look at art in a slightly different way. I have a degree in Art History and it was great to have my perceptions challenged.

I particularly like the way that Hockney emphasised that artists had to make a living and were, in the final analysis, producing something that needed to meet specific client requirements - in a satisfactory period of time. It was a point that someone made many years ago about the variability in the quality of Shakespeare's plays - he and generations of other writers and painters had to make a living!

Hockney emphasises that even if artificial devices were used to reproduce details this does not detract from the sheer skill of the completed painting, or of the artistry of the original vision. You just have to look at the differences in style and technique to realize that even if special devices were used, the artist still controls the fabulous result.

Hockney makes interesting comparisons between the realistic portraiture of the pre-Impressionistic era and those that followed when formal ideals were abandoned in favour of creating a light-infused impression of someone and their background in paint. He makes it easy to understand why the Impressionists were so poorly regarded by the conventional art world when the artists first started exhibiting their works.

The quality of the main sections of the book are remarkably good - the reproduction of photographs of the paintings under discussion is excellent, and they are all the better for being printed on quality paper. The text is sufficiently large for most people to read without difficulty. It feels nice to handle.

The final section of the book, on ordinary matt pages, captures all the documentation that is mentioned in the text - including descriptions of different types of image rendering device, extracts from papers, and entire letters between Hockney and correspondents. It gives the preceding pages more substance.

Very enjoyable.
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