David Hockney at the Fitzwilliam Museum
On the lawn in front of the neoclassical facade of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge currently stands a small lime-green octagonal shed with a conical roof, reminiscent of a postmodern jousting pavilion. It is a camera obscura: a dark room inside which a 360° view of the outside world is projected onto a horizontal disc. A wheel and pulley above allow the viewer to control the circular part of the museum building and the street in front they wish to view. As the wheel spins, the world is tumbled around, almost turning upside down before coming back to rest where it started. When I visited on a beautiful spring day, the projected image was bright and in sharp focus, even hyperrealistic. The camera obscura is part of the exhibition ‘Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Depiction’. Visitors are advised to view it after the main exhibition: it summarizes the connections the exhibition curators are making between Hockney’s philosophy and artistic practice, which considers the nature of human vision and perception and the difficulties (and opportunities) of translating a three-dimensional world. on a flat surface.
The exhibition succeeds in making this clear to visitors, through a combination of demonstrations of modern optics and documentary films about the artist. Then, the camera obscura remains as a lens through which to reflect on the works of Hockney and the museum’s Old Masters to whom they are juxtaposed.
A film shown in another outpost of the exhibition, at Downing College’s Heong Gallery, reveals Hockney’s preoccupation with the material restrictions he says were imposed on Western artists by traditions stemming from the Renaissance, a period whose artistic practice, according to Hockney, was actually shaped by early optical and photographic technologies. In the film, Hockney studies a 17th-century Chinese scroll painting. At 70 feet long, it cannot be seen all at once, but it can be walked gradually, seemingly forever. The scroll painting’s creator, Wang Hui, simply distorts or ignores the more realistic fixed perspective that would be a requisite of Western art of the same period, to guide the viewer’s eye through each scene: on a bridge and in a street. in one case, or through a market and in each of its shops, where fish, rice, and other wares – tiny objects in the grand scheme of the painting – are rendered with equal care and precision. While Hockney has called the restrictions the scroll painting seems to reject “imperialism,” the curators of the exhibit are careful not to express an opinion. But it’s Hockney’s skepticism of these apparent norms that drives his work and forms the basis of the show.
Back at the Fitzwilliam, the main exhibit circulates freely through the halls of the museum, where Hockney’s works are highlighted with backdrops painted the same lime green as the camera obscura. The visitor views – or remembers – the art on display, old and new, with a new critical eye. The first painting visitors see is a recent self-portrait by Hockney. In it, the artist is seated at a three-quarter angle with his head looking straight at the canvas. The daub painted on the yellow frames of his glasses and his scarlet skin obscure his left eye (or is it his mirrored right eye?). The portrait he appears to be working on is perpendicular to the plane of the picture and is just beyond the right edge of the canvas, which the tip of his brush touches. Imagining a three-dimensional space in the portrait opens up an endless spiral of Hockneys painting Hockneys, each one blurrier and more impressionistic than the last. Later in the show, there is a painting of a lone rolled umbrella on a beach, oppressively lit by the sun and casting an arrow-shaped shadow that points beyond the frame. The viewer’s eye drifts in the same direction, and one wonders how far the shoreline might extend beyond the segment one sees: perhaps to infinity in a straight line? Could it eventually loop back on itself, like around a sphere or an island?
A response to Fra Angelico Annunciation (vs. 1440-1445), placed next to Fitzwilliam’s own panel painting of the same episode by Domenico Veneziano, turns the composition virtually upside down and intensifies the colors to such a degree that the upholstery in Mary’s house could have been chosen by Richard Rogers. Similarly, a painting in the Heong Gallery showing a sweep of the Grand Canyon deploys a fish-eye effect to encompass the full extent of this most American natural wonder.
Hockney’s own use of optical technology that has been available to artists over the centuries – for example, an early modern camera lucida used in portraits of National Gallery security guards – figures naturally in this exhibition. But given his instinct to question different forms of technology and their consequences for pre-modern artists, how could he have reacted to the latest gadgets available in our time? His iPad sketches, mostly self-portraits and quick flower still lifes he sends to friends, seem to do little to consider this issue and the quality falls short of his physical works. Nor does the exhibit suggest any interest in the three-dimensional virtual art that can be achieved with VR technology.
The most striking application of technology in the exhibition is provided by an exhibition of the most recent computational methods for the analysis of historical works of art. Through a collaboration with the University of Cambridge’s Department of Art History, a film produced by the digital art project Florence4D shows a reconstruction of the perspective backdrop of a street scene in Veneziano . It turns out the artist manipulated the real street of Florence to create a nicer vanishing point for his image. Hockney may therefore be wrong to assume that optical technology such as the camera obscura confined only artists: the methods of representation he developed may not be such a revolution after all, despite all their chromatic splendor and their finesse of composition.
‘Hockney’s Eye: The Art and Technology of Representation’, is at Fitzwilliam MuseumCambridge, until August 29.