John Berger

September 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

From Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible:

“The history of painting is often presented as a history of succeeding styles. In our time art dealers and promoters have used this battle of styles to make brand-names for the market. Many collectors — and museums — buy names rather than works.

Maybe it’s time to ask a naive question: what has all painting from the paleolithic period until our century have in common? Every painted image announces: I have seen this, or, when the making of the image was incorporated into a tribal ritual: we have seen this. The this refers to the sight represented. Non-figurative art is no exception. A late canvas by Rothko represents an illumination or a coloured glow which derived from the painter’s experience of the visible. When he was working, he judged his canvas according to something else which he saw.

Painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find. More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existant, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown.

Animals were the first subject in painting. And right from the beginning and then continuing through Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian and early Greek art, the depiction of these animals was extraordinarily true. Many millenia had to pass before an equivalent “life-likeness” was achieved in the depiction of the human body. At the beginning, the existant was what confronted man.

The first painters were hunters whose lives, like everybody else’s in the tribe, depended upon their close knowledge of animals. Yet the act of painting was not the same as the act of hunting; the relation between the two was magical.

In a number of early cave paintings there are stencil representations of the human hand beside the animals. We do not know what precise ritual this served. We do know that painting was used to confirm a magical “companionship” between prey and hunter, or, to put it more abstractly, between the existant and human ingenuity. Painting was the means of making this companionship explicit and therefore (hopefully) permanent.

This may still be worth thinking about, long after painting has lost its herds of animals and its ritual function. I believe it tells us something about the nature of the art.

The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model — even if the model is a mountain or a shelf of empty medicine bottles. Mont. St. Victoire as seen from Aix (seen from elsewhere it has a very different shape) was Cézanne’s companion.

When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance. Or, as in mannerist periods like today, he stays at an art-historical distance, playing stylistic tricks which the model knows nothing about.

To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness. For it can happen that one gets too close and then the collaboration breaks down and the painter dissolves into the model. Or the animal devours or tramples the painter into the ground.

Every authentic painting demonstrates a collaboration. Look at Petrus Christus’ portrait of a young girl in the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, or the stormy seascape in the Louvre by Courbet, or the mouse with an aubergine painted by Tchou-Ta in the 17th century, and it is impossible to deny the participation of the model. Indeed, the paintings are not first and foremost about a young woman, a rough sea or a mouse with a vegetable; they are about this participation. “The brush,” wrote Shitao, the great 17th century Chinese landscape painter, “is for saving things from chaos.”

It is a strange area into which we are wandering and I’m using words strangely. A rough sea on the northern coast of France, one autumn day in 1870, participating in being seen by a man with a beard who, the following year, will be put in prison! Yet there is no other way of getting close to the actual practice of this silent art, which stops everything moving.

The raison d’etre of the visible is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied. Wild flowers, for example, are the colours they are in order to be seen. That an empty sky appears blue is due to the structure of our eyes and the nature of the solar system. There is a certain ontological basis for the collaboration between model and painter. Silesius, a 17th century doctor of medicine in Vrocklau, wrote about the inter-dependence of the seen and the seeing in a mystical way:

‘La rose qui contemple ton oeil de chair

A fleuri de la sorte en Dieu dans l’éternel'”

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§ 3 Responses to John Berger

  • Philip Koch says:

    I love that quote “The Brush is for saving things from chaos” from that
    Shitao fellow. And the notion that what we’ve seen (either looking outwards or even inwards) fades away and that adds the urgency to make an image to try to nail down the experience.

  • rosellina2011 says:

    “When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. ” …so true, it needs great courage to get close enough to the object: to touch it,to feel it,to see it.

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