An Exploration of John Berger’s The Look of Things

In this article I will explore John Berger’s The Look of Things, and identify the formal attributes that shape his argument. I will identify the context – historical, political, social, and personal – that attributed to the texts formation, with the purpose of understanding the aim of the text. In this article I will first explore the ideas, arguments that Berger is presenting. I will then open out the context behind the text. Within this I will highlight the difference between Berger’s aims and the aims of the Abstract-Expressionist movement. I will also pay close attention to the theories behind the text, paying close attention to Berger’s defence of realism.

John Berger argues strongly in The Look of Things that drawing is essential to the construction of the artist and art; not just through the physical act of drawing, but also through the spiritual, emotional journey. Berger explains that drawing is a discovery of oneself; he sees this as an essential act required if you are to call yourself an artist. Berger also argues that the constructive nature of drawing, one that doesn’t necessary lead to a painting, is essential for art so that it mirrors society realistically, and that this enables the spectator to gain an understanding of the artist. Berger is therefore arguing for a realism that reflects the individual through representation of common emotions, actions and objects, the antithesis of the then popular and individualistic American Abstract-Expressionist movement.

John Berger’s first statement in The Looks of Things is that ‘For the artist drawing is discovery’ [1955: 165] Here he outlines his position that through drawing, and we can suppose basic artistic technique, the artist begins a journey, which he feels essential in the process of art. Berger explains that the process of drawing ensures that the artist dissects the properties of the object he wishes to capture [1955]. This could be the physical attribute of the subject, the redness of an apple, or something deeper. So drawing is therefore like a doctor examining a patient, running several diagnostic checks before bringing judgement. If we suppose that the subject the artist is examining is the human form, then the artist, through the act of drawing, is forced to dissect the properties of ‘being human’.  Berger explains this position when he is describing the process of shaping the first outlines of a sketch. He believes that:

‘You find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it’ [Berger: 1955:165]

And once inside your sketch of the human form you are forced through your selection of shades and lines into understanding the essence of humanity. Berger believes that this process is important as it forms ‘an autobiographical record of one’s discovery’ [1955:166] which is significant because the ‘drawing is essentially a private work’ [Berger: 1955:166] the antithesis of the finished canvas. So Berger is arguing that drawing is essentially a dialectical process. The drawing is the private discovery of the subject, and the act of painting the communication, or externalising of the discovery, which produces the presented work. This journey is essential to the artist as the process of discovery builds the frame of a finished piece, like the scaffolding prepares the building site for the construction of a house. Berger explains that a ‘spectator… in front of painting or statue tends to identify himself with the subject… in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist’ [1955:166] He is arguing that the process of drawing is important as it ensures the spectator can relate to the artist directly, the drawing and its autobiographical element ensures the spectator can look beyond the subject to see the motivations and emotions that the artist has felt along their journey.

This argument is a cornerstone in Berger’s defence of realism as an art form, but also a cornerstone in his attack against the contemporary Abstract-Expressionist movement. The Abstract-Expressionist movement was immensely popular in critical circles as it stood for individualistic freedom; the paintings were typically freed from structure and subject. The artist Jackson Pollock was famed for placing grand canvases on his studio floor and expressing his emotions and moods upon the canvas through splashes of paint.

Pollock explains ‘On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it… and literally be in the painting.’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] This technique can be seen as the antithesis of the journey or discovery that Burger argues for. Pollock places himself literally in the painting, so that the painting becomes him. Berger’s method could be seen as the opposite; Berger argues for a slow evaluation of emotion and experience; built layer upon layer. Pollock prefers to paint first, and as he remarks ‘get acquainted’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] later. Berger’s drawings are meticulous studies, constant restructurings of an image on paper. Pollock’s painting technique comes from the unconscious, a direct and unstructured attempt at portraying the emotion that is felt at the time of painting.

This unstructured, unconscious approach to painting is the exact style Berger is arguing against. He feels that Art is in the mirroring of society. Berger explains that no one line is unconnected in his drawing, in the same way that no one person is removed from his society or culture. This Humanist argument is a rallying call for a style of painting that reflects the society that the individual is born within. Berger explains that ‘A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see’ [1995:165] here he reveals his understanding of a realism he wishes to communicate fitting within the Marxist-Humanist tradition. A realism that doesn’t just, as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton explains, ‘photographically reproduce the surface… of society without penetrating to their significant essences’ [2002:28] but a realism that reflects the complex metaphysical side of human nature and human society.  This secondary vein could be easily disposed of by describing it as light rhetoric placed within a text written for the London left paper The New Statesman. But this would be too much of a reduction, and a reduction that doesn’t explain Berger’s position against the Abstract-Expressionist movement nor does this position adequately shed light upon the last few statements Berger makes in The Look of Things.

Berger’s last few thoughts are upon the nature of realism, directly the sketch he has just drawn. ‘I looked at my drawing to see what had been distorted’ [1955:170] here he seems to commenting upon the illusionary nature of any art. After he has checked over his work, touching shades, and lines he sees the ‘drawing and the actual man coincide’ [Berger: 1955:171] Berger is tutoring the reader in the way which they can create that realism he has called for, he is arguing for an art that goes beyond the look of things.

The Look of Things is a text that shows John Berger’s tutorial instinct, his argument is not aggressive, as it holds a constant vein of instruction. It is in essence a reminder of a skill that shouldn’t be lost, the skill of drawing. The Skill of drawing is argued strongly for in metaphysical terms. The regular use of metaphor ensures the reader maps out Berger’s discovery in their own mind. Experiencing his journey, learning the lessons he had learnt simultaneously. Regardless of this ambition, Berger in The Look of Things is quite reductive, even the most subject-free painting can still reflect contemporary culture and  its concerns perfectly – painting is not only a mirror; art is not just a mirror held beside the society that produces it. Art, all fine art, not only mirrors the society, but also defines the way we conceptualise it; the way we see the world. A painting of fragmented and distorted figures can not mirror our physical attributes, but it can mirror our Ego, our state of mind and conceptualise the way we understand those forces. Berger’s argument is formally sound – the process of drawing brings you closer to the subject, and the drawing brings the spectator closer to the artist. But a realist painting solely relies upon reflecting the world it is surrounded by, and although the paintings may induce a metaphysical experience from a spectator, it does not challenge the perceptions of the spectator and society in general. Berger’s reliance upon realism to reflect contemporary society fails to adequately challenge systems that control our perceptions, and in that way Berger’s plea for realism is flawed.

1. Currently we are struggling to locate an exact bibliographic reference for the paper this article is looking for however, John Berger’s paper can also be found in John Berger, The Look of Things, (London: Viking Press, 1972).

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A Study of Gustave Courbet’s “Realism”

Gustave Courbet’s work can partly be seen as a Realist as he attempts, in his paintings, to represent the reality of life and the reality of social situations in a direct and un-glorified way.In this paper I will show how aspects of Courbet’s paintings are Realist by analysing his paintings, and in doing so present the way that Courbet conforms to the generic conventions of Realism but also how he may in-fact be termed more accurately as Socially Realist

Realism, or Realist paintings can be described concisely as art that has at its main concern the representation of fact or reality and rejection of paintings that are regarded as visionary or romantic [Honour, H and Fleming, J. 2001].  The word Real means not artificial or illusory, so Realism, or a Realist painter would be a person who attempts, in their art, to present which is genuine and authentic. In a historical context this meant that a Realist would be reacting against Iconic art, Ideal or Romantic art. Realism therefore can be regarded as a representation of the real, the current and the happening (the contemporary); and in turn as a reaction against the illusionary, the unreal and the iconic [Gombrich: 1972]. Courbet said that ‘painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the representation of real and existing things’ he went onto say ‘an object which is abstract, not visible, non-existent, is not within the realm of [realist] panting’ [Cited in Cavendish N.D: 619] and here we can tap into the manifesto of Realist painting. So what would the generic definition of Realist paintings be? We would look for a naturalistic representation of the subject in hand, the human body in its unformatted reality for example. We would also look for the unromantic representation of contemporary life, the un-idealisation of subject matter and the loss, or reaction against the symbolistic.

The first of Courbet’s paintings I wish to look at is his early work The Hammock (1844). The Hammock is a painting that owes a lot to the paintings that Courbet would have seen at the Louvre, and to the Neo-Classicists that were prevalent at the time [Cavendish: 1985: 611].  The unimposing tones and lines that mark the painting present the scene to be classical and pastoral. The painting doesn’t fit within the conventions of Realism, yet it does show Courbet’s progression. Courbet subverts the ideal nature of the classical model by giving her an ungraceful double chin; though not Realist the painting shows a hint of what Courbet was to continue with.

In 1849 Courbet painted The Stonebreakers, this shocked the Salon with its harsh, direct look at the life of peasant life. Courbet employed ‘coarse paints, often mixed with sand’ [Cavendish: 1985: 618] and used Bitumen instead of more traditional black paints. This created a rough, dark and intense canvas that was the antithesis of the smooth, finished paintings preferred by the Salon. Here we find Courbet at his most blunt, not only with his use of paint but also with the subject matter. The stonebreakers have ragged clothes, patched together, the total opposite of the accepted pastoral image of the peasant that the Salon demanded. Here we are presented with a representation of concrete and real things, an un-romantic vision of contemporary life of France in the 1800’s. The toil of the stonebreakers is presented without romanticising their work either, they are not seen to be building anything in particular and the lack of visible goal only reinforces their pointless and futile activity. Courbet said that ‘in this job, you begin like the one and end like the other.’ [Cited in Cavendish: 1985: 618] from this attitude it can be inferred that The Stonebreakers was a work that was meant to shock the Salon, and indeed the French Middle class by portraying the realities of contemporary life and the reality of social inequality within France.

Courbet continued his look at contemporary life with the Burial At Ornans (1849-1850). The painting is on a grand scale, approximately 124” x 263” a size normally left to historic or religious paintings. Courbet included real people from the town of Ornans. This caused an upset within the Paris Salon community not only with its grand nature but with its direct representation of the working class of Ornans. Courbet continued his tradition of painting what he knew, or saw with the Burial at Ornans, this paintings contains Courbet’s family, friends, local dignitaries and country people all in traditional catholic dress and again, like with The Stonebreakers, Courbet by committing this normal and contemporary scene to paint challenges the ideals of the Salon and French Middle classes. The outcry was that Courbet’s Burial at Ornans  glorified vulgarity [Cavendish: 1985]. We can see Burial at Ornans is a reaction directly against the sensibilities and formalities of Neo-classicism and Romantic art. Instead of using lofty, historical or religious matter he uses the plain, bleak realities of contemporary town life, he presents the townsfolk in a dark un-pastoral way and shows the wrinkles on the mourners’ faces. Courbet’s influence could be seen as ranging from the Dutch portrait painters of the seventeenth century to Caravaggio. Burial at Ornans is very much within the normal conventions of the Realist painting, though he does hint at the symbolic. To the right of the grave opening and bellow the two villagers dressed in Jacobin attire from the revolution of 1793, is a faintly painted skull. This could represent the failure of the revolution in 1793 or even the failure of the 1848 revolutions around Europe. A further inclusion of the symbolic is the appearance of Courbet’s grandfather Jean-Antoine Oudor on the far left. The painting is commonly seen as the burial of his grandfather, if true, then how could Courbet be truly representing what he saw. This inclusion of the imaginary continues to appear in his work and hints that Courbet’s work maybe more Naturalistic in style, then extremely realist.

The next Painting I wish to look at, and the final piece, is The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life (1855).  This is Courbet’s largest and grandest of all of his paintings but it is also his least Realist and most symbolic. The painting centres around Courbet painting in the middle in his studio, surrounded by figures on his left and right. The figures on the left represent all of the people Courbet said ‘lived on death’ [Cited in Cavendish: 1985: 627]. The figures on the right are said to represent those who support him or agree with his ideas.  The figures on the left are said to include all the supporters of Napoleon III and the French Emperor as well.  Napoleon III is portrayed as the Poacher; Courbet portrayed him as such as he thought that Napoleon III had taken possession of the presidency purposely as a route to imperial power. Several revolutionary groups of Europe are portrayed as well on the left side, the Hungarian freedom fighters as the farm labourer, the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi as the huntsman and the Russian socialists as the Labourer; all groups that Courbet felt were supported by Napoleon III or were in opposition to his beliefs. Here we can evidently see that Courbet is relying heavily on the symbolic, he is not producing the matter of fact, the real; Courbet is using the allusionary and the symbolistic. This painting isn’t realist at all, it doesn’t rely solely on the ‘real’ as its influence; it is more of a visual manifesto for Courbet’s opinions and political beliefs. As with the hinted at symbolism in The Burial At Ornans Courbet had used the allusionary and illusionary to portray a deeper and more profound point.

Courbet set out to portray the real and the existing. Courbet achieved both these aims at times; the early work of The Stonebreakers achieved a perfect balance of both contemporary life and social message. He achieved the wish of portraying the unpolished truth of contemporary life without relying on the symbolic. As I have shown he soon moved away from this, this could be that he found it constraining to solely rely on the ‘Real’ and included symbolic messages in an attempt to explore and expose the inequalities of the world he saw around him. So as Courbet continued to paint he moved away from a strict Realism to a Naturalistic Realism; Naturalistic as he painted that which he experienced and saw around him and his paintings were confined to contemporary settings. So to conclude; Courbet’s work can’t be termed as fully Realist, although he relied on the contemporary and the real, Courbet still ended up using the visionary and the illusionary and in turn that makes him Socially Realist. Therefore Courbet portrays contemporary life in a Socially Realist manner, i.e. contemporary setting, naturalistic colours, forms and dress, and in turn his artwork is not confined by the exclusion of the visionary. So Courbet’s work can be seen as Realist in the manner that he presents contemporary political/social life in a real way, rather than Realist in the sense that he presents everything as it exists without the symbolic or illusionary.

Journal Restructuring II

As Andrew alluded to in his previous post concerning this Journal’s restructuring, certain areas will be focused upon to enable greater depths of evaluation and investigation. Throughout the year both Andrew and I (Vedette) will continue to collaborate (restart) our exploration of the discourse of Hollywood. The first exploration of Hollywood is here: Discourse Ideology Myth: Hollywood’s Geographical Location. We will also start a new study into the function of the detective in TV and Film. These articles will be called ‘Screening the Detective: The Detective Function’. We will explore the representation, role and social function of the detective figure. This survey will encompass amateurs (such as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote), private detectives (Sam Spade) and Policemen (Inspector Morse). This study will run through the next year.

 

Sally Potter on the Auteur Theory

Continuing the focus on auteurism, here is Sally Potter’s position:

when you are working you tend not to think of yourself in any category… whether auteur or not. But, I believe that fundamentally, cinema has to be thought of as a collaborative medium because you really can’t do it alone, with the exception of 8mm or video pieces; or perhaps a 16mm film like Thriller which was shot with one of my hands on the sound button and the other one on the camera, and then I edited it. Under those circumstances perhaps auteur is the right word to use. But hang on, there were four performers in Thriller, so what was their status? Of course, they gave their input too, and their input became part of the image. And what about the people who printed the film at the lab? In other words, film can never be a solo medium in the way that the novel is. But then, what about the editor of the novel? What about the publishers of the book? What about the teachers of the writer who wrote the book? So, ultimately, we do not work alone without help and influence from others. Having said that, a film is not a committee medium. It has to be steered by one person. And this is the paradox. It is a collaborative medium, but with a director. Of course some films have been made collectively. I had some degree of experience with that on The Gold Diggers, although I was still directing the shoot. (1.)

1. Kirsty Widdicombe , The Contemporay Auteur, BFI, http://www.bfi.org.uk/filmtvinfo/publications/16+/potter.html, Accessed 28th April 2009.

Ken Loach on the Auteur Theory

Continuing a closer look at the auteur theory, this excerpt is of Ken Loach’s position on auterism.

I have enormous respect for writers and I don’t subscribe to the auteur theory of film-making. When I direct a film, I don’t try to be the author. It’s self-evident to me that a film is a collaboration, in which, if anyone is the most important contributor, it’s the writer. Still, what the writer has provided is only a stage in the process. What matters is that what is actually on the celluloid is a valuable experience and that there’s a sense of authenticity about what you’ve created. (1.)

1. Graham Fuller (ed.), Loach on Loach, London, Faber and Faber, 1998, p. 1.

Modernist Art: Carlo Carra’s ‘Funerali dell’anarchico Galli’

Futurism was an important and vibrant art movement which was founded in the early 20th century in Italy. This article will explore one instance of a futurist artist’s work.

funeraloftheanarchistgalli

Carlo Carra’s ‘Funerali dell’anarchico Galli’ depicts a scene in the funeral of Angelo Galli. The painting is typical of the futurists in its colours and technique of painting. Carlo Carra is believed to not be an active anarchist at the time he painted this picture. Although he still believed in some of their ideas and dream of political justice. Galli was shot during a general strike in Milan in 1904. His funeral became a violent engagement between the police and Galli’s supporters. Milan was at this time a city fractured by industrialization and politics. Sylvia Martin explains: 

Around 1890 Italy found itself in a difficult position due to the effects of industrialization. The aristocracy as much as the upper bourgeoisie cleaved to traditional power structures, while the growing proletariat developed a popular movement that fought for social justice. In this political situation, repeated and often bloody conflicts took place, especially in Milan, where the workers were well organized. The crisis reached its first culmination in 1898.(1.)

The police were ordered to restrict Galli’s mourners access to the graveyard because the state felt that Galli’s grave would become a site of political resistance and demonstration for the Anarchists. Neither side backed down, the police were ordered to keep the Anarchists away from the graveyard, and the Anarchists saw the police as the iron fist of an unjust regime.

The artist Carlo Carra, an Anarchist at the time of the funeral, witnessed the confrontation. Carra wrote in his autobiography:

In front of me I saw the coffin, covered over and over with red carnations, which rocked threateningly back and forth on the shoulders of the bearers; I saw how the horses began to shy, how sticks and lances clashed, such that it seemed to me that sooner or later the coffin would fall to the ground and be trampled on by the horses.(2.)

Carra, inspired by this vivid scene, recreated the funeral seven years later in the painting ‘Funerali dell’anarchico Galli’. The painting illustrates the violence and energy, both important concepts to futurists, in the clash between the Anarchists and police. The loose representation of the bodies intertwining gives an impression of the infinite number who attended. The bold movement and position of the man in the middle is a representation of the body language and mood of the crowd. It shows the counteracting force of the people against the police. Carra utilizes bold, sweeping strokes with the brush to illustrate the energy and fury of movement. This technique captures the clashing sticks, lances and bodies. The use of the colours red, black and brown are powerful in effect and vivid in aesthetic. The red and black, colours of death and passion, also represent the traditional colours of Anarchism. The use of a reddish brown meshes the suits of the anarchists with their dark shadows, ensuring a sense of movement and confusion. The use of the reddish brown also refers to the industrialization of Milan. Using the colour of rust and iron seems to indicate that the workers are defined, coloured by their work and the emerging industrialization of Milan. Carlo Carra’s artwork is a vibrant, interesting recollection of an important historical period of Milan. Exploring not only the nature and form of movement but also important social events in Italian history.

1. Sylvia Martin, Futurism, London: Taschen, (2006), p. 36.

2. Carlo Carra in Sylvia Martin, Futurism, London: Taschen, (2006), p. 36.

Basic Film Techniques: The Jump Cut

The jump cut is an elliptical editing technique which foregrounds the form and constructed nature of cinema. A jump cut is where two successive shots contain an overt break in spatial or temporal continuity. Shot (1) is someone with a beer on a table, shot (2) is the same person lifting the beer and shot (3) the person drinking the beer. Traditionally in the continuity editing system we would see the order 1-2-3 in a simple representation of cause and effect. The jump cut removes shot (2) ensuring a jerky and overt instance of loss in aesthetic continuity. The jump cut is like a skip in the playing of a record or CD; an overt loss of continuity.

As A. R. Duckworth explains in an earlier article about A Bout de Souffle Godard’s use of the jump cut:

represents a significant divergence from the continuity editing system, The basic purpose of the continuity editing system is to establish a smooth continuous flow from shot to shot. (1.) The graphic, rhythmic, spatial and temporal relationship is edited so as to look smooth and uninterrupted. The movement from shot to shot is edited so that at all times an aspect of a shot, such as ’shapes, colours, tones of light or dark, or the direction or speed of movement’ is graphically matched to its corresponding shot, thereby ensuring a sense of aesthetic continuity. (2.) In A Bout de Souffle Godard uses the jump shot to create a sense of anxiety and dislocation. In a scene where Michel is explaining the physical aspects of Patricia he loves the camera jumps from shot to shot. The viewer becomes dislocated, unable to grasp the scene’s location: Godard is using the jump shot to replicate the character’s sense of isolation. Both Patricia and Michel are isolated from the culture they belong to, Michel is a criminal and Patricia is in a foreign county, and they attempt to find friendship in each others company. This attempt is futile because Godard refuses to use the shot-reverse-shot technique which would signify their connection; the jump shot ensures that both Michel and Patricia remain isolated individuals even when in each others company. The form of the jump shot ensures the characters in A Bout de Souffle remain isolated individuals without any hope of deep meaningful connection. This sense of isolation is repeated in the scene where Patricia and Michel making love, yet they still struggle to connect and ultimately remain isolated. Although they both constantly talk to each other they barely look at each other. Patricia looks past Michel as he talks to her, the scene then jumps to Michel alone looking into his reflection. This signifies the failure in communication that typifies Michel and Patricia’s relationship.

(1.) M, Pramaggiore & T, Wallis. (ed), Film a Critical Introduction, p. 356.

(2.) David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, Third Edition, London: McGraw-Hill Publishing, (1990) p. 218.