I was recently reminded of John Berger by an excellent TV documentary I saw on the BBC called ‘The Art of Looking’. I have a draft blog post written up about that show which I will publish but in the mean time it did make me look through my local library catalogue for books by Berger. As I had recently been looking at some work by Picasso the book that caught my eye was ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’.
The book is divided into two sections: 1 a introduction to Picasso’s life with details of the era he grew up in and the politics of the time he was working and 2 The Painter Picasso.
The first section was indeed interesting and I did learn a great deal about Picasso the man and his influences but it is section 2 about him as a painter that interested me the most.
This edition of the book was written in 1980 but a lot of the statements in it have relevance still in the year 2016. Berger makes the point at the beginning of this section that the painter is now to paint anything they choose. This of course wasn’t always true when painters were made to paint religious symbols or told by the Academy to focus on the human form. In this modern era we can pick and choose whatever subject and style we like, of course there is still the commercial element and pieces are made for commission but there is a lot of freedom. Berger asks the question ‘has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom?’. This is an interesting point, because we are so free and nothing is forbidden, artists are constantly trying new ways to stand out, to get attention to their work. Making very abstract pieces that cause people to stop and think and perhaps work out the meaning is one way of doing this.
Berger also makes the point that because we can now paint anything, sometimes choosing that subject is much harder, we have to search for things to give special mention to. I am finding this myself in choosing items for Assignment 1. I have a house full of objects I could choose and give some special meaning to but I am in the process of selecting a small sample to draw for my still life. At the same time of selecting objects personal to myself, ones that create an emotion inside me, I am also aware of choosing objects that will look visually pleasing in the final piece. After all my actual aim for this assignment is to show my tutor what techniques I can do and so choosing objects that allow me to do this is also a consideration.
Back to Picasso himself he is quotes as saying: “I don’t know beforehand what I shall put on the canvas, even less can I decide what colours to use. Whilst I am working, I am not aware of what I’m painting on the canvas. Each time I begin a picture, I have the feeling of throwing myself into space. I never know if I’ll land on my feet. It’s only later that I begin to assess the effect of what I’ve done.’
The idea of working in this way pleases me a great deal, it is complete contrast to how we are asked to work in most of the exercises and assignments but it is very appealing. In some ways the early exercise of using emotion was like this, I started with no fixed idea on what I was to create and just went with the flow of whatever emotion I was trying to channel.
In the book, Berger then goes on to say ‘When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces. When he has not, he has produced paintings which will eventually be seen to be absurd’. This is quite a statement to say about any artist, but especially one who is thought of in such high regards as Picasso. I do think it is an important message to take in though, every artist at every level will have paintings or drawings that don’t quite work, that don’t please everyone. I think that is part of the fun and excitement of art, that you never know what a painting or drawing is going to be at the end of the process, you can never be sure if it will be a masterpiece or end up in the rubbish bin, you never know with certainty if it will be liked by others or not. Recently I had some experience of this, I posted a series of painting I had done on my facebook page, the one that seemed to get the most attention was actually one of my personal least favourites!
The next part of this section deals mainly with Picasso’s inspirations: women, sex, the Spanish war, Communism, despair…it is well worth a read but it mainly made me think about myself. What are my inspirations? Where is my art voice currently? I get a lot of my inspiration and subjects from colour and the effect that can create. I also tend to paint things I know other people would like, but I feel like I need to get away from that to express my own feelings in my work. As I have a mental health condition there are a lot of confused feelings sometimes and I tend to try and suppress my own feelings to concentrate on other people, I feel to find my own inner voice this is something I perhaps need to work through.
‘The Art of Looking’ (2016). BBC Television 6 November.
Berger, J. ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ 2nd Edition (1980), London. Writers and Readers.