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Through a Glass, Darkly

Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae

by Athanasius Kircher
Rome, 1646; reprinted Amsterdam, 1671.

Iconismi e Mirabilia da Athanasius Kircher

edited by Eugenio Lo Sardo
Rome: Edizioni dell’Elefante, 280 pp. (out of print)

One day in 1999, as he admired a small pencil portrait by the exquisitely precise hand of Jean-Dominique Ingres, artist David Hockney was suddenly possessed by an idea: that the almost photographic clarity of Ingres’s draftsmanship might in fact have derived, like a photograph, from the projection of the sitter’s image through a lens. Perhaps, in other words, Ingres may have used a small tool called a camera lucida, basically what Hockney describes as “a prism on a stick,” to project the figure before him onto paper, allowing him to sketch out his composition’s basic lines with nearly photographic precision. Hockney soon found definite confirmation of his eyes’ intuition; Ingres, as it turned out, often did carry a camera lucida with him when he drew his little portraits as a useful supplement to his income.

This information in turn drove Hockney to ask another question: How long had artists been working with lenses as Ingres had done? Again he turned first to the evidence of his own eyes. He covered a wall of his studio with reproductions of European paintings displayed in chronological order and began to study them carefully. Tentatively he identified a perceptible change in European drawing and painting that spread in the early fifteenth century from the Low Countries south to Renaissance Italy, soon coming to dominate the aesthetics of European art. This change, as Hockney describes it in Secret Knowledge, had to do with what he calls “optical characteristics,” essentially involving the plausible representation of figures in space.

He singles out, for example, “confidence of drawn lines,” the representation of complex fabrics in three dimensions, “the lighting we associate with photography,” and “an advance in naturalism.” With increasing conviction, he began to think that this change in the manner of artistic representation came about when fifteenth-century artists began to experiment with projection through lenses, and, together with their public, fell in love with the crystalline precision and spatial depth of the results. This predilection lasted, so far as Hockney could see, until the later nineteenth century, precisely the era, he notes, when photography itself began to come into its own as a medium.

To bolster his own observations, Hockney also began to appeal to various kinds of professionals for expert opinions on the place of lenses in the European artist’s tool kit: to art historians, and to a writer, Lawrence Weschler, whose account of Hockney’s thesis in The New Yorker in January 2000 sparked a good deal of interest, including that of a scientist, Charles Falco, who visited Hockney’s studio in March of 2000 and emerged a fervent, and vocal, believer in Hockney’s thesis. Eventually Falco used mathematical techniques to specify the kinds of distortions that might identify lens-projected images in art, and has become, for all practical purposes, Hockney’s fellow traveler. Hockney, mean- while, had become all but obsessed with the subject of lenses in European art, a condition he attributes in part to his growing deafness. With continuing contributions from Falco, Weschler, and such art historians as Martin Kemp, his obsession has generated a large, colorful book and a large, colorful discussion, although both have often revealed more about contemporary modes of thinking than they have about the artistry of the past.

Hockney’s quest began, as he says, with an ocular intuition: with a contemporary artist’s visual response to the art of the past. To prove that intuition, however, he sought corroborating evidence. As his own first line of argument, his book presents a series of detailed photographs of paintings and drawings, in effect inviting his readers to see through his eyes. From Hockney’s own work we know that these eyes are supremely attuned to color as well as line and space; this initial photographic essay, simply for its careful scrutiny of some beautiful drawings and paintings, will surely stand as the most lasting, and ultimately the most original, section of the book.

Part of Hockney’s analysis, however, begins from the awareness that some of these artists could do things of which he himself is incapable; as he admits, Ingres had to be an exceptional draftsman to produce what he did—but Ingres was an exceptional draftsman, exceptional in a way that Hockney, however talented in other ways, is not, any more than most composers can achieve the seemingly effortless melody of Mozart or Verdi. Hockney’s ego looms as large in his book as that of another artist, Benvenuto Cellini, in his egregious Autobiography; both are men of considerable charm, but for both ego acts as its own kind of lens, filtering, projecting, and distorting all that they see. Cellini dabbled in necromancy. Hockney contents himself with being an oracle. Of the display of reproductions tacked on his studio wall (eventually to be called “The Wall”), he writes:

It allowed me to see the whole sweep of it all…. I’m sure these things could have only been seen by an artist, a mark-maker, who is not as far from practice, or from science, as an art historian.

Despite his professed skepticism about their competence, Hockney turned to professional art historians for confirmation of his ideas, and prints his correspondence with them in exhaustive detail as the third section of his book. As in his dealings with the Old Masters, his bravado sounds rather like the bravado of insecurity, and it is a pity that he could not have put it aside. In fact, however, the Old Masters of earlier times barely mention the use of lenses in their work. Hockney concluded, therefore, that their use of optical devices must have constituted some kind of secret tradition. Secrets are always attractive, of course; the very title of Hockney’s book exploits that attraction to the fullest, promising not only secret knowledge, but also rediscovery and lost techniques and Old Masters, all in one irresistible package. No reader who loves a secret will be happy to hear that this secret knowledge has probably been accessible all along. It is a matter of looking for it in the right places.

Artists, in the great course of history, have not necessarily been the most likely people to write about artistic technique; they are usually putting it into practice instead. Europe’s Old Masters, with a handful of exceptions, Rubens notable among them, were no different; they were trained in a craft rather than in the liberal arts. They passed their techniques down from master to apprentice, and in the busy environment of the workshop no one needed to write down instructions—furthermore, the best among them experimented constantly with new media and new methods. Successful artists seldom wrote much about their craft; they were too busy filling orders. When they did write, it was as likely to be about some other interest aside from their day-to-day work. In sixteenth-century Italy, for example, Michelangelo wrote vernacular poetry, Giorgio Vasari, biography, Benvenuto Cellini, fiction passed off as autobiography; Donato Bramante improvised short, pithy songs on the lute; Raphael studied the ancient Roman architectural writer Vitruvius and touted a new instrument for mapping—far from hoarding secret knowledge, he apparently intended to trumpet his invention to a reading public newly broadened by the introduction of movable type.

As Hockney himself concedes, his own questions about what he terms “optical characteristics” in European art virtually coincide with another set of questions that are as old as the Old Masters themselves. For the distinctive spatial sense that Hockney attributes to working with lenses also defined one of the salient qualities of Renaissance art—not only as we see it in our own age, but as it was seen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at the time when the artists who produced this art were living and working. They called their distinctive point of view “perspective,” “seeing through.” Hockney carefully distinguishes the development of linear perspective from what he calls optics and declares that the former is irrelevant to his own investigation.

And yet the age of perspective was an age that delighted in the invention of a variety of instruments designed to “see through” the workings of art and nature at every level of detail. All of these instruments used lenses and mirrors as the windows through which the world’s wonders were revealed, or, for that matter, counterfeited: telescopes, microscopes, eyeglasses, spyglasses, camerae obscurae, magic lanterns. Perspective and experimentation with optics went hand in hand. The connection has been put brilliantly on view in a recent show at the J. Paul Getty Museum called “Devices of Wonder,” curated by Barbara Stafford of the University of Chicago and Frances Terpak of the Getty Research Institute. In room after room of phantasmagoric displays, lenses and perspectives were shown to have been inseparable from the beginning and remain inseparable to this day; Filippo Brunelleschi, who first demonstrated linear perspective from the steps of Florence’s cathedral, did so by using a device with a mirror.

The connection between perspective and optical devices also appeared in literature from the period with which Hockney is most concerned; not necessarily in the writings of artists, but in those of writers with other kinds of expertise. Thus a figure whom Hockney briefly mentions and who looms large in the catalog for “Devices of Wonder,” the seventeenth-century Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, matter-of-factly confirms Hockney’s surmise that the Old Masters may have worked with lenses in a book called The Great Art of Light and Shadow (Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae), first published in 1646, one of more than forty that Kircher wrote in his lifetime on a vast array of subjects. In a picture book as big, expansive, and visually persuasive in its own day as Secret Knowledge is in ours, Kircher notes that perspectival painting, what he terms “scenographic projection,” can either be done with lenses, “catoptrically” (literally, “by doing it with mirrors”), or with the unaided eye, “optically.”1 Each method, he reports, has its advantages and its drawbacks:

Depending on circumstance, these methods for scenographic projection…do not please the eyes equally. For if a great light appears from the same place where shadows are depicted, the image offends the eyes, as shadows necessarily exist in opposition to light. Again, if an image is made catoptrically, and set up to be seen from below, it will not exhibit the same charm as when it is observed from above, and likewise what is done optically, if seen from above, will seem less perfect.2

Another section of Kircher’s Great Art of Light and Shadow touted his own version of a camera obscura under the tantalizing title “How Anyone Can Become a Painter.” There he insisted that with the help of his marvelous device, “anyone, however ignorant of the art of painting, will be able to create depictions of images that will be the envy of any painter”—without the hard years of apprenticeship, and in the full-blown Baroque era of Rubens and Bernini.3

  1. 1

    As a scholar of Greek (and twenty-three other languages), Kircher used the term “optically” (optikôs) in its correct sense, to mean what Hockney calls “eyeballing.” Hockney uses “optically” to mean “with instrumentation”—the opposite condition.

  2. 2

    Athanasius Kircher, Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (Amsterdam, 1671), p. 139 (the translations in this article are mine): “Ex hisce omnibus Scaenographicarum projectionum modis, quamvis nullis suapte natura caeteris praestantior sit, sed perfecti omnes, se ex artis praescriptione instituantur: tamen pro locorum diversitate, in quibus statuuntur, et e quibus spectanatur, fit ex accidenti, ut non aeque accedentium oculis placeant. Nam si immensum lumen ex ea parte proveniat, qua depictae sunt umbrae, imago oculos offenderet, cum necesse sit umbras lumini adversas esse. Rursus si facta secundum catoptricam, imago ex inferiori loco videnda proponatur, non eam ostendi venustatem, quam si e superiori loco conspicitur, atque eodem modo, quae secundum an opticam facta est, si ex alto despiciatur, minus appareat perfecta.” For the sake of clarity, my translation has shifted the order of some of Kircher’s long rhetorical periods.

  3. 3

    Kircher, Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, p. 713: “Quomodo Pictor quilibet esse possit“; pp. 713–714: “quilibet quantumvis etiam pictoriae artis imperitus imaginum effigies, vel ad pictorum invidiam exprimere possit.”

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