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.


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

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.

Research: The Shock of the New – Art and the Century of Change

Chapter 2:  The Faces of Power

In this chapter Hughes opens with the view that World War 1 changed the sense of modernity created with the age of the machine and moved culture into an age of mass-produced, industrialised death.  Of course, all WW1 did, was to bring to the attention of the people, whilst machines could be our salvation, they could also be used to destroy us.  This chapter moves away from Paris as the centre of modern art to mainly examine art in Germany (the Weimar Republic) and post-revolutionary Russia, as it is in these places that art struggles to redefine the social contract.

Hughes first examines the rise of the DADA movement from the Cabaret Voltaire in February 2016.  He states that DADA can be encapsulated as the ‘eclectic freedom to experiment, enshrine play as the highest human activity.. with the main tool – chance’.  This is a useful description as I am trying to move more towards this goal in my drawings.  Two images by Kurt Schwitters stood out for me in this section of the chapter –  Merz 410 ‘Irgendsowas’, 1922, which is reminiscent of the collage paintings by Robert Rauschenberg where all objects and materials have equal value; and, Cathedral of Erotic Misey, 1923, which sparked an idea to combine this with an acrylic encased drawing (Sarah Woodfine would also be an influence here, see previous post).

Hughes goes on to look at Expressionism and the DADA response to this movement.  He states Expressionism is midway between idealised German gothic and an unattainable Utopia where the self or the void, ecstasy or chaos, were the choice of the artists in this movement.

The chapter then moves to art in post-revolutionary Russia where the art patron was the state.  Hughes uses a quote from Anatoly Lunacharsky which I found interesting –

‘Art is a powerful means of infecting those around us with ideas, feelings and moods.  Agitation and propaganda acquire particular acuity and effectiveness when they are clothed in the attractive and mighty forms of art.’

This brought to mind that whilst art, and particularly poster art in Russia, at that time fulfilled this need, today the same role is being assigned by states to TV and social media networks.

The rise of Constructivism is charted, particularly the work of Tatlin.  I found his corner sculptures interesting, which he equated to icons.  Making a drawing in a corner would be an interesting idea.  The poster art  of Aleksander Rodchenko were then explored where he combines design and photography to create powerful visions for the state, feeding into a view of the new state as a total work of art.

The chapter ends with a look at Futurism as the house-style of Italian fascism (e.g the EUR architecture) and Picasso’s Guernica, which Hughes states is the only humane, political, work of art in the last 50 years to achieve real international fame.  I not sure I agree with this last statement as I am sure works by Rauschenberg, Hockney (particularly his drawings around sexuality) and even Warhol to name just a couple, have a political message.

I found this chapter interesting, with some memorable quotes and ideas for future art.

Research: The Shock of the New – Art and the Century of Change

I picked up The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes when looking through the library for a book which could give me an overview of art in the 20th century,  It seems to be quite a good read for me at this stage of the course as it is written in fairly straightforward language which will serve as an introduction to the subject prior to any further in-depth reading.

Chapter One:  The Mechanical Paradise

This chapter introduces the notion that the speed of change in scientific and technical discoveries and the rise of the machine age at the beginning of the 20th century is reflected in the pace of change in art.  Robert Hughes cites the Eiffel Tower as example of the change in our visual perspective with the symbol of change not only the view of the tower itself  but the view the spectator gains from the top of the tower; this view creating a new landscape based on frontality and pattern rather than the familiar recessive and depth perspective.

He used Cezanne’s remark that one must detect in nature the sphere, the cone and the cylinder, as evidence that he was the father of abstract art and his paintings of Mont Set-Victoire, with the broken outlines and blocky brush strokes, as pointers towards a greater abstraction of the image.

He then goes on to look at Cubism, mainly the work of Picasso and Braque.  A couple of notable things from the text were that firstly, that our knowledge of an object is made up of all possible views of it – the front, back sides, top, etc., and that cubism tries to encompass all those views into one image.  Secondly, that in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso (said to be the first ‘modern’ art painting) by leaving out the men (two were in the original sketches for this painting, a sailor and a medical student) Picasso has turned the viewer into voyeur.  Thirdly, that cubism stacks the forms up the canvas in a pile, as through the ground has rotated 90 degrees to the eye.  All these things I need to think about trying in my drawings – a multi-viewpoint of one object; leaving out something in a drawing thereby changing the nature of the interaction between the viewer and the image; and, stacking the shapes up the canvas (e.g. my Dungeness drawings).

Hughes states that Cubism took abstraction only to the point where enough of the real world is left to supply tension between reality and the visual language within the frame.  He goes onto say that they actually moved back from pure abstraction in their later pieces by including pieces or images of actual objects in their collages.

This chapter goes onto to look at the work of Delauney,  who explored the mechanical age via its light, structure and dynamism, and Futurism, whose practitioners believed that the machine should be worshiped and could be the saviour for all social ills.  The work of Francis Picabia, I See Again in My Memory My Dear Udine (1914) and Marcel Duchamp,  The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), (1915-23), are discussed which Hughes states explores machine action and sexuality.

This was an interesting opening chapter for me as it both sparked ideas for my own art (outlines in a previous paragraph) and introduced a number of new works to me.  It is of course just one work on this era of art written from one critic’s point of view and I will bear that in mind as I continue reading the book.

Drawing Now: Eight Propositions

This book is of the exhibition Drawing Now:  Eight Propositions, organised by Laura Hoptman at MOMA in 2002/03.  Unlike like the previous set book, Drawing Now:  Between the Lines of Contemporary Art, this book moves away from process driven drawing (where the drawing can be found through the process of making) and looks at the drawings as finished works (a depiction of something that is imagined before it is drawn).   The drawings are therefore finished works, autonomous and to some degree representational (Hoptman, 2002).

The drawings are arranged in Eight Propositions which arranges the drawings both into a kind of taxonomy and a history of recent practice.  In this post I will pick out one artist from each of the propositions.

Proposition One:  Science and art, nature and artifice

Russell Crotty, Five Nocturnes.1996

Russell Crotty makes drawings of his astronomical observations.  In these two drawings I am especially struck by the seemingly simple nature of the composition of the silhouette of the plants in one and telescopes in the other, against the quite complex mark making to build the image.  The plants reach for the stars (the sun) during the day whilst the telescopes reach for the stars at night.  The drawings make me want to lie on the ground and look at the vastness of the night sky.

Proposition Two:  Ornament and crime: towards decoration

In this section I was immediately drawn to Untitled, 1999, a gouache on wall drawing at The Drawing Centre, New York.  I like the way the drawing is fitted into the corner and the bold red stripe  contrasts with the geometric design of the black lines.  It almost looks like a piece of fabric has been stuck to the wall.

Proposition Three:  Drafting an architecture

Julie Mehretu uses architectural plans in her drawings, layering fragments together to create a complex new image.  In Untitled, 2000 parts of these plans seem to funnel down a circular building atrium-like structure.  The energy in the image is helped by the coloured directional lines which are layered onto the drawing.  This drawing appeals to me as the more you look at the mass of complex detailed shapes the more you see whilst at the same time the drawing retains an overall structure.

Julie Mehretu, Untitled, 2000


Proposition Four:  Drawing Happiness

The drawings Nobson Central, 1998-99 and Nobspital 1997-98, by Paul Noble caught my attention in this section.  The imagination to create a whole city and then individual buildings in that city is quite incredible.  I really enjoy his attention to detail and the way your eye travels around the buildings finding new things to consider.  I also like the way the word of the drawing has been incorporated into the form of the building.

Paul Noble, Nobspital, 1997-98

Proposition Five: Mental maps and metaphysics

Matthew Ritchie creates an alternative narrative for the beginning of life from the view of one person, the artist.  I really like the almost ethereal nature of the draw images overlaid with the mind map text covering things such as bacteria, archaea, cult of the head, burial etc.

image here

Proposition Six:  Popular culture and national culture

The watercolours of Kai Althoff (Untitled 2000) really stood out for me in this section.  I think the muted colour palette and the blurry, slightly translucent nature of the figures, give the pictures a sense of mystery and make me want to know the story behind the images.

Proposition Seven:  Comics and other subcultures

Barry McGee is a graffiti artist who also exhibits his work in galleries as a mass of individually framed pictures.  He deploys a whole range of drawing styles, texts and photographs, building a larger overall image from the smaller pictures.  Your eye moves around the image, stopping on certain individual frames then moving on trying to make a connection between the individual elements.

Barry McGee, Untitled (detail), 1998-2002

Proposition Eight:  Fashion, likeness, and allegory

Elizabeth Peyton’s images of young people in fashion poses would not normally be a subject matter I like, however, the watercolour and coloured pencils drawing in the book have an arresting beauty.  In Spencer, 1999, there is a variety of mark marking to define the form and blocks of colour to hold the image onto the page.



This book shows a wide variety of work across a number of genres, tracing finished, largely autonomous, drawings at the time of the exhibition.  It gave me much to think about and look at incorporating into my future practice including using my imagination more in creating an image, layering drawings, building up complex images from a series of simpler images, etc.

One thing I did not like in the book was the sort of hierarchy implied by the eight propositions – drawings drafting an architecture (proposition three) being ‘superior’ to those on fashion, likeness and allegory (proposition eight).  It reminded me of the hierarchy of genres imposed by the French Académie de peinture et de sculpture.

Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art

A Selection of Works

Nayland Blake, Untitled, Charcoal on paper, (2000).

 At first glance this looked like a rabbits head to me, then I saw the dark black foreground is a torso with the arms raised; in the lighter background image I could just make out a face.  There are three white ‘holes’ on the torso, what do these mean?  Are they bullet holes in a black anonymous man, are they portholes into the inner man, are they flaws we all have?; are the arms raised in protest or surrender?

This seemingly simple drawing raises a lot of questions for the me and the more I look, the more I think about what it means and the ideas behind the drawing.

Julie Brixey-Williams, Locationotation Series, Graphite Powder on watercolour paper, (2001).

I really like the simplicity of the images in this series against the complexity of the process.  There are eight drawings depicted in the book from a series of 52 pirouette drawings performed simultaneously by 52 dancers at 11.30 am on Saturday 9th June 2001 at various locations.  The process of getting 52 dancers to perform all at the same time and then bring all the images back together is clearly an important part of this artwork.  The resultant images whilst they are similar are all individual as well, reflected the the nature of the dancer themselves, part of a dance company but all individual dancers.  The organic nature of the images, coupled with the tightness or looser nature of the pirouette image and the texture of the surface, make these interesting images in themselves.

Brian Fay, Woman Meditating after Corot, Digital drawing on paper, (2005)

There is a slow emergence of the figure from the seemingly disjointed marks which at first do not define the form.  This drawing shows how line does not have to follow the outline of the form to create a recognisable image.  Is the drawing a comment on the current position of women in society – in the background slowing trying to emerge, marginalised, undervalued?

Maryclare Foa, Manhattan Trace, 31st December 2003, 16 miles approx. (18.65 kilometres), Raw Hertfordshire chalk on New York pavement, (2003)

This temporary drawing of pulling a piece of chalk on a string (lead) on a walk around New York is an interesting idea and an interesting process.  It brings to mind the temporary nature of our impact on a place we visit and the interactions we have on the way.  I like the process in this piece of art and the question it raises about what is the art – the process of the drawing by dragging the chalk, the marks themselves or is it the photographs of the process?  I find it interesting that Foa has specifically cited the origin of the chalk as if she is bringing the country to the city.

Dean Hughes, A paper bag with some stickers stuck inside it, Brown paper bag, adhesive stickers, (2006)

This is another piece which questions the nature of drawing – is this drawing, a sculpture, an art installation – does it matter?  Not sure what the artist was saying but I felt the bag represents us and the stickers the things we pick up during life which become part of us and help us become more whole.  I also liked the fact that the an ordinary brown paper bag and some coloured stickers could become a work of art and that it is the idea the art generates in the viewer that is important not the art materials themselves.

David Shrigley, Untitled, Ink on paper, (2005)

The drawing of someone at a computer screen with the message, You have no fucking emails,  made me laugh as it reminded me of work where some people continually check their emails and feel their status is defined by the number of emails they receive – the more emails the more important you must be.  I like the comic graphic art nature of the drawing.


This is a book which I will continually return to throughout the course.  Whilst I am just at the beginning of the course, it has already made me think more both about my process and the idea behind my art.  It has also really brought to the fore the fact that a drawing does not need to be of an object (its visual appearance) or technically highly accomplished in order covey a message to the viewer.