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With: David Hockney
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Randall Wright
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 72
Date: 03/05/2003
IMDB

David Hockney: Secret Knowledge (2003)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Smoke and Mirrors

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Artist David Hockney's theories about art history have apparently rattled the art community, but they make for fascinating viewing in David Hockney: Secret Knowledge.

According to Hockney, several great artists -- ranging from Caravaggio to Vermeer -- actually traced their subjects onto the canvas using primitive lenses and mirrors.

Hockney and director Randall Wright try to cram several hundred years of art history into a brief 72 minutes, but they manage it in a lively, crisp and colorful manner. Hockney appears on camera and narrates the tale from carefully constructed film sets as well as beautiful locations in Italy.

He begins with a timeline of great art and wonders why, all of a sudden, portraits went from abstract to almost photographically exact over such a brief period in the 15th century. It's not because everyone suddenly became better at drawing, he reasons.

No, the reason has to do with the discovery of refraction of light -- projecting images onto a canvas using mirrors and lenses. To back up his theory, Hockney scrutinizes several classic paintings.

In one, he notes a very ornate and complicated chandelier that hangs at the top of a portrait. The chandelier is far too complex to have been rendered by hand, and the perspective -- the size of the arms hanging in the rear in relation to the size of the arms in the front -- is perfect. Hockney even uses a computer to demonstrate how perfect it is.

He notices the pattern on a carpet in another painting -- how one section goes out of focus. The human eye, with its two focal points, does not go out of focus. But an image projected from a lens, with a single focal point, would.

Another example includes a Caravaggio painting with two boys playing cards and a third man looking over one boy's shoulder. The man's sightline is way off -- he's not looking anywhere near the cards, and the two boys are obviously "played" by the same model in two different poses. Hockney deduces that the artist used three different positions of the lens to make the composite picture and that proper perspective would have been difficult, if not impossible, to pull off.

Hockney gives example after example, each one more scientifically layered than the last, and each presented with wit and clarity. It becomes extremely difficult to refute his arguments, though -- much to the film's detriment -- no rebuttal opinion is ever given.

Hockney makes absolutely clear that he does not consider this cheating. He simply allows that the artists made do with the most modern materials at their disposal, just as an animator today may choose to use digital technology to replace hand-drawn methods.

To underline this point, Hockney shows how difficult it is to use the lenses. The room must be dark, and the sketchlines on the canvas are not easy to see. Even with the aid of the lenses, an artist must have talent and a sure hand to pull off the finished product.

The 65 year-old Hockney first outlined this theory in a book of the same name, but it's surprising how much of a filmic presence the wry old fellow has. He has actually appeared in several other documentaries, including one in which he is the main subject, A Bigger Splash (1974). With his dry British wit and his willingness to actively participate in the film himself, he makes Secret Knowledge come alive.

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