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For certain connoisseurs, the phrase “digital art” provokes a groan. If your benchmarks are Leonardo, Rembrandt and Matisse, what are you to make of a generation for whom the oldest master in the canon is Nam June Paik? More likely to find inspiration in Playstation than Picasso, raised in a world glutted with imagery, the younger brigade frequently make art – restless, transient, hypercritically aware – that owes more to anthropology or film or television than to painting and sculpture.

Yet certain artists embrace technology without sacrificing ancient credos. David Hockney and Bill Viola, for example, are both immersed in the digital revolution, yet their visions are transparently heir to older masters. Hockney has constantly reiterated his debt to the draughtsmanship of Rembrandt, the light of Vermeer, the non-linear perspective of Chinese scroll painting. The suffering figures, symmetrical structures and redemptive narratives of Viola’s films evidence his passion for early Renaissance painting.

Hockney’s exhibition at the Royal Academy, which opens next week and will feature his latest work on iPhones and iPads and his new multi-screen films, highlights a fascination with technology that stretches back to the 1960s when he took his first Polaroids. Hockney’s diverse oeuvre – paintings, photographs, hybrids of the two, faxes, photocopies, computer-generated images and film – reveals him as an artist as much concerned with how we see as what.

Although he made his first computer drawings in the mid-1980s, it was only – as he told the critic Martin Gayford in a recently published volume of conversations – with the arrival of Photoshop that he started to enjoy the process. Certain Photoshopped images, such as his brother Paul tapping at his cellphone, attain the graphic power of an earlier era – candid, wiry lines conjuring a plump, middle-aged body with unforgiving precision. To Gayford, Hockney cites both Rembrandt and van Gogh as masters to whom the tool would have appealed. “I’m not a mad technical person but… anybody who draws will enjoy that sort of variety of graphic medium, because it requires inventiveness.”

In 2008, Hockney started drawing on an iPhone with his thumb, using the Brushes app. Its virtues were manifold: colours you could layer without muddiness, a naturally bold line, an illuminated screen that made it possible to draw in the dark. With his new gadget, he charted the Yorkshire dawn as it flamed beyond his window and texted the images to friends across the world. Too small to allow great precision, the uncompromising shapes and brilliant tones – amethyst, tangerine, hot rose, vermilion – have a Fauve-like potency, while their luminous backgrounds recall stained glass.

David Hockney's The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 – 12 April 2011 No 1, 2011, iPad drawing printed on paper, one of a 52-part work

The iPad offered far greater accuracy with the same minimal need for paraphernalia. Now, Hockney could jot images that caught his eye as he went about his day; the symmetry of his naked foot alongside his slipper as he climbs from his bed; a Cubist assemblage of empty glass and ashtray; the changing view from his window as daylight fades into darkness.

The images are tangibly different from his paintings. As Marco Livingstone, curator of the Royal Academy show, puts it: “They have the rich colour, but none of the surface. They are denser than watercolour but still fluid.”

Undeniable, too, is their painterliness. “They are handmade-looking in spite of technology,” agrees Livingstone. “That really matters to him, especially when a lot of younger artists are using software that gives their work a very mechanical look.”

Hockney did not originally intend his iPhone and iPad pictures to exist beyond the screen, but at the Academy he will display inkjet-printed versions beside their virtual parents. Given their miniature origins, his decision to blow them up on five-foot-square sheets is brave. Livingstone is sure the risk will pay off, remarking on his “incredibly precise eye for spatial relationships”.

Also key is the iPad’s capacity to expand and contract, a virtue no sketchbook enjoys. “It allows him to enlarge and add in detail when he knows he will print big,” explains Livingstone. This function was especially useful for a new, large landscape of Yosemite which, rather like his multi-canvas paintings, comprises multiple sectons originally drawn on an iPad.

The multi-screen films mark a rare foray into the moving image. Examples include a Yorkshire road down which nine cameras advance slowly, their images of overhanging branches and tree-lined verges never quite synchronised. They are the latest testimony to Hockney’s lifelong interest in perceptions that involve “many points of focus and many moments,” and to a vision deeply indebted to masters, from Caravaggio to the Cubists, who were fascinated with the way we see.

Unlike Hockney, Bill Viola is more concerned with the inner world than the outer. From his earliest works, such as The Space Between the Teeth, 1976, a video of the artist screaming, to his 2007 Venice Biennale piece, Ocean Without a Shore, which showed human bodies gushing water as if in the throes of some transcendent force, he has explored the territory of emotion and experience at its most extreme.

Quizzed about digital media, he at first sounds less than inspired. “Technology allows us to do more things,” he says, when I catch him on the phone one morning in his California studio, where he is preparing his long-awaited installation for St Paul’s Cathedral. “But what we are dealing with is humans and what they can create.”

In fact, Viola has forgotten more than most artists will ever know about technology. (When I press him on the difference between digital and analog, he points to the “massive storage” capacity of digital which allows “greater clarity and precision”. )

David Hockney's, Nicolas Wilder Studying Picasso. Los Angeles 24th March 1982, Composite Polaroid, 48½ x 26½”

This accounts for the veracity of, say, Ocean Without a Shore – where the exploding droplets almost make you duck to avoid a soaking. Yet Viola denies there was any eureka moment when he first started shooting on digital in the mid-1990s. “It was a long, slow, morphing process…”

He lights up when asked what binds him to the Renaissance. “First of all I didn’t want anything to do with those guys. When I was at art school, I was always grabbing at the new technology.” One day, wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago, he encountered a painting of the Madonna weeping, from the workshop of the 15th-century Dutch master Dieric Bouts.

“My mother had just died.” He pauses to summon to mind that impeccable rendition of grief. “I began to weep; the painting opened up a whole new human dimension.”

He perceives a relation between his high-tech approach and that of those artists he reveres. “The Renaissance is all about technology. Look at Paolo Uccello’s discovery of perspective,” he points out, alluding to the geometrical breakthroughs made by the masters of the Florentine Renaissance.

“A key element for them was movement,” he continues, conjuring the image of his early digital work, The Greeting, 1997.

Based on Pontormo’s Visitation (1528), it shows an encounter between three women, their faces traversed by emotion, their skirts billowing uncannily in the wind.

Briefly, we indulge in an elitist lamentation over the overwhelming quantity of images in our world. Surely, I say, it dilutes quality, weakens the eye of artist and spectator alike? (When Dirck Bouts’s Madonna was painted in tyhe 1460s, the only images seen by most citizens would be in church, lending enormous power and gravity to the experience.) Viola replies by musing on the medieval traveller’s practice of carrying devotional paintings. “He would arrive at his inn, open his diptych and pray. Now he would open his laptop.” Where, of course, the choice would be limitless.

Hockney, meanwhile, is uncertain as to the fate of his digital drawings, which were never intended as other than virtual gifts for a circle of intimates. Although “pleasantly surprised” at their appearance when printed, says Livingstone, he is still wary of selling them as ink-jets. “He has too serious a history as a printmaker. Although people would buy them as they are so beautiful.”

‘David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture’, Royal Academy, London, January 21 to April 9.


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