Monday, January 03, 2005

The Spanish Portrait

Mark Kaplan over at Charlotte Street provides another interesting reflection on John Berger's critical writing. His thoughts are prompted by a review by Berger of the "The Spanish Portrait" exhibition in yesterday's Observer. As the exhibiton website notes, portrait is a "frontier in which many ideas, meanings and experiences - both artistic and extra-artstic - converge". And Berger, with his usual unerring eye and concise style with words, explores these frontiers:
Walk down the length of the gallery under the gaze of the hundred women, men and children on the walls who were awaiting the future, part of which you represent as you walk past them. Some look formal; others hide almost nothing. You can sometimes peer around the edges of the formality to glimpse the particular kind of endurance or anguish existing behind it.
He claims no originality for the unique place of portraiture in Spanish art but still offers this precise insight; it derives from "
a particular recognition of the centrality of pain and dignity, and this leads to examining life unflinchingly". And he goes on to say some profound things about the relationship of this art and history:
Overwhelmed by History (or its absurdly declared End), misled by the notion of Progress (which, nevertheless, exists), we tend to forget that nine-tenths of what we live has been lived during millennia before us, by others. The Spanish Portrait exhibition is a reminder of this.
Let me leave the final word to Mark:
Art’s silent imperative for Berger is perhaps two-fold: on the one hand, the enjoinder to speak to and to hear the Dead; on the other, the command – famously issuing from Rilke’s archaic torso "change your life".


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