During the late 60s, the time of the avant-garde and the utopian ideals of Revolution, fueled by passionate cultural movements, my father Peter Fuller was just graduating from Cambridge and was fully entrenched in that movement, writing for the underground press Black Dwarf, 7 Days and the like, eventually finding his way to art criticism. At the time he was living in a basement of an artist's studio in Gloucester Gate with two college friends. The smell of oil paint, turpentine, the romance of unfinished canvases, used brushes stuck together in jam jars of water, the reimagining of the natural world. How could he not write about art.
The studio was a known bohemian hangout of artists, musicians, writers and poets, with regulars including the young David Hockney. The artist owner of the studio was a man called Adrian Berg, and he was the first painter Peter ever wrote about. Though that youthful basement article was not the last time he'd write about Berg's work, throughout his life he'd contribute some of the definitive articles on the artist's work and career.
With two major retrospectives of Berg's work on at the moment, one at Gilbert White's House in Selborne, Hampshire (runs until July 27th) the other at Bexley Hall Place in Kent (runs until September 3rd), I thought it was time to release this seminal piece on Adrian Berg's work, by the pioneering art critic of the 'aesthetic dimension' and one of his closest colleagues, Peter Fuller.
"That day we met at the front door of the house and he said, 'I'm writing art criticism for a magazine', and I replied, 'You can write on me. I've a show'. Although he was living in a room on the floor below my studio looking out on the same view so that he would be familiar with the subject, I could not have expected anything to come of it. He was just down from Cambridge. The year was 1968. When I had a retrospective in Rochdale, he took the trouble to see it, and to get that organ of the new puritanism Art Monthly eventually to publish his review. I have been able to attribute the opposition of all other critics to his support. While I was a first of sorts for him, he was a one and only." - Adrian Berg
BY PETER FULLER
Adrian Berg's 1986 exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery consisted of pictures of parks and gardens painted over the last decade. Many of them are of Regent's Park, as seen from the studio at the top of 8 Gloucester Gate, a Crown property where Berg lived from 1961 until 1985 [see plate 16]. Even before the Commissioners encouraged his move a little further south, Berg had been venturing beyond Gloucester Gate more than had been his custom for most of the seventies. In 1980 he was one of a group of artists invited to work in Israel; in 1981, he went to the Lake District where he produced a series of water-colours. He made more the following year, not only in Regent's Park, but also Hampstead Heath. He then started an ambitious series of large paintings based on some of the great parks and gardens in England. In 1983, he began working in the Punchbowl, in Windsor Valley Gardens. He has since made paintings of Kew Gardens, Sheffield Park, the Pinetum at Nymans, and Syon Park.
As I looked at Berg's vast, and, at the time, still unfinished painting of Sheffield Park stretched up in his studio, I was reminded of a remarkable claim made in a recent book on British landscape painting in the twentieth century. The author argued that Graham Sutherland's Neo-Romantic Pembroke paintings of the 1940s had 'brought down the curtain' on a Tong Age of Landscape', opened, apparently, by Constable. The implication was that, since the last war, landscape painting had been an activity suitable for Academicians and amateurs, but hardly for 'serious', or 'avant-garde' artists. Here, I want to argue a contrary view. As the Serpentine exhibition demonstrated, Berg has succeeded in producing landscapes which are original but also exceedingly beautiful - no mean achievement after the curtain has come down! He has avoided the conspicuous limitations of both the academic and the avant-gardist positions. His landscapes helped me to revise my own views about what is, and what is not worth attending to. I hope these paintings will encourage others to do the same.
Adrian Berg was born in 1929. His father was Charles Berg, a psychoanalyst who wrote a number of books (including The Unconscious Significance of Hair), which are now largely forgotten, even within the psychoanalytic community. But Charles Berg seems to have awakened in his son an enduring love of English literature, especially poetry. Berg remembers weekends, during war-time, when, making use of his doctor's petrol allowance, his father would take the family on a drive into the countryside. On the way he would recite Victorian ballads and other poems. In 1930, the family lived in Ormonde Terrace, which overlooks Primrose Hill and is just visible from Gloucester Gate. While Berg was away at prep school he used to create imaginary landscapes in coloured crayons, based on the Park. His preferred subject matter in these early days included kings, playing cards, and Shakespeare.
At both his prep school, and his public school, Charterhouse, Berg won drawing prizes. But, although he always seems to have assumed that he would eventually become an artist, he did not immediately enrol as an art student. After leaving school he studied medicine at Borlands (Tutors) Ltd, but then went to Caius College, Cambridge, where he read English, and to Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied education. It was only after two years' National Service, and two further years teaching at a secondary modern school, that he became an art student at St Martin's. He went on to study at Chelsea and the Royal College of Art. Much of his work at this time consisted of sensitive life studies of naked negroes, which reveal an evident homo-erotic interest. At the College, Berg found himself painting back-to-back with Ron Kitaj, but he was a year ahead of the annus mirabilis of David Hockney et alia, which was to make such a big splash in 1961. Indeed, that Christmas, while easels were going Pop everywhere, Berg moved into Gloucester Gate, where he was to live and work for almost a quarter of a century.
Recently, Berg has said that art students today do not need an art education so much as an education. The varied experience of his own formative years was reflected in his first exhibition, held at Arthur Tooth and Sons in 1964. (Even his two years of National Service were recycled in a grid painting called Baden- Baden.) Berg's early works have sometimes been associated with Pop art, but neither advertising, nor the mass media, nor 'popular culture' provided him with sources. Rather these paintings revealed an intuitive and imaginative involvement with the concepts of contemporary science. They indicate a critical and analytical concern with empirical experience, and what it tells us about ourselves and the world; an attitude which was to be carried over even into Berg's most intuitive landscapes.
Like Constable before him, Berg might have complained that there ought to be room enough for a 'natural' painter. Some of his works, like The Platonic Solids and Projective Configurations, explored mathematical ideas. Others, like Education, offered almost an X-ray of the concepts and images within the brain tissue of an adolescent's head. Then, in 1964, Berg painted This Island Now, a picture named not not so much after the famous line from Auden's poem, as the title of the 1962 Reith Lectures, by Professor G. M. Carstairs. This Professor of Psychological Medicine had created a nation-wide storm when he suggested that pre-marital sexual experience could, on occasion, lead to happier marriages. But Berg's complex picture was based on a passage in which Carstairs argued that, in the future, computers would do all the tiresome storing of factual information and thereby leave men and women free to study scientific hypotheses, cultivate literature and the arts, and develop a deeper understanding of themselves.
Perhaps Berg was also influenced by a passage where Carstairs referred to the way in which, in the modern world, even the arts were becoming 'stereotyped and internationally interchangeable'. He referred to the 'depressing uniformity' of American-inspired abstraction and argued that such art involved 'a sacrifice of emotional significance'. According to Carstairs, an artist was 'most effective' when his experiences were linked with a particular place and time. Berg's 1964 exhibition contained his first 'fragmented' images of Regent's Park.
Throughout 1962, while working on his paintings about science and ideas, Berg had struggled to paint the landscape he could see through the windows of Gloucester Gate, but he did not succeed. It was only the snow which fell in January 1963 that, in Berg's words, 'sorted everything out' enough for him to paint it. Berg's next show, in 1967, still contained more pictures that were based on maps, like Europe by Rail, 1966, than on perceived images of the territory, like the beautiful Spring, Gloucester Gate of the same year. Certain elements, like the grid, were carried through from the maps and game-board pictures to the landscapes proper. Thus Berg's pictures of trees and the Park were never ordered according to the received conventions of focused perspective, but rather through multiple imagery, which allowed for the inclusion of many experiences common in life, but rare in a single painting, such as the experience of the same landscape over a long period of time. In a brief catalogue footnote, Berg commented, 'Time was when a painter could with a title invoke whole mythologies, whether Christian or pagan. Now he has only fragments of a mythology, called art or science or in this green island, nature.'
Two years later, Berg had a second exhibition at Tooth's consisting of nothing but recent paintings of Gloucester Gate. In many of these, the fractured framing of the picture surface was more complicated, and more pronounced, than ever before. Some of these canvases contain their own time, in much the same way that, in certain medieval paintings, different episodes of the same story appear within a single landscape. Only in Berg's case there are no figures and it is the landscape which changes. Perhaps we should not exaggerate the conceptual aspect of these grid divisions. One advantage of this compositional convention is simply that the grid enabled Berg to assemble a landscape in a way which did not exclude the immediacy and freshness of perceived moments. All this helps to explain one of the paradoxes of his Gloucester Gate paintings: although they seem to reflect that sense of fragmentation and transitoriness which we associate with modern consciousness, we also feel that Berg has somehow patterned his momentary perceptions into new and rhythmically satisfying wholes.
And now I fear the moment has come to declare a personal interest, for it was while Berg was working on these pictures that I moved into rooms below his, at 8 Gloucester Gate. At the time I was struggling to establish myself as an art critic, and the first piece of any length for which I was actually paid was a profile of Berg I wrote for Arts Review. Elsewhere, I have described the way in which this fact later made me wonder whether my response to Berg was not a sentimental one. After all, I, too, had been deeply affected by the same patch of Regent's Park, over which I had heard the wolves howling at night. That was also a time when influential writers, like John Berger, were encouraging impressionable and 'radical' young art critics to believe painting was dead.
I am sorry to say that, in those days, my taste was still too uncertain to escape the winds of fashion. It took me some time to reconcile what I felt I ought to believe, with the delight and instruction which I derived from Berg's painting. For me at least, the fashionable art of the 1970s eventually palled. But long after I had left Gloucester Gate, I found myself coming back, again and again, to look at what Berg was doing. He was working entirely within the traditions, disciplines, limits and skills of painting. His subject matter was, according to his critics, exceedingly narrow. And yet his work always seemed fresh, varied, and full of discoveries, whereas so much of the art which I was required to view was sterile and repetitive.
In 1973, Berg sent me a copy of something he had written in which he tried to distinguish between 'critical' and 'creative' attitudes to thinking and looking. The problem for the latter, he acknowledged, was that, in the end, 'one's senses alone convey to one the significance of what one sees. This is reality, or the only reality one knows.' There was, however, a way out. 'The senses,' Berg wrote, 'can be shamed into conveying a more truthful account of the external world. Shown a picture of that world (their product, arrived at by skills they have developed), the senses are made to compare this artifact with nature, that is, with what they now make of that same world.' He added, 'A process which has to be repeated: comparing, correcting. It had better be if one is to continue to paint.' This characterised Berg's work throughout the 1970s, and beyond.
I remember that when I first saw the paintings for Berg's last exhibition at Tooth's in 1975, I was shocked. I had become used to the sophisticated conventions through which Berg fractured his surfaces, but most of his 1974 pictures were not like that at all. Berg had gone down into the landscape and painted pictures which were almost 'painterly' sketches. But I soon saw that, though very different from the grid paintings, these works, too, were intensely beautiful. They had about them a lushness, a celebration of the richness and abundance of vegetable growth, which had been only a muted accent in his earlier work.
His Serpentine exhibition opened with some of the paintings from the late 1970s, in which Berg successfully combined his techniques of multiple imagery with this sense of at times almost over-abundant growth. In works like Gloucester Gate, Regent's Park, Autumn/Winter/Spring, 1977, or Gloucester Gate, Regent's Park, February, March, April, May and June, of the same year, Berg's painting seemed to acquire a new authority. It was as if he was no longer inviting us to search the familiar landscape with him, yet again, but revealing to us all that he had already found there.
Yet Berg has never been able to rest content with such revelation for long. The process of 'comparing and correcting' took over again. Several paintings he had produced in the early 1970s had shown a preoccupation with the spatial limitations of a single viewpoint, rather than with perception of the landscape through time. In 1978 these special concerns came to the forefront. Nowhere are they more evident than in Gloucester Gate, Regent's Park, of 1978, a picture which now hangs in the European Parliament. In this work, the view from the roof of the park is, as it were, splayed out around the four sides of the canvas, and we are reminded of the way in which Berg's familiar trees form part of the urban landscape. Another picture, Gloucester Gate, Regent's Park, Autumn, of 1980, now owned by the British Council, fuses together the view Berg obtained when he looked first to the west, and then to the north. About this time, Berg also produced his 'long' watercolours, stretched horizontally to take in far more than a single observer could ever see in a single gaze. The making of these water-colours helped to keep the spatial paintings fresh, and 'spontaneous', despite the elaborate compositional artifices.
Again, like the time-based pictures, Berg's ruptures of perspective are based as much on intuition as on calculation; on the demands made by the picture, as much as those posed by the world 'out there'. His visit to Israel, in the midst of these experiments, triggered off in him a sense of 'abstract' rhythm and pattern which, though always present in his work, had not been prominent since the mathematical pictures of the early 1960s. This can be seen in Jerusalem and Marrakech, of 1980, and also in many of the Gloucester Gate pictures of the early 1980s.
Berg vividly described this decorative sense in his selfinterview of 1980. He spoke about the way in which the weather sometimes compelled him to ignore the external cycle of the seasons, and to look for other rhythms. 'On dull days,' he said, 'I don't look out, so I look in and attend to the formal problems of painting - what people who are not artists probably mean when they use the term ''abstract''. These get neglected looking only at nature ... In repeating an image I've had on my hands not so much a composition as a pattern.' He went on to explain that the flatness of most pattern, as in, say, a Persian garden carpet, was relieved by the perspective one made walking towards and across it, but the same carpet on a wall could be 'as boring as anything in the Tate'.
'Something designed to be seen on a wall,' he said, 'has to be supplied with its own perspective devices, and these have to be harmonious with the direct flatness of painting.'
Berg was not, of course, announcing a 'conversion' to abstraction. We need not be surprised to discover that in 1984 he plunged back into immediate perception of the landscape. Indeed, that summer, he took to visiting Kew, where, day after day, he forced himself to complete a small canvas. The effect on his work was similar to his decision ten years earlier to leave his studio window, and go down and paint in Regent's Park itself. The Kew paintings, shown at the Piccadilly Gallery in 1985, have a renewed intensity and vividness, especially in Berg's depiction of the blues of the sky and the lake.
A great strength of Berg's painting is that he never leaves go of any dimension of his work; he is always going back and reworking old pictorial conventions in the light of new experiences and discoveries. One of his most successful 1984 works was Gloucester Gate, Regent's Park, May 1984, a picture based on a three-way point of view, displaying an intensity of pattern beyond that which could ever be 'seen', but shimmering with the fullness of a glorious colour. Nowhere is this capacity for synthesis more evident than in the great paintings of the last three years. Berg is now prepared to take all that he learned through seeing and depicting the landscape of a section of Regent's Park - and on his occasional excursions - and to apply it in the painting of subjects before which any painter has a right to feel daunted.
How then are we to assess Berg's achievement? I began by suggesting that, in my view, his work evades the limitations of both the academicist and the avant-gardist positions. Academicians and amateurs have, by and large, followed the advice which Sir Alfred Munnings laid down in his notorious, if inebriated, Presidential Speech at the Royal Academy Dinner of 1949, when he denounced 'this so-called modern art'.
'If you paint a tree,' Munnings said, 'for God's sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky.' Since then, 'avant-gardists' have been prepared to do all sorts of things to the landscape - to walk through it, move stones about or tie up twigs within it; photograph it; map it - anything, in fact, except to paint it. And least of all, to paint it in such a way that a tree looks like a tree, or a sky looks like a sky.
I have to confess to an unfashionable preference for Sir Alfred Munnings rather than Richard Long. Even so, both their positions seem unnecessarily reductionist. I like to think that Berg's work confirms the view expressed by T. S. Eliot that there can be no originality except on the basis of tradition. (Berg himself once spelled out an important proviso to this: 'What one has to do, as T. S. Eliot nearly said . . . is to make up one's own tradition.') Berg's landscape painting is, I believe, at once traditional and original.
It is traditional in its affirmation of painting as a discipline worthy of a man's best efforts. Berg is a painter who knows the value of drawing as a way of seeing. His work is enmeshed with the painter's enduring concerns: the development of an awareness of colour, the understanding of natural forms, composition, and those formal or abstract dimensions of picture-making which are not 'given' in the view. It may sound at first like a paradox to say of someone who has devoted so much of his life to painting the same patch of landscape that his originality depends, in part, upon his rejection of specialisation; but I believe this to be true.
At a time when specialisation is the order of the day, Berg has refused to reduce his painting to any of its constituent parts. He is as involved with appearance as any follower of Munnings. Colour is as important to him as it is to those who have declared that colour is the only direction for painting today, and he is as deeply concerned with 'ideas' as any Conceptualist. Some commentators have emphasised the analytic, even 'linguistic', elements of Berg's painting; others have written of the imaginative and intuitive aspects of what he does. Both are right. Berg's work shows an intelligence of feeling which is rare in contemporary art. He has held out for the distinctly unfashionable view that even in this island now, painting can be not only a source of aesthetic pleasure, but also a means to intuitive knowledge about the self and its relationship to the external world.
'A great deal of modern art,' Berg once said, 'looks to me like the end of an argument I was never in at the beginning of.' I have already admitted that his paintings helped change my own mind about what matters and what does not matter in recent art. But for many, Berg may still seem to suffer from parochialism. They should give themselves pause to consider whether - when combined with a stubbornly questioning way of seeing - parochialism cannot be a great source of strength. This would seem to have been the case for Samuel Palmer in Kent, Monet in his gardens at Giverny or Cezanne at Mont St- Victoire. Constable, too, eschewed the fashionable art of his own day, and indulged his 'overweening affection' for the banks of the Stour.
I am not trying to claim that Berg is necessarily a painter of this stature. Nonetheless, I would insist that in an era of widespread reductionism and false 'internationalism', his stance of 'informed parochialism' has served him well. It is possible that back in the 1960s, Berg, like Constable before him, believed that through his 'natural', or scientific, painting he was driving a nail to secure realism: that is, 'a more truthful account of the external world'. But Berg, again like Constable, ended up by producing paintings which are not simply 'objective' studies, but rather imply an ethical, even spiritual, stance towards the world they depict. Perhaps the curtain has not quite come down on the age of landscape painting after all.
Peter Fuller, 1986