Magazine article The Spectator

Blurred Lines

Magazine article The Spectator

Blurred Lines

Article excerpt

David Hockney - Secret Knowledge (BBC 1) sounded like an item in a gossip column, but was a rare extant example of a disappearing beast, the BBC arts documentary. Hockney's claim was that from the 15th century on artists used lenses and cameras to project images which they traced around and, so to speak, coloured in. Hence the astonishingly lifelike detail found in the works of painters such as Van Eyck and Caravaggio. Hockney spoke as if this was a discovery on a par with e=mc', though I gather from reviews of his book that the technique has been assumed by art historians for quite some time.

Perhaps, now he's reading History of Art at St Andrews, Prince William will be able to sort out this matter. Meanwhile, his university reached 40, the second lowest score ever, in this week's University Challenge (BBC 2). It would be unfair to judge any seat of learning by its performance on UC, since the choice of panellists depends on who gets control and puts his friends in. But for those of us who suspect that St Andrews is just a very cold finishing school, it was a strangely satisfying half-hour.

Hockney's programme was fascinating, partly because of his own hypnotic appearance. He looked and sounded like a cross between Les Dawson and John Birt. At times Les was in charge, then Birt got the upper hand. Hockney's own expertise made terrific television; Rolf Harris can do it, but it was much more fascinating to see a real artist at work. And he made some excellent points, showing how similar pre-optical painting was to the canvasses of Van Gogh, who worked after it had become possible to keep a permanent record of the camera's images. He predicted another change. `We're now at the end of chemical photography,' he said, `now we can manipulate things with the computer.'

And so we can, as Horizon - The Death Star (BBC 2) proved. This was an immensely complicated programme about astrophysics. It set out to show how e=mcz might not be adequate to explain some phenomena; indeed, might even be plain wrong. Since less than 1 per cent of viewers were likely to follow the argument, it was necessary to manipulate things with the computer to an extent which would have greatly impressed David Hockney. A neutron star turned out to look like a translucent Faberge egg. Stars exploded, whole galaxies appeared and disappeared. Gamma rays destroyed the earth, causing gigantic tidal waves to sweep over cosy Mediterranean villages. A scientist then arrived to say that the chances of this occurring during the next million years were, `happily, very small'. …

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