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A revolutionary view of European Art History.
on 14 October 2001
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.