David G. Stork on the case against Hockney ...

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David G. Stork on the case against Hockney ...

From David G. Stork

Published before 2005


To those interested in the current state of the debate over David Hockney's controversial claim that artists in the early Renaissance directly traced over optically projected images.

Lawrence Weschler - David Hockney's long-time friend, advocate, and author of the 2000 New Yorker article that brought Hockney's theory to the general public - published "Vanishing point," in the June issue of Harper's magazine, describing Hockney's current views on the role of optics in early Renaissance painting. This article further marks Hockney's retreat from the claim artist directly traced projected images, as stated in his earlier letter to Scientific American. The August issue of Harper's published my letter in response, edited from this somewhat longer original:

To the Editor,

We can all be grateful that David Hockney has, it seems, retreated from his controversial claim that painters as early as 1430 actually traced over images projected by concave mirrors onto their canvases while executing their works, a quarter millennium before we have secure evidence that artists did so. His current view comports with the consensus of international experts who, bolstered by rigorous image analyses and dramatic physical discoveries, reject that projection praxis claim. For instance, the largest scholarly investigation of Hockney’s idea, a four-day symposium in Ghent in November 2003 (which I did not attend), concluded: “With respect to the 15th century, the idea that Flemish realism could be derived from the use of mirrors was roundly rejected.” I thank Lawrence Wechsler, Hockney’s long-time personal friend and advocate, for mentioning my role in such analyses [“Vanishing Point,” June], though many others deserve significant credit.

But now it appears that the technical analyses that energized Hockney’s efforts no longer matter to him; he stresses his main point all along was that “even just to see [a projection] was to use it.” Many of us scholars who have considered this alternate speculation find it hard if not impossible to test in a satisfactory manner, given that the technical optical, image and physical evidence is of little relevance and the more informal or “impressionistic” evidence is highly ambiguous, even to expert art historians and artists. Hockney’s case here is severely weakened, moreover, by the fact that there is no documentary record anyone in the early Renaissance - optical scientists, artists, mirror makers, patrons, etc. - ever saw an image of an illuminated object projected onto a screen by a lens or concave mirror. There are, furthermore, more secure and plausible alternate explanations for the rise in the “optical” style of painting, such as the contemporaneous rise in the use of spectacles, of oil paint, and of artists’ aids for producing images in single point perspective, not to mention many social, cultural and economic forces.

Wechsler’s lavish article serves as a milestone, marking the turn from the “tracing” claim to the “influence” claim, which should garner interest and debate among traditional art historians. I’m glad that careful, rigorous science played a role in clarifying the scope of Hockney’s perceptive speculations and helped to bring us to that milestone.

David G. Stork
Portola Valley, CA

I will be giving several lectures on the east coast summarizing the case for and against David Hockney's controversial claim that artists in the early Renaissance traced over optically projected images, and I hope you can come to one of them. Click here to get the abstract. Tell your friends and colleagues!
  1. Thursday, October 13, 3:00pm: University of Pennsylvania, Distinguished Computer Science lecture, Wu and Chen Auditorium, 3330 Walnut Street, Philadelphia PA. Click here or contact Professor Michael Kearns for further information.
  2. Friday, October 14, 3:30pm: University of Delaware, Art and Mathematics Program, colloquium, 104 Gore Hall, Newark DE. Click here or contact Professor Michael Brook for further information.
  3. Sunday, October 16, 3:00pm: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Public lecture, Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, free with Museum entrance fee. Click here for further information.
  4. Monday, October 17, 11:00am: Mitsubishi Electric Research Lab (MERL), seminar. Click here or contact Dr. Stewart Brand to inform the lab you plan to attend and for further information.
  5. Monday, October 17, 2:30pm: Harvard University, Visual Sciences Seminar, 765 William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge MA. Click here or contact Dr. Patrick Cavanaugh for further information.
Frequently asked questions about David Hockney's claim that early Renaissance artists traced optically projected images