Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Academic Tradition on Hockney's claims of "cheating" in Classical Painting

Bouguereau (1825-1905), The Flagellation

Everyone loves a secret, but there's more than a whiff of sour grapes to Hockney's assertions about the use of Camera Lucida among the great draughtsmen of the past. The underlying arrogance of his "if I can't do it then nobody can" premise appears to have informed his theories, and blinded him to the possibility that yes, in fact, they were just that bloody good at drawing.

Ingres, Lethier family portrait drawing

Kirk Richards in The Classical Realism Journal points out that it may just be Gladwell's "10,000 hours" theory in action among the likes of Bouguerau, Alma-Tadema, et al. No one's denying that optical aids were available (and most likely used) by artists, and yet Hockney seems to think he's pulled back the curtain to reveal the "secret." At this point Hockney's eureka revelations are old news, but it gives us the opportunity to read a quote or two that serve as a rebuttal and give insight into the meticulousness of the Academic methods of 19th century practitioners.

Chardin, the attributes of painting
"Hockney [in his New Yorker article] alludes to the probability that [Jean-Baptiste Siméon] Chardin used optical aids. Of several artists, including Chardin, he says, "Suddenly they all seem to be able to render the image, just like that, onto the canvas itself." Suddenly? Just Like that? Chardin speaks forcefully to this claim:
"They put a crayon in our hands when we are seven or eight years old. We begin to draw from models of eyes, mouths, noses, ears, then of feet and hands. For a long period our backs are bent over our portfolios in front of the Hercules or the torso, and you have not seen the tears brought on by this Satyr, this Gladiator, the Venus de Medici, this Antaeus ... After we have spent days and worked nights by lamplight before stationary and inanimate forms they confront us with life and suddenly, the labor of all the preceding years seems to count for nothing .... One must teach the eye to see nature, and how many have not seen it and never will! It is the torment of our lives. We are kept working five or six years from the living model before they turn us over to our own genius, if we have any ... He who has not realized the difficulties of this art does in it nothing worthwhile." [source]
David Hockney, camera lucida drawing of Ray Charles White
Dawn signaled the start of a long, sweaty and mostly tedious day for apprentices in Classical ateliers. Grinding pigments, mixing size, unloading heavy materials, stretching canvases. The busy work of the studio spilled out onto the streets of Florence. And that was just the beginning. It took years before an apprentice did any actual painting. As far as Cennini was concerned, thirteen years apprenticing was a necessary and reasonable tenure:

"To begin as a shop boy studying for one year, to get practice in drawing, . . . next to leam how to work at all branches which pertain to our profession... for the space of a good six years. Then to get experience in painting . . . for six more years. If you follow other systems, you need never hope that [the apprentices] will reach any high degree of perfection."

Kelly Borsheim, sight-size charcoal portrait
The traditional sight-size method (above) evidently trumps Hockney's own attempts at drawing a portrait using his own optical aid, a small spherical lens not much bigger than an eyeball attached to the end of a metal rod. Sure, you could use a lens as a short cut, but it should be evident from Hockney's drawing above that a lens is no substitute for solid drawing skills and could never, on its own, replace them.

According to Charles H. Cecil, “When properly understood, sight-size is not a mere measuring technique, but a philosophy of seeing. The method was used by many of the finest painters in oil since the seventeenth century, including Reynolds, Lawrence and Sargent.”

As Degas once said, "Make a drawing. Start all over again. Trace it. Start it and trace it again. [...] You must do over the same subject ten times, a hundred times. In art nothing must appear accidental, even a movement. " He also once said that, "Painting is easy, until you learn how."

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