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Secret Knowledge (New and Expanded Edition): Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters Paperback – October 5, 2006

3.9 out of 5 stars 130 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

British painter David Hockney, well known for his cool and lovely paintings of California pools, has taken on the new role of detective. For two years Hockney seriously investigated the painting techniques of the old masters, and like any admirable sleuth, compiled substantial evidence to support his revolutionary theory. Secret Knowledge is the fruit of this labor, an exhaustive treatise in pictures revealing clues that some of the world's most famous painters, Ingres, Velázquez, Caravaggio (just to mention a few) utilized optics and lenses in creating their masterpieces. Hockney's fascination with the subject is contagious, and the book feels almost like a game with each analysis a "How'd they do that?" instead of a whodunit. While some may find the technical revelation a disappointment in terms of the idea of genius, Hockney is quick to point out that the use of optics does not diminish the immensity of artistic achievement. He reminds the reader that a tool is just a tool, and it is still the artist's hand and creative vision that produce a work of art. (296 pages, 460 illustrations, 402 in color.) --J.P. Cohen --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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When looking at pictures, one can have no more stimulating and provocative companion than Hockney. ("The Times Literary Supplement", London)
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Avery; Expanded ed. edition (October 5, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142005126
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142005125
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 1.2 x 11.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (130 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #37,191 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Evan M. Dudik on March 26, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Critics and reviewers who have rated Hockney's Secret Knowledge low seem to me to overlooks some major points. Some of these I find more persuasive than the the issue of alleged perspective misjudgment which seem to attract the greatest heat.

1. H points out that a huge majority of portraits in the period show the model as left handed--some 80%. This is consistent with use of lenses and inconsistent with the frequency of left-handedness in the population. Now, here is a verifiable fact. Are H's numbers right--or are they not?

2. H is not claiming that everyone 1400-1650 was a poor draftsman. At least in what I've seen so far, he doesn't claim e.g. that Rembrandt used optics. Part of his evidence is however that some artists who were great painters were not great draftsmen--their painting exceeds in accuracy their draftsmanship. Now this appears to me again something that is verifiable by a third party. (The question of H's own draftsmanship abilities is totally irrlevant. I don't like his art much myself).

3. In a highly competitive art market, where realism counted, what is the likelihood that artists would >not< use devices that helped them both with accuracy and speed? Even if the great Ren artists could paint and draw realistically without optics (and their education certainly was thorough), throughput and competitive concerns surely would have pushed them in that direction.

4. To my knowledge, no one has responded to H's claim that the change in light to very strong with dark shadows from about 1400 (light is flat) to 1500 is very consistent with use of optics. Yes, that is not the only possible explanation. But from a philosophy of science perspective, this phenomenon and the phenomenon of increased accuracy need to be explained.
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By R. Hettinger on November 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Great book. Reads like the denouement of spell-binding mystery novel with the visual and textual evidence mounting piece by piece until the conclusion seems inevitable. As a working artist, Hockney teases out clues that may have eluded art historians. The book itself is a piece of artwork with excellent reproductions, skillful layout and beautiful typography.
There is one sore spot. Historical and scientific types will quickly notice that Hockney reached his conclusions BEFORE his two year search for evidence and that weaknesses in the argument and evidence are not fully considered. The examples appear selective and are possibly not representative. Looking at the sample artwork, you can see his point but would not be suprised to hear valid alternative explanations. Though not proof positive, the work is persuasive, enlightening and more than a little revolutionary.
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Format: Hardcover
The premise is simple: Hockney believes that the Old Masters of European art used tools and techniques of which little record remains. This book presents his justification for that belief.

The first half of this book is visual. It shows the original paintings and drawings that led Hockney to this idea. Once it's pointed out, many signs are unmistakable: odd proportions in otherwise masterful works, inconsistent perspective drawn by people who really knew perspective, and a few other better-known oddities. Although I'm not a fan of Hockney's own work, I respect the training and sensitivity that picked out these features.

Hockney goes on to show how these artifacts could have come from use of a family of optical tools, including camera lucida and several variants on the camera obscura. This is where he brings the most to this book, in trying the tools himself, as an artist, and seeing what unique features each tool imposes on the resulting artworks. This is what has so many critics upset - the idea that the Old Masters might have used every tool possible to complete their commissions faster, and to give their patrons the most pleasing result for the ducat. Those critics know about the assembly-line work in some of the Old Masters' studios and who know about the other mechanical aids that are well documented, but squawk at the idea of adding another tool to their toolboxes. Huh?

Hockney's evidence is often circumstantial, since painting was (and often is) a secretive and competitive business. Still, he offers a good story, and the second half of the book adds a strong foundation of written records to the structure. This is the book's weakness, though. Hockney is an artist, not a historian or optical technologist.
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Format: Hardcover
I just received Hockney's book and have been eagerly pawing through the text and illustrations. I first became aware of Hockney's latest idea and project through an article in the New Yorker about a year or so ago, and at the time was quite intrigued. As a practicing artist myself, it's wonderful to have this theory of optical assistance put forward by another working artist rather than an art historian of limited mark-making experience, as it were.
While at times Mr. Hockney may overstate the possible use of optics where supreme draughtmanship might explain the mastery of the old masters, his ideas are certainly intriguing and merit further examination. It was especially interesting to me to watch Hockney's own mark-making 'improve' as he himself practised drawing portraits using an optical device invented in the early 19th century. I even found myself thinking, "Hey, where can I get my hands on a camera lucida and give this a whirl, too?"
Despite whatever academic faults one might find with Hockney's method of establishing his theory, the book itself is a joy. Hockney approaches this topic with unabashed enthusiasm, and rewards the reader with lavish and well-elucidated visual aids.
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