Book review: ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ by John Berger.

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.


Book review: Art the Whole Story Edited by Stephen Farthing.

When I started this course, this was the first library book I picked up and it really is an immense book. It is over 560 pages of colour photographs spanning art history from prehistoric times to the modern day written and displayed in a very accessible way.  I think everyone from the complete novice to professional artist would find something of use in this book.  As I just have it out on loan from the library, I sadly have to return it but it is one I am going to add to my wishlist to purchase in the future.

Honestly, this book is just too big to write a full review and so as I’ve been reading another book about Picasso I thought I’d take a detailed look at pages 434-435 which covers Picasso’s Guernica painted in 1937.

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Guernica is one of those famous paintings that I think most people have heard of and could probably recognise but what this book does is start to analyse components of the painting through looking at key focal points.  Guernica is just one of hundreds of works of art the book does this for.

The book starts by giving a little background on the painting, how the painting was commissioned by the Spanish republic for exhibition in the Paris World’s Fair but Picasso actually painted it as an attack on Spain’s fascist government.  The painting has since become a universal symbol of the atrocity of war.  The lack of colour in the painting is particularly a powerful sense of the destruction of war, this alongside the violent imagery help to portray Picasso’s outrage at the war.  The images themselves are nightmarish and full of anguish with distorted figures like the extended necks of the suffering women.

What this book then does is pick out 5-6 key focal points for each painting.  In the case of Guernica the key points the book considers are: the Minotaur, the light bulb, the terrified figure, sword and flowers and the central horse.  Of course there is far more to talk about with this painting than just these 6 elements but the book is a overview not a comprehensive analysis.

Although this book is an overview of the different movements and not a detailed analysis of any of the works covered I think it will be invaluable throughout the course and for future reference.


Farthing, S. (2010). Art. 1st ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

TV Documentary : Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting.

As I know Assignment 1 is on the general theme of still life, I was intrigued by a BBC documentary on iPlayer entitled ‘Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting.  The 90-minute show is both a history of still life in art and full of characteristics of the different still life techniques.  I can honestly say I learned A LOT from this very informative show and recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Still Life in art through different movements.

What I did find thought-provoking throughout the documentary was the ideas behind what still-life represents.  It is something I will consider more as I prepare for assignment 1.  The show made the point that we’re bombarded with images but the story of still life isn’t about looking, its about seeing.  Still life asks us to stop and consider the world anew and to take pleasure in the simple things, to understand the beauty of nature whist at the same time valuing the material world.  Almost everything has aesthetic qualities and to appreciate the moment and ordinary things, still life can help.  It isn’t about painting the most valuable or significant objects with obvious signs of importance.  It asks us to consider things we normally neglect.

The TV show defines a still life has having four main elements: the objects, their place in space, lighting, framing and how composition works.  These are things I will definitely experiment with when I compose my own still life in the coming weeks.

The next part of the show was an interesting history of famous still life pieces of art. It considers the importance of Still Life through the movements, how it has been relegated many times but then rose again to play the key role in revolutionary movements.  Like a lot of art it has always been intertwined with religion, politics and wealth.


By Caravaggio – Own work, user:Lafit86, Public Domain,


‘Basket of fruit by Caravaggio (1596)’ which was painted with realism and detail is historically the first known painting of basket of fruit, people had never seen a painting like it and it is considered the first major still life.  It opened a new chapter in art history but is  Caravaggio’s only still life.  In the painting you can see he was full of doubt, all the fruit are imperfect and damaged like the worm eaten apples which are said to represent Eve’s apple that condemned man.  It also contains religious vine leaves to represent Christ as vines make wine that is his blood, so it thought to be a painting about death and hope for eternal life with huge doubt.  Even the vines are withering to show salvation isn’t certain and in fact the whole basket on ledge as if about to fall.

However, Caravaggio was not the first to paint still life.  He actually resurrected a popular ancient discipline. In ancient Egypt there were paintings with elements of still life, in   Ancient Greece too.  However, the finest example of ancient world still life was discovered in Pompeii (Xenia art) where 2000 year old Roman still life frescoes were found. They were to represent gifts between hosts, trade in goods and ideas, diplomat visits and in general to advertise to the wider word how cosmopolitan Roman life was and what hospitality to expect.  The paintings were of domestic humble things, range of textures, natural and man-made, overhang the edge of the table, they helped to define the rules of composition and direction of light in paintings.  Still in the majority of gallery paintings, light comes from the left hand side, it is thought it is maybe to do with literacy in the West which also from left to right.

From popularity in Roman Xenia art, Still life fell to be destined to be considered the lowest form of art.  Pliny the Elder who wrote a Natural History, considered the first encyclopedia wrote a whole paragraph on still life.  He described it as ‘simple and base things’  and the painter of low and mealy things, it was considered a base form of art.  Pliny’s work set the tone for future centuries that still life was to be seen as vulgar and low status and it disappeared with the Roman empire until Caravaggio resurrected it.

In the medieval age there was no place for ordinary objects due to the rise of Christianity in art.  The church had no place for secular ordinary objects and as still life did not contribute to Christian society it had no place.  All objects were symbols, e.g. apples to represent Adam and Eve, you wouldn’t see just an apple, you’d see apple, tree, Adam, Eve and serpents.

The introduction of oil as a binder during the renaissance allowed more realistic objects to be painted as previously artists were limited to the flat dull tempera.  In the 15th Century the Church still commissioned most artworks but gradually painters started pushing Jesus to the background of scenes and more prominence on every day objects was seen with many more elements of still life.  Caravaggio was the first to replace all religious symbols and just painted the basket of fruit.

Basket of Fruit has been in the same Milan gallery since 1607.  Its founder Cardinal Federico Borromeo began commissioning other still life works of art as he enjoyed the style of painting so much.  He collected work from people like Flemish painter Jan Breugel’s ‘Bouquet’.


Artists from Northern Europe would then start visiting Milan as part of their training and returned influenced by the Still Life paintings they saw as a result, Holland provided the golden age of still life.  The market for still life exploded in Amsterdam around 1600 and then spread around Europe especially during protestant reformation where extravagant Catholic art was torn down.  Holland became free from Monarchy and the Catholic Church and so embraced secular still life.  Holland also became richest country on Earth in 17th Century and you see worldwide objects in the still life, exotic fruit, Chinese ceramics, luxury goods, symbols of wealth that decorated homes.


‘Still Life with Cheese, Floris Claesz. van Dijck, c. 1615’


The demand for still life became so high, artists would invent new compositions using old drawings to satisfy the amount of customers, so the paintings were not necessarily from observation.  This can be seen in paintings where flowers that couldn’t be in the same season are together in one painting.  Banquet pieces of art also appeared which were uninhibited displays of possession and wealth, objects like lobsters, cut tulips (which were very very expensive at that time).  However symbols also appeared things were painted having been pushed over to show wreckage as consumption, the principle of corruption of wealth.  Although Holland was embracing the secular there were  residual religious sentiments, Calvinists shouldn’t be celebrating wealth and so reminders of mortality show up to satisfy the protestants.  Symbols of death appear like skulls vanitas paintings were common to show the futility of accumulating material possessions.  Militia symbols were also commonplace to show the effects of war, musical items again were symbolic,  as soon as you stopped playing music at that time it was dead as recording was unavailable.  The general theme being to celebrate riches but also with an undertone of meaning that it will all fade one day.

‘Still life with a gilt cup’  – the cloth could be pulled out from wealth at any moment.


Spanish painters also took up still life e.g Cotan’s bodegone art which were austere larder pieces of art.  Food was displayed within a concrete block and suspended on string but painted in a very realist style, it got back to this idea of looking at simple things (Cotan lived a monastic life) but in an unworldly way.


As the centre of the art movement moved to the French academy in the Louvre, the hierarchy changed again as they viewed human figure art as the most important, the placed still life bottom of the heap again.  It wasn’t until Chardin that it beganto be taken seriously again.

‘The buffet’ Jean-Baptistse Chardin 1728


Chardin was the first to have some objects in focus and others not and so introduced a slightly new style of still life. In the French Academy, still life was one of the few disciplines women were allowed to do.  Women could not acquire figurine painting skills as they weren’t allowed to view naked men but they could look at baskets of fruit.  Anne Vallayer Coster in fact was one of few women to be accepted into the academy based on her still life works.


In modern art it was Paul Cezanne with his rushed, imprecise distorted style (the antithesis of realism that had dominated for centuries) that showed still life in a new way.  Cezanne  emphasised painting is about how we see things and what we see is not fixed, you can see this in things like the double outline of apples in how work.


He painted very simple objects were the form and reflection was his  main interest and he concentrated on how scene was perceived, abandoning the fiction that painting is reality.  The rules of painting could be bent allowing reworking of the visible world and impressionistic painters like.  Renoir, Monet and Gaugin followed.

As photography skills developed, artists started to move away from the photographic look and concentrated on what painting could do that photography couldn’t.  Art can add emotion and no longer had to look real,  photographs couldn’t capture texture or create 3D texture like paint could.  This became the foundations for cubism through the likes of Picasso.

Green Still life – Picasso 1914


Cubism allowed exploration from different viewpoints at once a sort of spatial chaos and still life became illegible and experimental.  Instead of reality and photographic quality paintings, perception has become the central idea that everyone sees things differently.

What I find particularly interesting is the role of still life today.  Like I mentioned at the start, the TV show highlighted that we’re currently inundated on a day to day basis by images and material possessions.  Still life is one of the most common features in modern day advertising, we see it in bus stops, on the side of buses, as photos in magazines.  However, do we appreciate the objects that it depicts?  We bring so much new stuff into our homes we don’t often stop to explore the relationship we have with those objects.

Life certainly isn’t still anymore but what still life does is make you stop and look closely, observe closely, not something we do anymore commonly, we seem to like change and newness has prestige. We buy new stuff but don’t study it.  Perhaps when I do compose my own still life for assignment one this is something I will focus on.



Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting 2014, television program, British Broadcasting Corporation, London , Watched online 21 November.