Tag Archives: John Berger

Looking and Noticing

In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do. It is what literature has in common with painting, drawing, photography. You could say, following John Berger, that civilians merely see, while artists look. In an essay on drawing, Berger writes that, “To draw is to look, examining the structure of experiences. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree being looked at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree being looked at) not only takes minutes of hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking.” Berger is saying two things, at least. First, that just as the artist takes pains—and many hours—to examine that tree, so the person who looks hard at the drawing, or reads a description of a tree on the page, learns how to take pains, too; learns how to change seeing into looking. Second, Berger seems to argue that every great drawing of a tree has a relation to every previous great drawing of a tree, since artists learn by both looking at the world and by looking at what other artists have done with the world. Our looking is always mediated by other representations of looking.

Berger doesn’t mention literary examples. But in the novel, think of the famous tree in War and Peace, which Prince Andrei rides past first in early spring, and then, a month later, in late spring. On his second journey, Andrei doesn’t recognize the tree, because it is so changed. Before, it had been leafless and wintry. Now, it is in full bloom, surrounded by other trees similarly alive: “Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had issued them.” Prince Andrei notices the tree in part because he too has changed: its healthy blossoming is related to his own.

James Wood, Serious Noticing

(from here) 

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Inside and outside the story

The storyteller is, equally, in the story and outside it. All art perhaps involves moving between one or two or several “places.” You’re inside what you’re drawing, and you are outside the drawing, watching it. Simultaneously in two places. The artist is never in a single place–and in this he’s like a foreigner, trying maybe to create a temporary home.

True drawing (which is not what I claim to achieve) is to do with touching. Touching the subject (whether it is figurative or not) and touching the paper.

I don’t believe–insofar as art is concerned–in “new ideas”; I believe in the urgent need to discover what is already there, but has not been seen (at least by oneself). Again the masters help us–not to do what they did–but to have the courage to see what is waiting to be seen.

John Berger (from here)





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The painted moment

[In ] Vermeer’s view of Delft across the canal . . . The painted moment has remained (almost) unchanged for three centuries. The reflections in the water have not moved. Yet this painted moment, as we look at it, has a plenitude and actuality that we experience only rarely in life. We experience everything we see in the painting as absolutely momentary. At the same time the experience is repeatable the next day or in ten years. It would be naïve to suppose that this has to do with accuracy: Delft at any given moment never looked like this painting. It has to do with the density per square millimetre of Vermeer’s looking, with the density per square millimetre of assembled moments.        John Berger The Sense of Sight


Johannes Vermeer 1660–1661Oil on canvas

Dimensions 98.5 cm × 117.5 cm (38.8 in × 46.3 in)

Location Mauritshuis, The Hague

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