John Berger and the documentary filmmaker Mike Dibb are populists. They believe that painting is for everyone. And so do I.
The conundrum that every contemporary painter must struggle with is to keep that humanist point of view—to remember who the real audience is, when what can only realistically be termed “the visual art industry” is at this moment, but not forever in the same way, controlled by the very, very wealthy and their enablers.
The initial impetus for Ways of Seeing (1972) was the translation four years earlier into English of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of…*” Berger is describing a sequence of complex ideas in a simple direct language and Dibb films the paintings in a way that both illustrates what Berger is saying and adds an indefinable something else that is caressingly sensual and deeply emotional. The combination is more startling to me now than when I first saw it decades ago.
The ostensible subject is European painting from 1400 to 1900—the period that starts with the invention of perspective which “centers everything in the eye of the beholder.” And that “eye of the beholder” is really what Ways of… is all about. A painting is not presented here as a cultural artifact with a fixed meaning defined for all time by historians; Berger wants to present art “stripped of its false mystery and the false religiosity [of astronomical monetary value]” —so it can be seen anew.
Berger segues immediately into photography and, though he does not actually say it, it becomes obvious that the invention of one point perspective in the 1400s prepared us to think of the single eye of the camera as representing reality. Also implied is that it is just a way—not the only way. The next sequence is not about photography as art—it is about how the photography of painting has affected how, when and where we see paintings—in multiple sizes, in cut out details, in advertisement , in film, simultaneously and all over the world.
Berger describes in detail what painting has gained and lost by being photographed.
I have always—like most painters I think—stressed the importance of seeing the painting in person, but following Berger’s thoughts, I realized that photography has not affected the act of painting at all, because the way that the image is generated remains unchanged and irreplaceable.
When Berger says “The most important thing about paintings is that their images are silent and still” and “It’s as if the painting…becomes a corridor connecting the moment it represents with the moment you are looking at it,” it brought tears to my eyes.
The combined force of the description and Dibb’s photography of Frans Hals’ paintings of the Regents… and Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse is something I won’t even try to describe, it must be seen. That Berger chose these particular paintings to show the depth of Hals’ feeling for humanity is an utter surprise. Hals was in his eighties and he was paid with coal, which kept him from freezing to death that winter. They are not nice women and he doesn’t portray them or the male regents either as such, but he does portray them as human beings.
When Berger then reads a prominent art historian’s disparaging remarks about the idea of being “seduced” by Hals’ portraits, perhaps into thinking that “we know the personality traits and even the habits of the men and women portrayed,” it is a jarring moment. The idea that viewers should not respond emotionally, or have their own thoughts at all, prevails to this day.
There is a lot more to Ways of… than I have described. I hope you will watch it. What put me on to it now was that my friend Sophie Balhetchet, a producer for the BBC who worked with Dibb and Berger, recommended the films of Mike Dibb, which were showing in a retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery. I’m grateful that she did because during this Covid Year I have been thinking about the audience for painting. I have heard musicians and theater people talk about their audiences, but the painters—not so much.
If we were to think about them, who would they be now? They might be grief-stricken, lonely, impoverished, essential but underpaid, afraid of illness, climate change and the future, but unable to do anything about it. Possibly they are even thinking that the election was stolen and lost in a web of conspiracy theories. Or they might be well-off but still afraid, hiding in gated communities, too paralyzed to think beyond their personal comfort and convenience. Or they might be the fearless who fight for justice, who take care of people, the kind, the environmentalists, and anyone who tries to get us to understand each other and work together.
And who are we, if we don’t consider all of them our audience?
* Walter Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936)
To see all four parts of Ways of Seeing on Mike Dibb’s website and to read about this series, go here
Or you can watch all of them on YouTube below