Friday, February 19, 2016


This is a rather blurry screengrab shot of Waldemar Januszczak, who is modestly described on his website as 'Britain's most distinguished art critic', in the first episode of his new BBC arts series 'The Renaissance Unchanged'. The episodes is called 'Gods, Myths and Oil Paints.' In this shot he is standing in front of Albrecht Dürer's house in Nuremburg

WJ's thesis, for this episode at least, begins with Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), an Italian painter, architect, writer, and historian, most famous today for his' Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects', considered the ideological foundation of art-historical writing. He was the first to use the term "Renaissance" (rinascita) in connection with a new flowering of art in Italy at that time. WJ disses Vasari as a painter and questions the judgment of his distinguished forebear in the old art history business. Vasari sucked up to Michelangelo, he says, and many other distinguished artists.

WJ has built his reputation on forthright judgments and questioning the verities of established art history. In this episode, he has a hobby horse to ride, namely that many years before the Italian 'Renaissance' there was an even more important and technically advanced developments taking place in the art of northern Europe which, for some reason, has been widely dubbed as 'Primitivism' or 'Gothic Art'when, in fact, you are looking some of the most precise artists that ever lived - the likes of Jan van Eyck, Roger van der Weyden et al.

Firstly they were pioneering oil painting whereas most of the Italian painters were using egg tempera. WJ takes us to Bruges which, in medieval times, was the centre of the cloth trade - which you can see beautifully portrayed in the portraits of the age - but also was a centre for mirror making. In fact both painters and mirror makers were in the same guild. 

WJ shows us how the painters used convex mirrors in ingenious ways within their paintings. In the famous 'Arnolfini Marriage' by van Eyck (1434), you can see not only the backs of the figures but also the artist himself. What he doesn't say is that mirrors could be used as lenses
as well (see below).

The other development was glasses, which increased the ability of the artist to see fine details in faces, flowers and objects. Its breathtaking to see some of these paintings close-up. WJ points out that in the famous Ghent altarpiece, botanists have identified 42 species of plants, so accurately are they depicted.

The programme's last section is devoted by one of my all-time favourite painters Albrecht Dürer. See the next post for the detail on that and some Dürer treasures from The Generalist's art book library which I'd like to share with you.

This last observation about lenses, mirrors and glasses took me back to my shelves to bring out David Hockney's wonderful and important book 'Secret Knowledge', initially published in 2001. Sub-titled 'Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters' it's a radical reappraisal triggered by Hockney's fascination as to how the painters in the past had managed to depict the world so accurately and vividly using mirrors and lenses. 

He spent two year or more investigating the topic and the book clearly shows the dramatic shift that took place in quite a short historical period. At the time when the book was published it caused a lot of controversy which continues to this day. Hockney worked with a physicist Charles M. Falco. According to an excellent Wikipedia entry on their joint theory: 
'Both claimed that advances in realism and accuracy in the history of Western art since the Renaissance were primarily the result of optical instruments such as the camera obscura, camera lucida, and curved mirrors, rather than solely due to the development of artistic technique and skill. Nineteenth-century artists' use of photography had been well documented.'
In his book 'Hockney analyzed the work of the Old Masters and argued that the level of accuracy represented in their work is impossible to create by "eyeballing it". Since then, Hockney and Falco have produced a number of publications on positive evidence of the use of optical aids, and the historical plausibility of such methods. The hypothesis led to a variety of conferences and heated discussions.'
WJ never mentions Hockney but his ideas are incorporated into the programme. 

Pleased to discover that both episodes of the two-part 'Secret Knowledge' BBC tv programme are on YouTube here. Compare and contrast with WJ's effort.

As coincidence would have it, when I saw WJ's programme (on the iPlayer), I was already reading another valuable Hockney book which is also highly recommended and highly relevant.

'True to Life' is sub-titled 'Twenty-Five years of Conversations with David Hockney' and is written by Lawrence Weschler, who was a staff writer for the New Yorker for many years. The flyleaf copy explains how the book came about:

'When the artist David Hockney read Lawrence Weschler's Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin soon after its publication, in 1982, he telephoned the author to say that while he disagreed with virtually everything in it, he couldn't get it out of his mind. He invited Weschler to his Hollywood Hills studio to discuss it, initiating what has become a series of of engrossing dialogues.'

Robert Irwin has explored many realms of art but since 1968 has concentrated on installations 'in rooms, gardens, parks, museums, and various urban locales'. He is one of the Light and Space artists, 'a loosely affiliated art movement  related to op art, minimalism and geometric abstraction originating in Southern California in the 1960s ..' [see full Wikipedia entry]

Weschler's book is fascinating and essential reading. A large section of the book follows Hockney's investigations into the use of optics by painters of the past and it was Weschler who introduced Hockney to Falco as documented above. 

Reading this, (have just been to have a coffee and read in detail a whole chapter) it becomes even clearer that WJ has taken the main part of his programme from Hockney's discoveries but simplified it. It bothers me that he fails to explain how new this thinking is and where it came from. Here's how Weschler writes about how revolutionary the ideas of painters using optical devices is, a 'turning of the traditional account on its head.'

Italy...had long been deemed the font of the Renaissance, from which the rebirth of classical knowledge spread outwards in the early 1400s, in particular owing to the (re)discovery and elaboration of a mathematically rigorous and idealizing one-point perspective. Van Eyck and his cohort were often referred to as "Netherlandish primitives" because they hadn't yet attained that new knowledge.
When and where does the new 'optical look' first emerge?:
'In Bruges where, basically across the single decade on either side of 1425, a group of Flemish masters...almost from one moment to the next...evinced a seemingly instantaneous mastery (as if one morning European painting had simply gotten up and put on its glasses) - and there it was, out of nowhere, the optical look, which would now spread rapidly and....come to dominate European painting for the next four hundred years.' 

The first few chapters are equally interesting as they are about another very creative period when Hockney was doing his photocollages  - first with Polaroids, then with regular photo prints. Hockney considered it was more like drawing with a camera. These are fascinating works because Hockney is trying to escape the rectangle. He says:

"It's incredible how deeply imprinted we are with these damn rectangles. Everything in our culture seems to reinforce the instinct to see things rectangularly - books, streets, buildings, rooms, windows. Sam Francis once told me how odd the American Indian initially found the white settlers:'these people who insist on living in rectangular-shaped buildings.' The Indians, you see, lived in a circular world."

Hockney became interested in doing things that normal cameras couldn't do. He went to Utah and The Grand Canyon and made 25 collages of the thousands of pictures he took there. He explained:
"I have always loved the wide-open spaces of the American West but I was never able to capture them in photography, to convey the sense of what it's actually like to be there, facing that expanse - that incredible sense of spaciousness, which is somehow as elusive to ordinary photography as time is. I thought that, among other things, this new kind of photography might be able to capture that sense of vast extent....

Weschler writes: '...most of the collages from this trip concerned wide vistas, portrayed with astonishing clarity. Ordinarily, the photographer of such a vista has to choose one point of focus with the result that things closer or father to the sides are progressively more out of focus - this, according to Hockney, is another way in which photography falsifies the experience of looking. "Everything we look at is in focus as we look at it."

 It was through doing these collages that Hockney realised that many paintings of this period and later were constructed of a collage of elements, painted using mirrors or lenses. This is why in many pictures, as he shows, there are multiple perspectives. He picks out Caravaggio to show how he was like a film director, arranging his models and sets. Fascinating.



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