A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen by Martin Gayford and David Hockney

Reviewed by Liz Dexter

This is a new ‘compact’ edition of this book, with a revised final chapter bringing it all up to date, and reproductions of three new David Hockney works. Of course we know what a great, influential and innovative artist Hockney is; Martin Gayford is a well-respected art critic and expert, whose book of essays, The Pursuit of Art, I reviewed back in the autumn. The book takes the extraordinary – but successful – approach of being a long and rambling conversation between the two authors, their initials next to alternating paragraphs. It really does feel like a conversation, and then, as if by magic, almost all of the works they discuss pop up on the same or the next page (there are 315 illustrations in all, and not a page goes by without them; the reproductions are on the printed page but very nicely done). The works themselves under discussion are stated in the Preface very clearly to be, “representations of the three-dimensional world on flat surfaces such as canvas, paper, cinema screens and smartphones” (p. 7) and from the traditions of both the West and the East.

The book builds on Hockney’s seminal work, Secret Knowledge, in which he revealed his research into how artists going back in time to the Middle Ages almost undoubtedly used early forms of camera technology, in the form of camera obscuras and various lenses, to aid in their composition. In this book, the authors argue that drawing, painting, photography and film are all inextricably linked, the most important factor being the picture these different formats produce (the book is very much about pictures and not abstracts; even though these include surrealist and cubist art, it’s representational). Although it takes a broadly chronological path through art history, stills from cartoons are compared with Japanese wood blocks, the lighting in an Old Master with that in the early days for film. The richness of the reading experience and the thought processes it engenders is hard to describe adequately: you swim in the book, fascinated, shouting out facts to whoever’s around, peering into the details of photographs. For example, what links Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” and Hockney’s own “Mr and Mrs Clarke and Percy” and makes them memorable? Well, it’s two people, a view and a pet … The linkages are sublime and often startling, but always make sense: for example, a Chinese master would recognise Rembrandt’s drawings, with their economy of line, as a master-work.

Having not read Secret Knowledge, I was suitably stunned by the information on the camera-related aids to great art of the past. Once you’ve had the strange tones and odd sizing of characters, almost looking Photoshopped into group paintings pointed out, it’s something you can’t un-see; or the continuous line doodled across a landscape projected onto the canvas using a lens, as practised by Canaletto. There’s a lot on how technological process caused large innovations in painting, from the first artists on cave walls through Masaccio, the first person to paint the real faces of individuals: “The shadows on his face are placed as they would be seen in a camera” (p. 129), and on through Van Eyck, whose convex mirror in “The Arnolfini Portrait” was the first depiction of such a mirror and could not have been done without an actual model, and Caravaggio, who pieced together his figures without the bother of having them all pose together. Writing about this, they pull together social and scientific history, to explain how the makers of instruments and mirrors were in physical proximity to the artists who used (but didn’t publicise using) such instruments. Exactly how they all work I’ll leave for your reading of the book, but it’s all explained clearly and without jargon or obfuscation.

There’s a lot more than a discussion of how the antecedents of photography (just lacking the fixing of the image onto paper) affected art. The relationship between Western and Chinese/Japanese art is also discussed in the section on post-1870 European painting, and that between art and the cinema in the end chapters – this is also fascinating, especially as they don’t just influence each other one way, from paintings to film, as might be supposed. We come bang up to date at the end of the book, with a discussion of iPad painting but also the stained glass window Hockney designed, looping back round to the permanence and monumental quality of that particular format. Notions of truth are also discussed through the book and particularly at the end – can you trust a photograph when they can be staged? Is a painted image more trustworthy than a photograph or an image created on a tablet? Hockney, still painting and creating has the last word, denying the death of the picture and claiming, “It doesn’t end at all; it just goes on and on and on” (p. 349).

The book is by definition a personal history by an artist and a writer about art, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I love the personal touches, for example when Hockney writes:

By the sea in California you get a special light, as you do in Bridlington, because of the reflections. (p. 108)

It’s absorbing and fascinating. It goes without saying that it has the usual accoutrements of an academic book (while remaining refreshingly un-academic in its writing): extensive notes, a bibliography, a list of images and index, as well as those wonderful art reproductions.

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Liz Dexter is a fan of both these authors and blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

David Hockney and Martin Gayford, A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen (Thames & Hudson, 2020). 978-0500094235, 368 pp., ill., paperback.

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