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Fred Cosci and Irene P Tello: Optical Aids
In 1999, David Hockney attended Portraits by Ingres: Image of an Epoch, an exhibition of the French master’s work at the National Gallery in London. He was drawn to the confident realism of the Ingres’ portraits, noting the similarity of their lines to those in Andy Warhol’s portraits, which were made by tracing photographs onto canvas using a projector.
From 1999 until 2001, Hockney did not paint, instead dedicating himself to researching the techniques that allowed Renaissance and Old Master artists – from Ingres, to Velazquez and Caravaggio – to paint such lifelike scenes. In Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, published in 2001, Hockney and Charles Falco, a condensed matter physicist and expert in optics, hypothesised that – like Warhol – these artists used optical aids in the creation of their work.
They believed that the sudden increase in accuracy and the rise of chiaroscuro in Western painting from the 15th century onwards was the result of artists' use of the camera obscura, camera lucinda and curved mirrors. How else could such uncanny exactness be achieved? How else were such fleeting expressions immortalized in paint? Why else was the drama of shadows absent from paintings that preceded this period – or indeed, from the highly sophisticated work developing concurrently in China, Japan and Persia?
“You don’t quite see it in nature,” says Hockney in conversation with Martin Gayford in A History of Pictures: From the Cave to the Computer Screen, “but you certainly do in optical projections. Those unbelievably soft gradations look photographic.” The inconsistencies that occur within these realistic Renaissance paintings serve to further illustrate his point. As photographs, some have elements that are out of focus, or multiple vanishing points and shifts in perspective that seem to indicate that an optical aid was refocused multiple times within the creation of a single painting.
This intriguing and divisive hypothesis was the basis for a series of visual pieces by Fred Cosci and Irene P Tello. Drawing from a conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist and Hockney that discusses the topic in relation to Caravaggio – the master of chiaroscuro, Cosci and Tello have created a multi-part story of layers and perspectives. The words of Obrist and Hockney are illuminated and then cloaked in darkness, 3D visuals shifting in and out of focus as scenes slide over one another. The work illustrates the connection between optical experiments and art, drawing together the history of painting and the future of the screen.
Rosie Flanagan is a Berlin-based writer.
Fred Cosci is a Brighton-based artist, whose work centers on deconstructing contemporary digital culture.
Irene P Tello is a multidisciplinary artist who works between mixed Media, photography and video.