Ways of seeing – John Berger

Landdscape study in gouache colors

The small landscape study, a plein air sketch in gouache colors, was done for the postcard exchange going on within the Sketchercise group. It is fully in the tradition of the 18th century and later traditional expressions in landscape painting, preferably on oil.

John Berger describes the traditional art of oil painting in his book “Ways of seeing” (link to amazon ) as a celebration of material property. For him all great art and their creators tried to escape from this traditional production of a product for a certain class of ownership. He uses two self-portraits by Rembrandt as examples how Rembrandt turned the tradition against itself and “wrested his language away from it”.

One of the reasons why most of my “production” comes in unsaleable form in sketchbooks and non-presentable media as well as in the unfinished state of sketches is the wish to withdraw or escape from the cult of material property that meantime has mounted up to the obscenity of the art market as it is today.

Therefore the small sketch is done with very simple technical and material means on a card board that looked in its original condition more like a piece of waste paper. The place to sketch, the composition and the “look” of the scenery was chosen with intention to produce a traditional british landscape. The whole thing is pure irony, the natural state of mind of todays serious landscape painters. Right now as I type this I understand that this attitude can be seen as a kind of snobbery. Alas landscape painting is everything else than innocent.

Only recently I stumbled on Bergers BBC series on youtube and then incidentally found the book shortly after on a shelf in my favorite art book shop. I highly commend both for further studies.

2 replies zu “Ways of seeing – John Berger”

  1. Phil

    Are you saying your sketch above is pure irony? I don’t see it- and it seems counter to the spirit of the rest of your drawings. Berger’s book is brilliant, but I’m not sure it is as simple as simply saying landscape painting is a way to celebrate one’s territorial holdings and only that. I think that is oversimplified. The evolution of western culture is such that the pastoral image, including images of land that used to be shared in common, has powerful meaning in our collective memory. It conjures a different set of values, not all rosy, but in some sense more hopeful and humane perhaps than the ones that followed. Perhaps landscape painting, done for whatever purpose, always retains a trace of this neo-pastoralism?

    Thanks for the drawings.

  2. e-post

    Hi Phil,
    thanks for your comment. I already was a bit disappointed that there was no reaction on Berger yet :) .
    I can imagine that the irony in my little sketch is not visible for others. Also the connection with Bergers book might be a bit constructed too.

    Indeed I am not a fan of irony in painting/drawing, at least not in my own sketches and drawings. I find irony is the reaction to a painful and complicated condition and instead of dissolving or overcoming that, irony made visible in a painting tends to take command over the work and often spoils it from my perspective.

    In sketching and drawing outdoors I want to live and enjoy the encounter with nature,the elements or the landscape as it is rather than “making a picture”.

    I agree there are many different levels to enjoy a piece of art apart from the aspects Berger talks about. Berger himself states that also in his notes to the reader at the end of the book.

    The images of territorial belongings are still around and used.
    Yesterday evening we watched a TV series written by a German lady who adapted Rosamunde Pilcher stories for TV and now does her own books and films under the label Inga Lindström.
    Almost without exception these stories take place in a neo-pastoral landscapes of Sweden with wealthy upperclass people who can fully concentrate on their personal problems within a beautiful landscape they own for the most part (horse breeding etc). In all these stories there is the stereotype of a big farm or heritage that has to be preserved and kept in possession.

    I cannot resist to point out to a blog post on makingamark about the Taylor Wessing portrait photography prize winner 2010. I found the winning picture incredibly talkative, especially after I had read Bergers essay. The fact that the second name of the model is “slaughter” is simply incredible.

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