David Hockney and Martin Gayford on the Origins of Painting

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, October 22, 2016 | Go to article overview

David Hockney and Martin Gayford on the Origins of Painting


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


In an edited extract from their new book, David Hockney and Martin Gayford discuss how pictures emerged from the shadows

David Hockney: It is a kind of joke, but I really mean it when I say Caravaggio invented Hollywood lighting. It is an invention, in that he quickly worked out how to light things dramatically . I've always used shadows a bit, because that's what you need below a figure to ground it, but mine are more like Giotto's than Caravaggio's. I use shadows that you see in ordinary lighting conditions; you don't find ones like Caravaggio's in nature.

But there are other varieties of Hollywood lighting. The 'Mona Lisa' is one of the first portraits with very blended shadows. That face is marvellously lit, the shadow under the nose, and that smile. The soft transition from the cheekbone down to underneath the jaw is extraordinary. The way that you move from the light to the dark flesh is through incredibly subtle, graded paint that would have taken a long time, technically, to put on. I've no idea how he did it. You don't quite see it in nature, but you certainly do in optical projections. Those unbelievably soft gradations look photographic. That's what makes it remarkable, and why she has that enigmatic smile. It is a haunting face.

Oil paint lends itself to blending far more than fresco or tempera. Masaccio does blend colours in the Brancacci chapel, but the fresco medium he used is like acrylic where you have to use little linear techniques to achieve this.

'Still Life with Two Bunches of Hanging Grapes', 1628-30, by Juan Fernández

It is interesting that shadows are almost exclusively European. Few have pointed it out. Most art historians, who are Europe-centred, don't realise that there are virtually no shadows in Chinese art, nor Persian or Japanese. They are one of the things that make the major difference between western art and the art of anywhere else. They are incredibly important.

Martin Gayford: It is true that shadows are seldom seen outside western art, and where they are -- as in the faint shading visible in the murals of the Ajanta Caves in India -- they may represent an echo, equally faint, of ancient Greek art carried eastwards by the armies of Alexander

the Great.

Portraiture, according to the Roman author Pliny the Elder writing in the 1st century ad, began with a shadow. Where it started, he admits, we have 'no certain knowledge': 'The Egyptians affirm that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sikyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow.'

Silhouette of a hand, c.32,000 BC, El Castillo cave, Puente Viesgo, Spain

All those claims by different Greek communities, and even the ancient Egyptians, were wide of the mark. We now know that painting was some 30,000 years old at the date that Pliny was writing, and probably much older. The idea that painting began with a shadow, however, turns out to have some truth in it. At any rate, some of the images in the cave at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, in the Ardèche region of France, and at other prehistoric sites, are a sort of stencil -- akin to a shadow because it is simply an outline, a negative formed by the absence of paint -- made by blowing pigment around the outstretched hand of the artist. Consequently, we know something about the man who made them: he was quite tall and had a bent little finger. In a way, this is the first signed picture.

DH: A silhouette is very distinctive. We can recognise people from one, even from a long way away.

MG: In 18th- and 19th-century Europe, 'Silhouettes' were a cheap and popular type of portrait. Reputedly, the name derived from a French finance minister, Étienne de Silhouette, who forced economies on everyone; but in 18th-century Britain they were dubbed 'shades' or 'Profiles'. …

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