What is the place of painting? What is its function? Why do artists paint and why do others view paintings? We discussed these questions recently with Nelson Diplexcito in relation to John Berger’s ideas about the place of painting. Berger wrote ‘The function of painting is to fill an absence with the simulacrum of a presence’. This may indeed be true but of course this proposition leads on to an interesting question which is why artists (or viewers for that matter) would want or need to create something which replaces something else, something which fills an absence?
Berger maintains that to paint something is to bring it inside. Yet the paradox is that the thing painted can never really be brought inside it can only ever be a copy, a representation or a facsimile of the real thing. Turner’s landscapes were brought inside so that the viewers could be reminded of the vast and sometimes unknown outside spaces they represented and we have to ask the question, why? Why would we need to do this. it seems an especially pertinent question now when everyone has a camera and we are saturated with our own and others images.
Berger suggests that painting is about both nostalgia and revelation. Through painting, something can be remembered, and at the same time something new can be revealed. Most importantly, he asserts that painting is a shelter in that it safeguards ‘the experiences of memory and revelation which are man’s only defences against the boundless space which otherwise continually threatens to separate and marginalise him’. In a boundless and vast world painting allows man to visualise, to bring into being a part of that world so that he is no longer in danger of being overwhelmed and lost in the world but is included in it. Berger of course was writing before these days of overwhelming internet and social media images but the points he made are still apposite and they are in fact possibly even more relevant today.