A history of pictures by David Hockney & Martin Gayford

A History of Pictures. This sounds like an ambitious title of a book, doesn’t it? Especially when ‘pictures’ is used to refer to everything that depicts our three-dimensional world onto a flat surface. Ranging from the earliest cave paintings to current videogames and everything in between. Think about painting, movies, digital art, photography, games, animation, cave paintings, drawing, etc.

The authors are David Hockney, lifelong artist and experienced in painting, drawing and photography and Martin Gayford, art critic. The book titled A History of Pictures is a Thames & Hudson publication of 360 pages, richly illustrated with 310 pictures. With its 27,9 cm height, it is also tall enough to let you visually explore these pictures.

In the book store, it drew my interest with its ambitious title and kept my interest with its fascinating content. Based on the title and the broad range of visual phenomena discussed, you might expect the book to be a dry, chronological summary where every medium gets its own chapter. This is not at all what you’ll find.

Cover of ‘A History of Pictures’ by Hockney & Gayford

The broad world of pictures

Instead, the authors threw all these different visual phenomena and time periods into one pile. Commonalities (e.g. perspective, reality, time, space) and relationships between different visual media are discussed. The authors have no problem juxtaposing imagery from an old Disney movie with a Japanese woodblock print or a painted Mona Lisa with a photographed Marilyn Monroe.

The book goes beyond style, time period or medium to find commonalities, differences and difficulties in depicting the world around us.

Juxtaposing the Mona Lisa with Marilyn Monroe in ‘A History of Pictures’, p. 62-63

Just looking at the images in ‘A History of Pictures’ already makes for a fascinating experience. The text, however, makes it even more interesting. Instead of a dry, objective account of historical facts, Hockney and Gayford guide us through their own gentle conversation.

A new way of talking about visual art and art history

In a system of alternating paragraphs, the authors complement each other’s thoughts, each from their own perspective. It feels like eavesdropping on a friendly conversation between two art lovers. Moreover, as a reader, you never feel left out, because the text is very accessible and the pictures are placed close to the text.

Alternating paragraphs by David Hockney and Martin Gayford, documented by their initials next to each paragraph.

The use of this structure combined with accessible language makes the book very appealing. It’s a new way of talking about visual art and art history that feels very open. There’s no abundance of difficult terminology, and when specific concepts are used, these are always explained. I consider the book more of a visual exercise than a textbook. You are thoroughly exploring pictures, guided by Hockney’s and Gayford’s expertise, to discover hidden layers and behind-the-scenes information on pictures.

Broaden your horizon, find new insights

The book is one of my current favourites in my book shelves. I am enjoying it so much that I didn’t even finish it yet. I am taking my time to mindfully go through each chapter, to enjoy each picture and to understand the specifics. So far, I haven’t read the chapters that are specifically focusing on photography, so I am looking forward to diving into them soon.

Spread from chapter ‘Photography, Truth and Painting’ in ‘A History of Pictures’, p. 258-259

I can truly recommend this book to photographers who want to broaden their horizon. Photography as a medium has a pretty short history, but mankind has been experimenting with depicting life, ideas and reality much longer than that. Getting insight into other disciplines can make you realise the commonalities and unique features of photography. It also makes the pond of inspiration much wider.

In general, I think this book will be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in pictures in its widest definition.

Spread with reproduction of Hubert & Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ in ‘A History of Pictures’, p.146-147

Perspective and seeing the world

Don’t expect a full account of everything related to the history of pictures throughout time. Do expect to find some new insights, thoughts and inspiration related to mankind’s fascinating exploration of turning the world into pictures.

The following quote in a paragraph by David Hockney in the chapter dealing with perspective, for example, provided me with some new insights:

The idea that the picture is a window on the world prompts you to ask the question: ‘Well, where am I then? I’m sitting in a room looking through that window. I’m not outside, in the world’. With Alberti’s perspective we’re reduced to a mathematical point. No actual person - literally, no body - ever saw the world that way. The eye is always moving. If it isn’t you are dead. When my eye moves in one direction, the perspective goes that way. So it’s constantly changing. Perspective is really about us, not the object depicted. (A History of Pictures, p. 103)

I invite you to find the book in your library, read a chapter or two, watch some pictures, find your own new insights and decide for yourself whether you enjoy it as much as I do. If you have read the book, please let me know what you think of it.