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Arts feature

David Hockney and Martin Gayford on how pictures literally emerged from the shadows

In this edited extract from their new book, the celebrated painter and art critic discuss the evolution of pictures from the cave to the computer screen

22 October 2016

9:00 AM

22 October 2016

9:00 AM

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.

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.

Mural painting of Padmapani (Bearer of the Lotus), 6th century AD, Ajanta, India

Mural painting of Padmapani (Bearer of the Lotus), 6th century AD, Ajanta, India

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.’

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’. To produce them, various aids were devised, including the contraption published by Thomas Holloway, an engraver, in 1792. All silhouette portraits were profiles and depended on the human capacity to identify an individual from, in effect, a shadow alone.


In cinema, a silhouette can be part of the narrative, as in Carol Reed’s great film noir, The Third Man (1949), when the shadow of the hero/villain Harry Lime is seen disappearing down a Viennese street. As it happens, this is an example of the silhouette as deception in another way. Orson Welles, the actor playing Lime, was off set that day, so the shadow on the wall is actually that of Guy Hamilton, the assistant director, wearing an oversized overcoat and padding to duplicate Welles’ portly frame. Shadows can convey information, but also create illusions.

DH: In 1962, when he saw in the newspaper that the Royal Academy had sold the Leonardo Cartoon, I remember my father saying, ‘Ah, yes, that’s called “chiaroscuro”’. He had attended a class at the art school in Bradford in the 1920s on light and shade.

If you studied it you’d be taught to ask: Where does the light come from? Most light sources are above, so shadows are generally underneath. Television pictures tend to be very dull, because the light is from straight in front. In painted portraits, it is very common to have a shadow beneath the nose, which means the light is coming from above — a natural place for it to come from. The portraits found in Egyptian mummies at Faiyum, I’ve noticed, often have a shadow like that.

Mummy portrait of Lady Aline, Roman period, from Faiyum, Egypt, painted on wood panel

Mummy portrait of Lady Aline, Roman period, from Faiyum, Egypt, painted on wood panel

MG: According to ancient sources, the first artist ever to use this device was an Athenian named Apollodorus. It was he, according to the historian Plutarch, who ‘first invented the fading in and building up of shadow’. Apollodorus was called ‘Skiagraphos’ (‘Shadow Painter’). Before he began to model his figures, Pliny says, there was no painting ‘which holds the eye’.

No paintings by Apollodorus, or, indeed, by any of the famous artists of antiquity, have survived, but we can get some idea of the tradition he founded from ancient mummy portraits preserved by the heat and dryness of the Egyptian desert. They were painted in the period of the Roman empire, but by Greek painters working in a culture based on a city, Alexandria, whose founder was Alexander the Great. It is possible that their pictures continued to use the devices, such as ancient Greek chiaroscuro, employed by the star painters of the 4th century bc, who followed and built on the innovations of Apollodorus. Among these were Alexander’s own favourite, Apelles, and Zeuxis.

DH: There is a lot about verisimilitude, which requires chiaroscuro, in ancient writing on Greek painting. Think of Pliny’s story about the birds pecking Zeuxis’ painting of grapes. It’s all about illusion and naturalism. But that is only one way of looking at the world.

‘Still Life with Two Bunches of Hanging Grapes’, 1628–30, by Juan Fernández

‘Still Life with Two Bunches of Hanging Grapes’, 1628–30, by Juan Fernández

MG: According to Pliny, Zeuxis of Herakleia was the first true star painter in the history of art. He made so much money that he had his name woven into his clothes in gold letters. He worked slowly and valued his works so highly that, presumably having already made his fortune, he gave his pictures away as gifts, saying no price was adequate to buy them. His fame, it is clear from the texts, was based on sensational naturalism.

Pliny tells us that Zeuxis had a contest in realism with another celebrated artist, Parrhasios of Ephesos. Zeuxis painted some grapes so convincingly that birds fluttered around, attracted by the fruit. He was congratulating himself on this victory when he noticed that Parrhasios’ picture was still covered by a piece of textile, but when he asked for this covering to be removed it turned out that it was itself the picture: a trompe-l’œil linen curtain. This famous anecdote was obviously about a competition in illusionism, which means, among other things, the eye-deceiving placement of shadows.

Although Zeuxis admitted himself beaten, the story casts a long shadow in the history of pictures. The 17th-century Spanish still-life painter Juan Fernández, known as ‘El Labrador’ (‘the Rustic’), seems to have attempted to take on Zeuxis himself.

In this contest between artists divided by two thousand years, the obscure Spaniard probably did vanquish the ancient Greek. The astonishing naturalism of Juan Fernández’s pictures exceeds that of anything surviving from antiquity, although the painters of the ancient world were capable of producing a naturalistic still life.

Ancient painting was capable of enough verisimilitude to annoy one extraordinarily influential thinker: the philosopher Plato. Famously, Plato banished the poets from his ideal society, described in The Republic, but he also had a low view of painting, and illusionistic pictures in particular.

In various passages he explains why he thinks this. It is because a picture does not deal with how an object really is, but only how it seems. A stick will appear bent in water, but that is not truly the case. ‘It is this natural weakness of ours that the scene-painter and conjurer and their fellows exploit with magical effect.’

DH: Why would you be against the picturing of the world? What did Moses know that we don’t? Why is the Jewish world against images? Why is the Muslim world against images? I puzzle over the second commandment. I believe that painting can change the world. If you see your surroundings as beautiful, thrilling and mysterious, as I think I do, then you feel quite alive. I’ve always loved pictures; they give me ideas.

‘The cave of Plato’, 1604, by Jan Saenredam after Cornelis van Haarlem

‘The cave of Plato’, 1604, by Jan Saenredam after Cornelis van Haarlem

MG: The most memorable passage in all of Plato’s works is, intriguingly, about shadows. This is the ‘Simile of the Cave’, from The Republic, in which Socrates describes an underground chamber, like a cave, which is open at one end to the light. ‘In this chamber are men who have been prisoners there since they were children, their legs and necks being so fastened that they can only look straight ahead of them and cannot turn their heads.’ What is in front of their eyes is the cave wall. Behind these unfortunate captives there is a fire, and between them and this flickering light, a low wall. All the chained prisoners can ever see is the shadows of objects held above this wall: ‘figures of men and animals made of wood and stone and all sorts of other materials’. In the Puritan 17th-century Netherlands, the painter Cornelis van Haarlem imagined it as a contemporary theatrical performance, with the audience huddled in the darkness of the cave watching, among others, the shadows of Bacchus and Cupid, gods associated with the idle pleasures of wine and love.

To a modern eye, they look a little like the members of an audience watching a film, who are after all, in a dark space, looking at flickering shadows on the wall. Classical scholars have thought the same: F.M. Cornford suggested that the best way to understand what Plato meant was to replace ‘the clumsier apparatus’ of the cave and the fire with the cinema. Since then, the comparison between Plato’s prisoners and viewers of computer screens, film and the entire gamut of contemporary visual media has been made time and again.

In the painting by Cornelis van Haarlem, which survives only in an engraving by Jan Saenredam of 1604, the more enlightened souls are in discussion behind the wall. They are hence able to see the light of the fire itself, not just the shadows it throws. But the truly wise have walked down the passage out of the cave, and are standing in the rays of the sun: truth itself. In the traditions of the great monotheistic religions of the Middle East, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, truth was derived from divine revelation, and pictures of sacred subjects are viewed with particular suspicion. That is why countrymen of Cornelis van Haarlem sacked churches and destroyed vast quantities of religious art.

'Still Life with T.V.' (1969) by David Hockney. Photo: David Hockney/Christie's

‘Still Life with T.V.’ (1969) by David Hockney. Photo: David Hockney/Christie’s

DH: Plato’s story is about the shadows on the wall of a cave, shadows of objects held by people outside walking in front of a fire. That is all the people in the cave see of reality — a sort of projection. What could have been the origin of Plato’s shadows in the cave? The camera obscura is a natural phenomenon, which might project shadowy figures walking by outside on to the wall of a cave. I’ve wondered about that. We obviously must be deeply affected by the optical projection of nature; we’re still very attracted to it today. That’s what the television picture is.

This is an edited extract from A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, published by Thames & Hudson.

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