David Hockney's new study, Secret Knowledge, sets out a thesis with vast implications, both for the way we look at Old Master paintings and the way we think about painting's relation to photography. The more attention you give the thesis, however, the more Hockney's presentation starts to frustrate you. What you get is, first, a brisk illustrated lecture explaining how he hit on his ideas, a lecture that involves rushing every which way round the National Gallery, pointing out telling visual evidence and adding speculative asides. Next comes a gathering of supportive excerpts from art history; then, forming the bulk of the text, Hockney's correspondence on the subject over the last two years, chiefly with the art historian Martin Kemp, author of The Science of Art (1990), a magisterial study of painting and optics. David and Martin, seemingly unedited, exchange chitchat, aperçus and mutual encouragement between Los Angeles and Oxford, artlessly and highly repetitiously: you really have to dig for the nuggets. An unexpurgated documentation of his thought processes is a less generous offer than Hockney seems to imagine.
LRB 13 December 2001 | PDF Download