Sidebar Menu

The rise of art historians as the strategists for art is of very recent origin. Art history used to be written mainly by artists. Artists also directed art throughout by entry to the academies and awarding the prizes and promotion within the profession. Today art prizes, media coverage and sales to museums - all the gateways to success for an artist - are controlled by those with an historical background rather than a practical art one. That change has produced museums of modern art full of art very unlike that of the previous three thousand years. Many of us are deeply disturbed by the changes and find the critique that seeks to justify them unpersuasive. Have human interests changed so much, of course not.

Artists tend to work from the right/intuitive side of the brain. The left hemisphere is more analytical and symbol oriented. The analytical side is more natural to art historians whose job it is to describe in words the meaning and background of a work of art. Art historians are usually recruited from a literary background and often have little or no experience of the methods, materials or thought processes of the artist. Alas, the theoreticians have come to dominate the art world.

As a sculptor with over 60 years of practical experience I hope to demonstrate an alternative history and persuade you that there are a number of fundamental errors in the art historians' view, which need to be corrected. The relationship between the visual people and this literary group has always been uneasy. We, the artists need the recommendations of the writers of criticism without which art rarely finds patrons but we realise that much of visual importance is lost in translation.

I have had the good fortune to stumble upon a number of misconceptions in art history which I have been able to resolve by offering explanations which many find more persuasive than those offered by art historians. Many of my discoveries have been published in prestigious academic magazines but they have been largely ignored. In every case my discoveries have been stimulated by my response to art works that have struck me by their excellence. They tend to represent quantum leaps in our understanding of how we see the world.

There is a mismatch between the mind of modern man, which has been shaped by the invention of language so that our verbal concepts of the world dominate our vision of reality. As art students (in 1954) we were warned against preconceptions – Cezanne advised - pay attention to your petits sensations (by which he meant sensory perceptions). Alas, today concepts are actively encouraged and working from reality discouraged, resulting in damage to our senses, damaging to our response to life.

By working from life artists are confronted by this mismatch between concept and reality. With application and a modicum of luck and talent artists learn to see more truly as a result of these recurring mismatches. I hope this book will testify to the claim that artists see more clearly as a result of their training and practice.

I have discovered a number of basic truths missed by art history that have been vehemently resisted by both artists and art historians, my discoveries disturb the peace. I regard them as important because they explain how some important advances in perception came about; they are the use of mirrors by painters and life-casts by sculptors. I explain the resistance by the fact that recent generations in both disciplines obviously regard these techniques as cheating. But the artists who used these methods probably had a very different perspective. Truth telling has a value in itself; it makes room for new and better ideas.

Photography has been used by painters since its invention but this also is regarded as cheating. Nonetheless, most of us would agree that we understand the movement of a galloping horse better since photographs fixed the movements for us. Before photography Velásquez used a mirror in a similar way for fixing the composition for his masterpiece Las Meninas. This work is not only a personal masterpiece but has been described as the “theology of painting”. Instead of the concept in his head, Velásquez, through observation, reduces the world to the patches of colour, the sensations we receive on the retina, that allow us to find our way in the world. Las Meninas is a masterpiece because it captures sensation more fully, more truly. It is a pure visual response that matches the patches of light we receive on the retina..

The evidence for the use of a mirror by Velásquez is overwhelming; a self-portrait requires a mirror, the fall of light, the reversal of the images add to that evidence. The fact that Velásquez at the age of 56 achieved this untypical masterpiece, and did it more swiftly than ever before - needs explaining. I do no more than follow the logic of the painting. Velásquez has done nothing to disguise his method yet art historians fail to see the evidence even when it is pointed out (see Chapter 8). They have a bias against mechanical aids through their education.

Should not today's painters know of these useful tips? Do we scoff at Galileo because he used a telescope, or Pasteur because he used a microscope? Why do we allow science to use technology but not artists?

Another blind spot in the general perception of art historians is their belief that the better artist have no need of observation; they can reconstruct reality without reference to it. Some can, but the work we most admire in a Rembrandt for instance, is observed from life, most often reconstructed with live models in his studio. This I have proved many times yet the specialist scholars continue to believe that his biblical and mythological subjects were drawn from an “inner vision” - from imagination. And this is the chief bone of contention between my version and theirs; it is hugely important to the teaching of art as I hope to explain.


The Reasons for Reading this Book

    1. For the layman and art historian to understand the frequent mismatch between our conception and reality, which is experienced by artists working from nature and its importance in their education.

    2. To realise how my controversial discoveries have been covered-up without discussion by the establishment, regardless of the evidence.

    3. For the excitement of discovering unknown masters and forgotten artistic concerns and motivations.

    4. Perhaps most importantly for artists there are some useful trade secrets that would increase confidence in their own achievements when compared to the masters of the past. Art history as taught today distances practitioners from their inheritance by refusing to acknowledge the aids used by the old masters.

For convenience I have treated the subjects here in their chronological order. The first chapter on Ancient Greece was in fact the last in order of discovery. There are two controversies of real importance that I have raised and which still need to be properly discussed: the archaeologists of ancient Greece and Rembrandt scholars both have a lot to lose when my views prevail but for the rest of humanity it is win win all the way. In the other chapters I hope to shed light on great masters - Maitani, Rinaldo da Siena and the master glass painter of the “Duccio Window” who have been largely overlooked or forgotten. Duccio and Simone Martini are accepted masters but they are still underestimated. Though the Roman bust of Hadrian is no master-work I regard my analysis of it as the very centre-piece of my vision because it is the best proof of the origins of the use of three dimensional geometry in art, which is a recurring theme in this book..

My discoveries are paralleled by those of a much more famous artist, David Hockney. I have been publishing mine since 1972, Hockney published his Secret Knowledge in 2000 but neither of us seem to have dented the mistaken beliefs of the art historians.

Next Chapter: Chapter 1 - Greek Discoveries