Research: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

This is an interesting little book.  At first I thought is it a bit dated, in for example, it’s view of the depiction of women in art and haven’t things moved on since the 1970s when it was written?  But the more I thought about the wave of news stories over the last year perhaps things have not changed as much as you initially think or hope.

The first chapter introduces the notion that our view of art is affected by what we know, what we believe, the text next to the art work and the context/environment in which we are viewing the art.  It also states that the introduction of perspective into Western Art enabled the viewer to be at the centre of the image/visual world.     However, this changed with the introduction of photography (in particular the moving image), as the  fixed central viewpoint became less relevant and this was reflected in painting e.g. the Cubists.  Berger goes on to state that reproduction of a work of art both multiples and fragments the meaning of the original,  by for example, isolating a section of the original; and, as the viewer becomes increasing familiar with reproduction it reaches a point where the original becomes the ‘original of the reproduction we have already seen’.

Berger goes onto look at the place arts plays in wider society.  Art was originally talked about in terms of its spiritual value and then later  it became impressive in terms of its market value.  This ‘bogus religiosity’ is a consequence of what was lost when reproduction began.  Berger goes on to look at the social and political consequences of this as he states that reproductions helped to boaster the view that nothing has changed and inequalities seem noble and hierarchies thrilling.  Indeed, National Heritage explores the authority of art to glorify the present social system and its priorities.  Of course, in the modern world it is advertising, TV, movies, etc that takes on this role – the language of images rather than art.  What really matters according to Berger is who uses that language and for what purpose.

This did make me think about my own art.  Whilst I am at the early stages in my degree pathway and am mainly making images to demonstrate my technique, already in my still-life unit I choose images in relation to the environment and climate change to demonstrate my ‘political’ viewpoint on the subject.  When attending exhibitions I do read the accompanying text – should I avoid this voice of the curator and just look at the art works and form my own reaction, or just by being aware of the influence the text can have, is this enough?

The third chapter looks at the Nude in art.  Berger proposes that the male presence (real or pretend) is based on a promise of power (which can be large or small dependant on the subject) exercised on others.  The female presence however is based on her attitude to self and defines what can/cannot be done to her.  In European paintings of the nude the principal protagonist is the never painted – he is the viewer and presumed to be male.  The object of the viewer (and painter) is the owner therefore of the female depicted.

This makes me more aware that when making my art I have to consider the viewer and how I depict the subject matter.  In this current unit (Unit 4) I attend life classes with predominately female nude models.  Am I continuing the ‘tradition’ of placing the female in a position of servitude whilst I as the painter am the owner and in a position of power?  How can I make my drawings depict the nude so that the power is shared equally or transferred back to the model?  Perhaps one way to shift the power balance and break the tradition is to draw the nude model as gender neutral? Something for me to consider further.

Berger then goes onto examine why we buy or possess a painting and states that we buy the look of the thing it represents.  He links this particularly to the rise in oil painting where the medium is able to ‘render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts’.  It is able to create the illusion of reality.  Painting are brought to depict what money could buy and the position (real or perceived) of the owner in the world.  This is best illustrated by the still-life genre which in its golden age was used to display and confirm to others the wealth of the owner.

In the final part of the book Berger looks at the language of images and in particular, publicity.  He proposes that publicity is used to persuade us to change our lives by showing the transformation a particular product can effect.  It creates an illusion of glamour for those who cannot afford not to be glamorous; in effect publicity creates a felling of envy for a way of life that in theory can be obtained by all but in reality is only open to a few.  He asserts that the model in a publicity colour photograph has replaced the goddess in the oil painting tradition.  However, in the oil painting tradition the image was of what the owner already possessed, whereas, the publicity photograph is of what we aspire to have (if we had the money) – Consumerism.  He goes on to state that publicity is not only about imagination but is also a philosophical system – news ‘publicity’ is about what happens out there, publicity is about what is meant to happen to us.

Whilst I can see the validity of the arguments Berger presents in the book, one thing that did keep coming back into my mind was that he seemed to have chosen to validate his arguments by only really considering the oil painting tradition and almost ignoring artists whose work challenged this tradition – Duchamp, Rauschenberg, etc.  Despite this many of his arguments are as valid now as when this book was written – mass consumerism, the male/female social hierarchy, etc.

Berger, J. (2008). Ways of seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books.

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Proj 1, Ex. 1: Drawing Fabric – Line and Tone

For my first drawing in this unit I draped a dressing gown over the back of a chair.  For my first line drawings I used pen and ink.  My first drawing was not expressive enough and too laboured so I tried a second drawing and whilst this indicated the folds better, I was still not happy with the result.  The nature of the folds and drapes were not interesting so I decided to try a different garment,

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This time I chose a hoodie and let it fall onto the top of a table in light folds.  I again used pen and ink so I could compare the result with my first line drawing.  I am much happier with this result as there are more folds and I have varied the thickness of the line to show the various weights of the folds.

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Keeping the same arrangement I drew the hoodie using various grades of graphite pencils.  Whilst this took much longer than 15 minutes I really like the result.  This drawings shows the folds in the fabric much better and enabled me to indicate both the intrinsic tone of the fabric itself and that produced by the way the garment is folded.  I also made the edges disappear in places give areas with a hard edge and others with a soft edge.

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My last drawings of the details are less successful.  The first is a contour drawing, then a watercolour pencil drawing and lastly,  pen and ink with cross-hatching.  Maybe it was because my previous drawing had taken longer than anticipated and the light was fading but these just seem rushed and do not define the folds as well as the previous drawing.

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Drawing fabric folds using tome and shading is by far the most successful way for me to indicate fabric and something I need to be aware of as I progress through this unit.  Also, the major effect of changing natural light is another factor I need to consider,  particular when I work with a model.

As I was not really happy with the result of the drawings which focused in on a area of fabric I decided to have another try.  I decided to try just using an F grade pencil and see what tones I could achieve.  This was partially to help when I go sketching as I want to simplify the equipment I take out.  I folded a fleece jacket and drew the end of the two sleeves.

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These worked out much better and I particularly liked the fact that I have used shading to develop the form of the sleeve rather than an outline.  Also, the range of tones produced by the F grade pencil were quite extensive.

Exhibition: 1. Roy Voss, The Way Things Are. 2. Emma Hart & Jonathan Baldock, Love Life Act 111

I visited both these exhibitions on 23 October and wrote about them in my learning log.  I was not inspired by the Roy Voss exhibition, for the me the sculpture resembled an architectural model too much and did not fit the space for which it was commissioned.  There was no sense for me of the vastness of space or the pier transcending the boundaries between spaces.

In contrast I really liked the Emma Hart and Jonathan Baldock installation of an oversized Punch and Judy booth.  You felt immersed in the artwork and it was thought-provoking around the issue of domestic violence.  I think it was helped by the multi-media aspect of the installation and the small room partitioned into areas which gave the feeling of intimacy and being part of the scene.

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Link to Roy Voss De la Warr Pavilion.

Link to Emma Hart & Jonathan Baldock De La Warr Pavilion

 

Exhibition: Matisse in the Studio

I went to this exhibition on 5 November as part of an OCA Study Visit with OCA tutor, Clare Wilson.  The exhibition at the Royal Academy was quite small, consisting of 5 rooms.

The exhibition explored the objects Matisse acquired in his studio and then depicted in his paintings.  The objects were displayed alongside the paintings/drawings which made for an interesting experience to see them in their 3-D form and then translated into a 2-D image.  Some of the objects were sculptures modelled by Matisse, others were vases, jugs, tables and textiles collected by Matisse.

It was interesting to see how some objects, quite complex forms, were rendered to a few simple lines in his paintings, which nonetheless captured the essence of the object.  This was particularly the case in a sculpture modelled by Matisse, Small Couching Nude with Arms, 1908, which subsequently appears in Lillacs, 1914.  My drawing completed at the exhibition is shown below.

Link to Lillacs, 1914 here.

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Drawing of Matisse, Small Couching Nude with Arms, 1908 and how it was depicted in the painting, Lillacs, 1908

Matisse often used the same objects in multiple paintings.  In the latter part of the exhibition is a room titled, The Studio as a Theatre.  It is here that many of his highly patterned textile paintings with figures were displayed.  It was interesting for me to see how the figures seemed to merge into the textures and patterns of the interior and the textiles, with neither element have a greater importance than its surroundings.

I made a number of drawings at the exhibition in addition to the one above as I had just finished the sculpture exercise of the unit and they sparked my interest.

Taking complex forms and simplifying them was a major learning point for me from visiting this exhibition.

Assignment 3

This assignment was not a happy journey for me.  I over-thought it and consequently struggled to get a satisfactory end result.  In the end I submitted the assignment as to keep re-working it would not have been beneficial and would have put me further behind in the course.

At the start I thought I had a clear idea on how I wanted to proceed.  Wye Valley has happy and peaceful memories for me as it was a place I escaped to when working at Imperial College at Wye.  I was having a particularly stressful time in my job as I dealt with a number of staffing issues.  I would therefore go to the top of the valley at lunchtime and chill-out.  I wanted my drawing to convey the rolling nature of the views (so typical of Kent), to celebrate the making of marks and to be a larger drawing.

I went up to the top of the valley to make some sketches in charcoal & graphite and some smaller drawings in ink of close-ups of plants.

 

From these sketches and a previous panorama drawing completed for the 360 degree view exercise I worked out my composition.

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I decided on a portrait composition as I thought it gave a better representation of the depth of the view and I could included more aerial perspective (as required by the assignment criteria).

I used A1, 640 gsm Waterford paper as I would be using both wet and dry techniques and I did not want to stretch the paper (this subsequently turned out to be a wise choice).  I first put in some light pencil marks to roughly map out the composition and added random strokes of masking fluid to add some texture to the foreground area (it did not photograph well – the paper is white!).

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I then applied a light ink wash and started to add loose marks to define the fore, middle and background.

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I started to build up the layers, varying my mark making by using various materials to make the marks – brushes, charcoal sticks (end and edge), charcoal pencils, pen/ink, sponge brushes, sponges, etc.  I finally added some charcoal dust at the top of the drawing to indicate the distance haze.  I stood back from the drawing and was just not happy with the result.

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For me some of the areas of the trees did not look right, overall the drawing was much darker than I wanted (it is lighter in the photograph than reality), there was not enough variety in the marks made and the perspective of the hills looked wrong.

I put it away for a day or so but on coming back to the drawing I still was not happy.  A crisis of confidence then hit me and I decided to start again on something else for my assignment submission.

I went down to Reculver where I often walk and decided to do a sketchbook walk just recording the random things I noticed.

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I then came home and started to think about my walk.  One of the things that really stood out for me was how the inference of man had changed the nature of this country park.  There were health and safety warning signs everywhere, a plastic mesh under the grass to prevent erosion on the main footpath, dog walkers everywhere, graffiti on signs, litter bins, a children’s play area, a visitors centre, etc, etc.  The very countryside people came to enjoy was almost obscured by the other things.  I began to think about doing a drawing depicting this aspect of my walk.

I tried out a few ideas before commencing the drawing.

 

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I then started on the actual drawing, building up a background using ink before drawing in pen my stylised record of my walk, incorporating items I had seen and graffiti from the signs.

 

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When I looked at this drawing, even though it was not finished, it just looked too contrived to me – overworked and over-thought.  I decided to abandon this drawing and maybe come back to the idea at a later date.

After a third attempt I decided to take a break and leave the assignment for a week or so and then decide what to do.

Whilst taking a break I thought back to some comments John Virtue has said about his drawings – he often turned them on their side and upside down to get a different view.  I decided to go back to my original drawing and try again.

I needed to lighten the drawing somehow so used a large sponge to wash off the ink and charcoal as best I could.  I also used a pan scrubber to get some of the layers off!

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I then turned the drawing on its side and applied a white ink and then white gouache wash to lighten the drawing.  Some of the under drawing would still show through but in a way that mimics the layers of use the countryside has been subject to over the years.

 

I then went back up to the top of the valley and used marker pens to quickly sketch the composition again so I was working from a much less detailed sketch.

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I then again built up the fore, middle and backgrounds using pens, brushes and sponges, trying this time not to overwork the drawing.

 

I added further tones to make the distanced and middle ground slightly darker and added the mist haze in the background.

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Whilst I am happier with the result than the original drawing there is not enough texture in the middle and back grounds, it is now whiter than I would have liked (but I am cautious about making it too dark again) and the sense of recession in the landscape is not as clear as I would have liked.  I would have liked the drawing to be more abstract but i seem to have a mental barrier to making things truly abstract.  On the plus side the whole experience of this assignment has really brought home to me that it is better when I don’t over think things, even when a drawing is not go well you should persevere and that is amazing how you can wash and scrub off a drawing (including charcoal) providing you have used a good quality paper in the first place.

Proj 5, Ex. 3&4: Limited Palette and Statue

On a visit to the Folkestone Triennial I came across this sculpture, Another Time XXI 2013, by Anthony Gormley in the arches of the sea defence wall at Coronation Parade.  The sculpture is intended to ‘celebrate the still and silent nature of sculpture….within the flow of lived time.’  I had been wondering what to draw for the statue exercise and this fitted the bill perfectly.  I used charcoal sticks and pencils  and wanted the statue to appear as if it was emerging from the dark in a fairly menacing manner.  I therefore made the overall image somewhat darker than reality.  I was sitting on the rocks looking up at the statue, hence the viewpoint.

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I liked the statue so much that I decided to go along the arches parallel to the side of the statue and complete the limited palette exercise using the same subject.  I used brown, sepia and black graphite sticks.  In the actual drawing the back of the statue is very dark but for some reason (due to the shine of the graphite I think) has come out light in the photograph.

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On a visit to London I made my final drawing for this exercise at St Pancreas station.  The Meeting Place by Paul Day is a 9m high bronze statue near the entrance to the Grand Terrace (it is often called ‘The Lovers’ statue).  It was a bitterly cold day so I sat on a bench near to the statue and completed the drawing.  Unsurprisingly with such a tall statue, I managed to miss off the feet from the drawing but think I have managed to capture the pose and the shading on the clothes.

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Exhibition: Nexus

This was a photography exhibition by two graduates of the OCA, John Umney and Keith Greenough, and a current student, Sarah-Jane Field, at Oxford House, Bethnal Green.

Oxford House was set up in 1884 as a residential settlement house where graduates and students of Keble College, Oxford, could stay and undertake voluntary work within the local community.  Today, it acts as a community arts centre and building offering affordable office/room hire.

The three photographers explored the relationship between Keble College, the community use of the building and its relationship to other buildings within the local area.

For me, the most successful photographs were by John Umney, which depicted close-up, almost abstract images of Keble College.  One which particularly caught my eye (Keble 4) was a close-up of a lectern, which showed the marks and textures of continuous use; in between two raised panels of the lectern (which was a gold colour) was a recess which had an interesting long black mark which me reminded me of a cityscape.  I also was drawn to Keble 6, which showed a chevron pattern of a worn tiled floor.  Both these images really brought to the fore the patterns/textures created by years of use and made me wonder about the countless people who had used these surfaces.

Of Keith Greenough’s images, St John’s 1, a photograph of a statute at the bottom of a stairway and Library 2, showing an internal view of Bethnal Green library caught my eye.  The former, for the placement of a modern statute at the bottom of a bare and decaying stairway;  the latter, for the juxtaposition of modern technology against a victorian ornate wooden front reception area.

Sarah-Janes’ images were dramatically lit and showed a single ballet dancer within the rooms of Oxford House.  I particularly enjoyed the images of the close-up of the feet, the hands of the dancer and the dark almost black backgrounds in the other images.   Personally, I found it difficult to connect the images and the artist statement which accompanied them, particularly around the influence of the industrial revolution, the increasing role of technology and future teaching practice. In many ways this highlighted for me the role of the artist statement.  I read the artist’s  statement before viewing the images and this set-up, consciously or subconsciously, an expectation.  When I was not able to perceive the intent of the artist in viewing the images, this made them for me less successful.  Others of course,  will be able to link the images better than I with the statement.  Something for me to think about as I progress in my studies and reach the stage of writing an artist statement for my own work.

Link: Exhibition Home page