Essays & Articles
The Hand in the Box
More than you realize and certainly more than most art historians, critics and gallery owners are willing to admit, when you sit down to scan and manipulate a photographic image in the process of creating digital art you are working in a method that directly connects you to many of the great masters of the Renaissance. In an enlightening article by author, Lawrence Weschler which appears in the January 31st issue of the New Yorker magazine; recent research by artist David Hockney is revealed and the outcome of his crusade may well require the re-writing of over 500 years of art history.

It began for Mr. Hockney, one of America's best known contemporary artists, when he noticed similarities in the line drawings of Andy Warhol and the early 19th century drawings of Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. He was struck by the assured manner in which the outlines of complex shapes and the foreshortening of those shapes was created by both artists. Knowing that Warhol had created his drawings by tracing slides projected onto the paper or canvas, Hockney began to wonder if Ingres had not used some sort of similar "copying" method. Of course, there were no slide projectors or even electricity when Ingres created his drawings, which brought him fame in his own time and abject adulation in the centuries to follow. But, what Ingres, his contemporaries and earlier master artists of the high renaissance did have was access to the latest technology of the "camera lucida", the "camera obscura" and even simple pinhole projection.

The "camera lucida" invented in 1807 (just about the time Hockney notes a huge leap in Ingres's ability to create incredibly detailed small drawings with no evidence of preliminary sketches) is basically a prism suspended over the artist's paper. Through the prism the artist can gaze at his subject with one eye while maintaining a view of his working surface with the other. With a great deal of practice and skill the artist is able to maintain within his vision both the image of the subject and the drawing as it develops on the page below. Admittedly, Hockney's observations are based on his own experience producing meticulously realistic drawings in the 1970s and not written accounts of Ingres or any of his subjects. It was the palpable freshness, the speed of the line, its boldness, absolute confidence and lack of awkwardness or hesitation in the drawings usually no bigger than 12 inches by 8 inches that spoke volumes to Hockney's trained eye. And, once that eye started seeing it in Ingres he began to notice it in all sorts of places, in art created even centuries before Ingres.

During the early renaissance a ridge virtual science of perspective featuring tapering grids projected onto empty 2D space and then filled, according to rigorous rules, with the artist's idealized renditions of reality became the pervasive and popular style. These mathematical means of copying nature became the intellectual superstructure of a way of seeing, not only art; but man's relationship to the world and God.

This work, of course required complex girding of a canvas and many preliminary sketches both on the canvas and as separate full size studies that, once perfected, were mechanically transferred to the final work surface. Hockney is convinced that during the later stages of the renaissance about the time just prior to the discovery of the new world, (initially in Northern Europe with Van Eyck and other Dutch artists) versions of a lens and mirror technology came into use. This innovation quickly spread into northern Italy. Suddenly master artists such as Velazquez, Vermeer, Hals, Chardin, are capable of incredible rending directly on the canvas with no preparatory sketches or studies. For a practicing artist, such as Hockney, the question of why an individual, painting for his living, would want to use an instrument that improves the quality of the rendering while decreasing the amount of time it takes to finish a work does not even have to be asked. The question that should be asked is why have art historians ignored this production technique in favor of creating the myth of the genius artists of antiquity?

The "camera obscura" is an arrangement consisting of lens, a lighted subject and a darkened work area which seems, through certain guarded comments and observations of his contemporary rivals and critics to have been the favored working method of Caravaggio; an unchallenged master of high renaissance realism and high living high jinx. In fact, knowing only a little of Caravaggio's duels, drunken brawls and sexual conquests leads one to wonder how he ever had time to develop the breathtaking ability that is revealed in his canvases, most of which were executed without preliminary sketches or studies. Here is Caravaggio's method, as deduced by Hockney and supported by contemporary written references to "Caravaggio's glass".

He worked in dark rooms...He used artificial light...He put his lens on a stand in the middle of the room and hung a curtain around it dividing the room into a light part and a dark part. He is literally inside the camera and the scene posed in the light part of the room is clearly projected onto the canvas situated in the dark area...He covers the canvas with a rich dark undercoat, being wet, reflects light back...He takes a stylus or the wrong end of a brush and draws guidelines for the figures in the composition...rapidly and skillfully knocking out the difficult bits, then with his virtuosity he can take down the curtain, turn the canvas around and look at the scene in reality to complete the piece.

Hockney is quick to point out that such insight into the production methods of even the greatest artists..."does not diminish anything; it merely suggests a different story, a more accurate one, perhaps--certainly a more interesting one." For what we see are artists working in advance of science. We have a photographic method of art production in which the artist fixes the image by hand inside the camera itself. Around 1833, William Henry Fox Talbot hit upon the idea of having these natural images imprint themselves, durably and remain fixed upon the paper. By 1835, Talbot was experimenting with papers soaked in silver chloride and by 1841 he was using negatives to make multiple positives. Modern photography had been born. And, Paul Delarouche, a great rival of Ingres declared: "from today, painting is dead." Did he mean putting paint to canvas was dead or that Ingres's method of hand rendering a projected image was dead?

What actually happened was that chemically fixed photography caused a great split away from the sort of lens-based way of seeing that had dominated western art for 300 years. And, by 1870 photography had established itself as a cheap form of portraiture and artists began to go elsewhere. The artist was kicked outside the camera, no longer allowed to "hamper" the process of recording reality...fixing truth.

And, as a result, awkwardness and personal expression was allowed to return to the creation of line. European sensibilities began to turn to Japan and China and Africa where lens-based art methodologies had never been dominant. Impressionism and Cubism arose and an ongoing criticism of photography and figurative art took hold. First by choice and then at the hand of many subsequent art movements emphasizing context and expression over copying nature; the knowledge of how the old masters had done what they did disappeared. Until today we revere what they did as some sort of superhuman genius. As a culture we have forgotten that these masters simply did what every artist will do and that is to innovate and use whatever technical means is at hand to produce work that matches their inspiration and yields them a livelihood.

Today we make digital based images and we might rightly be able to claim that "chemical based photography is dead". This, of course, would be as silly as Delaroche's or Nam June Paik's boast, "...painting is dead". The tiny pixel is, in fact, a huge doorway back inside the camera. The hand is back in the box. We are, now, forced to take responsibility for the realities we create. No more recording of an external reality, a fixed truth; we simply have too much power to fool the eye. As never before in the shoddy and incomplete stories we call history have the hearts and hands of man shaped the images with which we construct our realities, like waking dreams. The hand is in the box. The artist sits, once again, inside the camera.

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