One of the words being bandied about rather loosely at the media preview of the David Hockney exhibition at the NGV last Thursday was ‘innovative’. This seemed to be in relation to the fact that, for the past seven years, Hockney has been drawing/painting on his iphone and ipad, in addition to working in the more traditional mediums of oil and acrylic painting.
I believe that Hockney is a great innovator. His investigations, with physicist Charles M. Falco, into the use of the camera obscura in art practice have expanded the discourse and our way of viewing the history of Western art since the Renaissance period.
In his book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2001), Hockney makes the case, supported through his own experimental artwork, that Old Masters, such as Caravaggio, Velázquez and da Vinci used optical tools in the creation of their realist masterpieces, and that devices such as the camera obscura, camera lucida and curved mirrors are at least partially responsible for advances in realism and visual accuracy in the 16th century. The Hockney-Falco thesis has ignited significant debate among artists, art historians and historians.
BBC David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge 1of2 DivX MP3 MVGForum, uploaded by Taylordiabennet on 23.11.2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKbFZIpNK10
Hockney also has a well-documented and lengthy history of engaging with technology in his practice, and was at the forefront of the British pop art movement in the 1960s.
However, I don’t necessarily agree that just because he is engaging with current technology, he is being innovative.
- I am not an innovator when I doodle on my free software on my Android tablet.
- My twelve-year-old niece is not innovative when she draws on her mother’s ipad.
- Hockney is not automatically innovative because he is 79 years old and uses an ipad.
To say otherwise is condescending and smacks of the ageism embedded in our culture.
I am not for one second claiming an equivalence of results between my doodles, my niece’s drawings, and Hockney’s artworks.
Many of Hockney’s ipad drawings are visually stunning, especially when blown up to a couple of metres in height, and bring the landscapes of the Yosemite National Park in California, and the Woldgate Woods in East Yorkshire to life with both subtlety and exuberance.
The quality of the mark making is also peculiar to the digital drawing medium, and does not mimic or have pretensions to the pencil or paintbrush. Hockney elevates the features of this discrete artform to a glorious new level.
When Hockney discovered the ‘playback’ feature on his Mac, he added a further dimension to his landscapes by recording the process of creation of the ipad drawings, from blank screen to completion.
This animation has both curiosity value – so that’s how he does it! – and also has the effect of making his landscapes grow and blossom over time. Rain falls, puddles form, vegetation grows, light changes. These transformations in space and through time are pivotal themes in Hockney’s work, both past and current.
For Hockney, one of the major challenges for the artist is how to translate lived experience into the two dimensions offered by the page or canvas. He believes that painting is not about the static viewpoint and the frozen moment in time (the realm of the photograph). When it is successful, a painting conveys both the passage of time, and a sense of movement around and through the landscape.
This does not only apply to Hockney’s landscapes. Hockney’s series of ipad self-portraits explore a series of moments and changing moods and activities, and suggest the wider narrative of the artist’s daily life.
Hockney’s iphone drawings – he began drawing on the iphone in 2009 and moved to the ipad in 2010 – are crude but interesting. They work best when viewed on the iphones themselves, and are not served well by being blown up and printed on paper.
If I have one reservation about Hockney’s Current exhibition, it is that there are too many digital images, several of which are just memos, messages, greeting cards and handwritten emails to friends. Despite claims that the younger generation of digital natives can deal with such visual overload, I doubt that even ‘they’ can properly view 1200 images in a sitting.
Overall, entering the exhibition was a pleasant and uplifting experience, leaving behind the doom and gloom of ranting political talking heads, for a colourful and vibrant world of warmth, exuberance and human values.
David Hockney: Current is on show at the NGV from 11 November 2016 to 13 March 2017.
You can read my review of the show for The Conversation here