A large David Hockney retrospective recently opened at Tate Britain. This is not a review of an exhibition I won’t be able to see in person, instead let’s focus on Hockney’s “perspectives”. These should make YOU want to go check out his work, in London before May 29, 2017 or elsewhere.
A quick word on depth and perspective. Artists had not figured it out before the Renaissance so they resorted to stacking figures of pretty much equal size in what’s called medieval overlap. Everything looks quite flat and rigid.
With the Renaissance came Brunelleschi and Da Vinci. They worked out linear perspective and vanishing point.
Have a look at the picture above: even though you know the pier is made of two sets of poles which remain at the same distance from one another, as it recedes in the distance it looks like they shrink and converge into one point, the vanishing point on the horizon line. It’s called monocular perspective. But David Hockney calls it “cyclopic perspective”. Why is that?
In his art, David Hockney wants you and him to be “looking with both eyes”. So let’s dive from multiple vantage points.
In the 1980’s, Hockney used Polaroid pictures to make collages. He addressed his subject matter from multiple one-point perspective angles to make it whole again…and definitely seen with at least two eyes in perfect working order!
What I had not previously pieced together was the social and personal context in which these collages emerged. A beautiful essay by Laurence Weschler (Love Life, David Hockney’s Timescapes) underlined what dominated our news in 1982: AIDS.
Or rather, GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) as it was referred to for some time until it was shown that everybody, not just gay people, could contract AIDS.
The 1980’s was a time when Hockney lost friends. His fear of death visually associated with “this constrictive, tapering, ever-narrowing stranglehold of one-point perspective” shows in his artworks. He rejects GRID with his version of a grid made out of snapshots encompassing life seen through many angles as seen above.
With borderless Pentax collages, he opens up the grid to capture movement and life. Even though Hockney said “photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops, for a split second”, a multitude of static images convey the shifting reality he is trying to catch, the water flowing long after the shutter release.
In his quest to make visible what one eye cannot see alone, he observed a similar shift happened in Old Masters portraits: they seemed to have become much more alive and realistic around 1430.
Convincingly demonstrated in his book Secret Knowledge, Hockney’s controversial thesis is that Old Masters such as Van Eyck used concave mirrors and lenses to trace on canvas the full tonal reality of objects placed in front of them. Hockney was accused of saying Old Masters cheated. I think he only says they masterly incorporated newly available optic tools and explored their tentative version of increased realism to add life to their paintings.
Objects both near and distant were painted in equally vivid details, neglecting the blurring effect of depth to invite the viewer to take a better and closer look.
David Hockney did the same except his aim was never to be realistic. He took his photo collages one step further to deliver monumental vistas made of sometimes 60 canvas, like A Bigger Grand Canyon (1998) and A Closer Grand Canyon (1998).
In both, you can’t help but being grabbed by the immensity of the landscape, presented to you the viewer with no loss of detail from the vegetation in the foreground, to the rock formation in the middle or the far side of the canyon rim. Using multiple viewpoint perspective gets you to see it in an all-encompassing visual immersion.
My favorite is Pearl Blossom Highway. The multiple vantage perspectives are what makes the canvas reverberate the colors and heat haze of this California desert scene.
It will be part of a Hockney exhibition at the Getty Museum from June 27 till October 15, 2107 where many of his photo collages will be on show.
Please use the comment box to share your thoughts on the exhibition if you’re in London. I’d love to hear about it from you.
Use the box as well if you’d like to plan a day trip to the Getty Museum at the end of June:-)
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© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
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 I am indebted to Laurence Weschler’s essay (Love Life, David Hockney’s Timescapes) for this post.