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.


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.


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.

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.

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

Research: Georgia O’Keeffe

I decided to look at the art of Georgia O’Keeffe as I admire her simplification of shapes and forms in her landscapes and cityscapes.  One of the things which struck me when looking through her images was how much to me they seemed to be design-led.  This was from some of her very first images, such as the charcoal drawing Early No. 2, 1915 through to her flower paintings (e.g. Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928), her cityscapes (e.g. Radiator Building – Night, New York, 1927),  her landscapes (e.g. Red Hills and Bones, 1941) and her later works (such as Above the Clouds I, 1962-63).  I think this may come from her early training and her first job as a commercial artist working as a freelance illustrator.  I have also read that it comes from the influence of photography in the early 20th century and in particular her marriage to Edward Stieglitz who was a famous photographer.

What I like about her work is the clean lines she creates catching the main shapes devoid of other clutter, the way she uses positive and negative shapes to create form, her use of colour and the decorative patterns she creates from the shapes she observes.  She also captured the sense of place and time whether it be the city or a New Mexico landscape.  Her work shows her interpretation of what she observes rather than the visual appearance, something I am trying to achieve in my own art.

Book Read:  Georgia O’Keeffe, Randall Green, Phaidon Press, 2014.

Links to images:

Early No. 2, 1915

Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928

Radiator Building – Night New York, 1927

Red Hill and Bones, 1941

Above the Clouds 1, 1962-1963

Exhibition: Paul Nash

I visited this exhibition twice, once as part of an OCA Study Day on 21 January and again at the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts on 18th August.  Paul Nash has always been a favourite artist of mine, ever since I saw one of his tree drawings as a child.

I wrote about three images in my sketchbook following my second visit.  One of the main things I take from this exhibition is how life experiences are reflected in subsequent artworks.  You can see the emotional trauma Paul Nash experienced in the First War World is included both in his work as a war artist and in subsequent years.

As I progress through this degree I hope that my work will start to have that ‘life experience element’ and become part of my personal voice.


Research: Anish Kapoor Drawings

My tutor recommended I look at the drawings of Anish Kapoor.  Obtaining information on the drawings rather than his sculptures and installations proved surprising difficult until I eventually found a book by Jeremy Lewison of an exhibition he had at the Tate Gallery in 1990/91.

The introduction of the book mainly relates Kapoor’s drawings to spiritual, cultural, sexual and religious ideas, with repeated images of mountains, voids and explosive eruptions.  For me the drawings have a predominately sexual origin, particularly the vagina.  He defines the forms through the energy of his marks and his use of strong colours.  Many of the drawings seem to have an element of chance and spontaneity which I would want to capture in my own drawings.

It is difficult to refer directly to any one drawing as they are all untitled, however,  Untitled, 1987, an explosion of yellow on a brown background with a thin void in the centre, caught my eye for the sheer energy in the marks; as did Untitled, 1990, a blue phallic like void at the centre of a mass of black marks on a swirling brown background.

These drawings inspire me to be more free and experimental with my drawings and to focus in on a shape or idea and experiment, then experiment again with just making marks.  Transforming a drawing (which might be the visual appearance) until the final drawing is far removed from the original by a process of change.

Artist’s Website here.