I’ve just finished reading about a Polish artist called Agnieska Pilat, living in New York, who uses a robot dog to draw abstract images on canvas. Her dog, Basia, has its own social media following and sells to a growing number of collectors. Pilat is described as a Silicon Valley Artist.
However mad it sounds, it’s just the latest example of an artist using technology as a tool to create their art. It has always been the case. They say that ideas are the ‘mother of invention’ – well so too are tools. They allow the artist to realise their vision, either by making it easier to produce or by introducing a different style. A mundane idea can be transformed by technology.
Take David Hockney and his famous iPad paintings. Hockney has always embraced the new, from fax machine prints to photo collage. When digital painting apps first appeared, he was a pioneer in their use. Whether you are a fan or not, his enthusiasm is clear and he has been prolific in the use of digital painting, especially in the recent lockdown when he produced a series of seasonal paintings based at his home in Provence. They are all vividly coloured and loosely applied with chunky strokes that look clean and fresh.
Some of these iPad paintings can be seen in a new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge called ‘Hockney’s Eye’. The exhibition takes its theme from a book and tv show from the 1990s, ‘Secret Knowledge’, in which he establishes that great artists of the past utilized lenses, and in particular, camera obscura, to capture the initial composition before painting a scene in the studio.
Personally, I don’t view this as controversial, but there are many artists, and non-artists, who view the use of lenses, for projecting or capturing an image, as cheating.
Canaletto broke down his complex Venetian vistas into a series of camera obscura tracings, before compositing them into a single scene for painting. Similarly, Vermeer ensured accurate perspective in his simple domestic settings using lenses before committing to paint. Why should we think any less of them as artists? No skill has been lost in the quest for accuracy as the translation of image to sketch involves just as many decisions about which marks to include or omit. The painting process itself still forms the backbone of the artwork.
Hockney’s Eye takes subjects, such as perspective and optical aids, and discusses them through the use of diagrams, film or models alongside works by Hockney and old masters from the Fitzwilliam collection (though there are notable loans such as ‘The Avenue at Middelharnis’ by Hobbema).
Though an interesting and informative display, Hockney’s work ultimately falls short when shown alongside classical paintings. His ideas are novel and his play with colours and perspective exciting, but these are not his best pieces and look clumsy in comparison (his portraits, perhaps, being the exception).
Overall, though, the exhibition is worth a look at. It might make you see well known paintings through fresh eyes and even convince you that ‘copying’ from a photo isn’t such a bad thing after all!
Hockney’s Eye, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge till 29th August 2022.