Disagreeing with John Berger

I had an interesting conversation the other day, about art, education, etc. and, after declaring my (tongue in cheek or not) desire to become a full-time portrait painter, I was handed a book of essays by John Berger (John Berger Selected Essays, ed. Geoff Dyer), bookmark on p. 98, at a short article from 1967 about why portrait painting is defunct. The opening line being:

‘It seems to me unlikely that any important portraits will ever be painted again.’

This, of course, stuck in my head. Maybe it could be dismissed as outdated and irrelevant (1967 after all was before Lucian Freud became a grand old man of figurative painting and a time when Berger could write entirely in terms of ‘men’ without a raised eyebrow). But it stuck, as it raises the question of whether the thing that I have always been most drawn to in terms of sculpture and painting is at best anachronistic and at worst, as his argument develops, politically incorrect.

Berger talks about portraiture as an institution in a particular social context, with a function we don’t (or shouldn’t) want/need any more. He defines portraiture as the creation of images/likenesses of people (particularly men it would seem) to ‘underwrite and idealize a chosen social role of the sitter’ (p. 100) and argues that it has become redundant now that we have photographs to get likenesses and social roles do not function in the same way in our individualistic society. Today there is no point in painting portraits, he claims, and he sees ‘no reason to lament’ their passing.

This sounds very bad for anyone who wants to paint individual people, as individuals, and who cares at least partly about ‘getting a likeness’. But I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds. Berger is talking about ‘portraiture as a genre’ and he says, in considering this genre, ‘it is no good thinking of a few extraordinary pictures but rather of the endless portraits of the local nobility…’ etc. The great painters, Rembrandt, David, Goya, he says, painted portraits that are not to be included in the genre of professional portrait painting, because they are ‘in fact works of self-discovery’. So his attack on portraiture seems to slide from a sweeping claim that ‘no important’ portraits will ever be painted again, to a narrower rejection of a genre practised by hack painters ‘who never went beyond the stereotype’ or a few ‘good professionals’ whose paintings still accepted and confirmed social status. It seems that it is this embeddedness in a social hierarchy that he most objects to and sees as outdated. And the most ‘important’ portrait paintings actually would escape his critique because they escape the bounds of the genre as he defines it.

So his argument applies to a historically defined role for portraiture, not to the treatment of individual persons as a subject matter for art. His critique suggests that any good paintings of people from the past (Rembrandt, etc.) don’t count as ‘portraiture’ in his sense – and portraits from the past that do count are generally pretty bad anyway. No wonder he does not lament them.

But does that mean that today there is no point in painting pictures of people?

Berger recommends that people who can paint portraits should use their talent ‘to serve a more urgent, modern function’ than portrait painting. This raises another point of disagreement, namely, with the ideas that art has a ‘function’ (or artists a kind of social duty) and, perhaps even more curious, that this function can be ‘modern’, and that it constrains the allowable subjects of art.

In another essay in the same volume, Berger talks about drawing. Its opening paragraph speaks powerfully about the process of drawing as discovery, but he distinguishes drawing from ‘painting a “finished” canvas or carving a statue’. ‘A drawing is essentially a private work, related only to the artist’s own needs’, while the finished work is public, related to ‘the demands of communication’. Again, Berger seems to see the ‘finished’ art as primarily functional.

I can only speak for myself, but this distinction seems wrong. For me at any rate, whether drawing, painting or modelling the same motive of discovery prevails, discovery of the subject of observation, discovery of the capacity of the medium and of my own handling of it. The public, communicative aspect only arises afterwards, if at all. The activity of looking and reacting to what one observes, in charcoal or paint or ink or clay, is the fundamental thing. The work produced is in a sense a side effect of an addiction to the practice.

If an artwork must have a function, why should it not be careful attention to an individual human being?

To return to Berger’s discussion of portraiture, he concludes, ‘it seems that the demands of a modern vision are incompatible with the singularity of viewpoint which is the prerequisite for a static-painted “likeness”. … Individuality can no longer be contained within the terms of manifest personality traits. In a world of transition and revolution individuality has become a problem of historical and social relations, such as cannot be revealed by the characterizations of an already established social stereotype.’

This seems to contain so many questionable assumptions it’s hard to know where to start. First, that there is a ‘static viewpoint’ in any portrait painting – the painter is not like a single lensed camera fixed on a tripod taking in a simultaneous image of the whole subject. The act of painting takes time and involves movement and communication between the artist and the sitter – the painting will always be an amalgam of multiple impressions and discoveries. Second, that the aim of the portrait is to ‘contain individuality’. This suggests a kind of conclusiveness, the idea that a portrait somehow aims for a complete and final representation of the subject, but that is obviously impossible. It surely has to be rather an expression of this particular interaction between subject and artist. To that extent Berger is right – individuality is a relational and changeable thing.

The genre of portraiture as status-driven and in the service of a fixed social structure is clearly worthy of critique, but surely it always was. Was the revelation of individuality ever just a matter of characterizing a stereotype?

So it seems to me that by Berger’s own definition of portraiture there will never be any more important portraits, but there probably never have been. But that says nothing about whether or not one should attempt to paint people.

‘let the task be master: which is only not to choose to do anything but what has chosen me to be done.’ John Crowley, Engine Summer

Indian ink, drawing what is at hand
Indian ink, drawing what is at hand

(Here’s an irrelevant image – I suspect drawings of animals would be even more dubious than portraiture in Berger’s view.)

Art and economics – a rambling

Some people are driven to make things, to paint pictures, to make sculpture, etc. These are activities that often are engaged in for their own sake, not as a means to an end, like wealth or security. They are definitely not high on the careers officer’s list of job recommendations.

Some people value the products of these activities and may be willing to spend money on them, if they have money to spare on such luxuries. Many of the people in the latter group are also in the former (at least that is how it seems to me) – which is a problem in economic terms. Clearly if only artists buy art, the system cannot support itself; exchanging art for art cannot produce a surplus to pay for more mundane necessities. Unless there are some non-artists spending enough money on art it is an unsustainable practice, or at least it can only continue if the makers of art either do something else as well to make a living, making their art more like a hobby, or are independently wealthy themselves. It seems that both the making and the owning of art must be seen as luxuries.

Must we accept then that the possibility of some people making art as their primary activity is dependent on an art market ultimately funded by the rich? On wealthy patrons (or wealthy artists) whose taste will therefore determine what is made and who makes it? That is, is the art world we have got, with galleries and collectors at the top selecting the lucky few artists whose work is deemed good enough to invest in, the only way it can be?

A fantasy world:

There are jobs that are essential to this fantasy world, which are shared among its fantasy citizens. Everyone who is able has to do some essential work (from growing food to caring for elderly neighbours perhaps), in exchange for a fantasy citizen’s wage, but this leaves them some spare time to do other, non-essential things. Maybe some people use their spare time to do other jobs to increase their income.

Some people make things in their spare time, not to increase their income but just because they choose to. All the things they make are put in a library of things, from which people can borrow the things. The makers whose things are borrowed most often are rewarded by being given more time to make more things. That is, they are released from some of the essential jobs – or rather their making is recognised as part of the essential work. Because in this fantasy world, art is not seen as a luxury but as a necessary part of the good society, to be accessible to all. And incidentally, money is not the primary reward – that is time.

(I did say it was a fantasy world…)

And here’s an irrelevant image:

Lino print: Curious Cow

Copyright ©2014 F. Watts

Notes to self: Learning to paint etc.

When modelling in clay, avoid smearing the clay about, or automatically, arbitrarily, smoothing out all the tool marks, etc. Smearing produces an unintended, uncontrolled form (and combined with smoothing, usually a lumpy and uninteresting surface). Instead I want to add or remove clay in response to an observation or an intention.

As in drawing, so in modelling and in painting, each mark, each piece of clay, each brushstroke, ought to be part of an act of seeing, of paying attention to the subject and the work.

So practise, practise … so that the medium becomes a familiar tool to enable that act of seeing, not a hindrance to it. As familiar as this pencil or the hand that holds it.Photo1553

And another thing: don’t hunt for something ‘meaningful’ or ‘significant’ to paint. It isn’t really about the content, or even the form; the significance is in the paying attention.


A dialectic for would-be artists

So you want to be an artist – i.e. to spend as much time as possible making stuff, learning how to do it better, making more stuff, … But how to live in the meantime?

Catch 22 #1: you can’t make a living as an artist until you are skilled at it, but it’s hard to get skilled at it while making a living any other way.

Catch22 #2: much of what makes the work worth doing is doing it for its own sake, but if you can make a living at it you’re now doing it for the money instead … and if you deliberately aim at saleable work it will probably lose what intrinsic value it had, if any, because you will have subordinated your own vision to that of an imagined, and necessarily generic, ‘market’.

Catch 22 #3: marketing is not the skill you have or want to develop but it seems to be at least as necessary for the ‘making a living’ thing, and even if you have it, doing it steals time/energy from making stuff.

(That’s what galleries and agents are for, isn’t it? – But you can’t get them to sell your stuff without selling yourself to them…)

Catch 22 #4: artists and would-be artists often lean to the left and identify with the unempowered, but to earn a living from your art you need buyers, and art buyers must have money to spare for unnecessary things like art.

Catch 22 #5: you secretly believe that the best thing about art is doing it, not having it, so how can you justify selling things? Clearly you should be helping other people be artists, making a living teaching or working in the community… But then you are back to Catch 22 #1.

[And yes I am in the middle of open studio weeks 😀 ]


Still life

As a sculptor I had little or no interest in the idea of still life. Rendering an object as another object seemed a bit pointless (which shows a lack of imagination I suppose). I was vastly more interested in people as subjects. I still am, but since I started learning to paint I’ve been a bit more open minded.

The only way to learn to paint is to do it and there is rarely a person available (unless you can bear to specialise in self-portraits), so you have to paint other things. Also, as a painting of a person will often include furniture, background objects and space (unlike a sculpture which borrows its background from its situation), you need to be able to deal with more than just flesh. So I have found myself having a go at interiors and still life, apples, onions, even flowers! And I’m finding they are not just a means to an end.

One of the virtues of still life painting (for me) is that I can arrange the subject and the painting at the same distance from my eye so that the issue of what glasses to wear does not arise. Younger readers may not be aware of this, but when you get to the bifocal age, trying to see your model over there and your easel over here can be a frustration – do I want to see the model or the work more clearly? The reading section of bifocal lenses is not big enough to see all of a largish painting or drawing, so I often end up working without any glasses, which may lead to an unintended lack of precision. But when painting a small still life near at hand I can just wear single vision reading glasses to see both subject and painting. (The down side of that is that the ‘still’ subject moves a lot when you move your head, so you have to keep checking your perspective.)

Anyway, here’s yesterday’s exercise. ‘White’ really is an abstraction.


Still life: white bowl with apple



Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts

Lucian Freud and animals

Looking again through my books on Lucian Freud, I think perhaps he liked animals more than humans. They seem to be treated with more respect and gentleness in his paintings (and in person – see the images of Freud with a fox or a horse or a falcon).

pencil drawing from Freud's Double Portrait
pencil drawing from Freud’s Double Portrait

Reading about his life, his lack of concern for social norms, his absolute commitment to what mattered to him, it seems Freud was a feral creature himself. Like a wild thing, whose days revolve around those few imperatives, eat, endure, procreate, in an eternal present, Freud pursued his basic needs, food, women, and most of all, painting, every day, without much thought of consequences or the future, it seems. So one wonders whether he saw these dogs and horses as kindred spirits, more comprehensible than the people he studied so assiduously.

Or perhaps it is not the painter’s own attitude that makes the difference. Perhaps he just paints what he sees, and what looks like a special respect for his animal subjects is only a recognition of their absolute self-containment, their lack of concern for his penetrating eye. There they sleep or stand, utterly indifferent to his observation and his easel.*

His human models, on the other hand, however familiar they become, surely cannot help but be aware of their situation, of their relationship to the artist, and be self-conscious in the simplest sense, knowing that they are seen, and will be seen by others, as part of his great body of work, his oeuvre.

Perhaps then, the difference that Freud’s paintings show us is not in his view of his subjects, but in theirs and ours. If there is any sense of an improper invasion, that is only possible because we humans have a special sensitivity to the gaze and judgement of others. The paintings affect us, the viewer, because we can empathise at once with the model and the painter, and feel that we are being seen and seeing intimately, maybe too intimately for comfort.

Freud painted himself too, of course, and in his unflinching self-portraits, I think we can see him as one of his own animals – unconcerned with questions of intimacy, getting on with what he does, paradoxically unself-conscious while concentrating all his attention on this object which is himself.



*Of course I cannot know this, but it seems to me that at least the dogs I know have no sense of embarrassment or privacy (which is why it is always faintly absurd when their people try to stop them from ‘being rude’ in their greetings and nosing inspections of each other).

‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.’ (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations II, p. 223)


Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts


Last year, members of our art group were asked to contribute to an exhibition which was to provide a backdrop and conversation pieces for a film about people’s reactions to art. I used this as an excuse to spend some time looking hard at paintings by Lucian Freud.

I’m not sure what the responses were to the exhibition as I have not seen the resulting film, but I thought I’d recreate my small section of it here, as the drawings I made will otherwise languish in my plan chest, now that the exhibition is long past.


Six words:

Originality – self-expression – inspiration – homage – imitation – plagiarism

What’s the difference? Does it matter?


Four drawings:

Two are my charcoal copies of Lucian Freud paintings,

one is a copy of my own painting (original painted from life)

and one is drawn from life.

Which is which? Does it matter?



Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts