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ADRIAN BERG A Human Nature


Adrian Berg RA (1929–2011) Frestonian Gallery A Human Nature 25 April – 9 June 2018


A Human Nature: Adrian Berg’s grand gardens MARCO LIVINGSTONE

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“My subject is what man has made of nature.”*

*Adrian Berg’s self-interview, published in Adrian Berg Paintings 1977-1986, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery, London, 21 June - 20 July 1986, p. 38

For more than a quarter of a century Adrian Berg had been painting views of Regent’s Park in London, first from his top-floor flat at Gloucester Gate and then briefly from Cambridge Gate, when circumstances compelled him to uproot himself and to relocate to Hove, West Sussex, in 1988. Having for so long found all the inspiration he needed in the ever-changing spectacle of one of London’s most beautiful Royal Parks across every season, it was traumatising for him to have to rethink how to find new subjects to respond to while retaining his identity as a painter. It was akin to Morandi having his favourite bottles and jugs taken away from him, or Ensor his carnival masks, or – more pertinently, given Berg’s devotion to landscape from the motif – Monet his beloved garden at Giverny. Fortunately, already in the early 1980s, while still living in the great Nash terraces facing Regent’s Park, Berg had begun to explore locations further afield, including the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (soon one of his favourite destinations), the Capability Brown-designed Syon Park in the London Borough of Hounslow, Windsor Great Park and Sheffield Park and Garden in East Sussex, almost always choosing to paint vistas that had already been shaped by outstanding landscape gardeners rather than untamed nature. Despite his great admiration for Monet, and the years he had spent painting Regent’s Park as he looked down on it through the windows of his flat, reinventing as necessary, Berg was not wedded to the Impressionist procedure of painting en plein air. Only briefly in the mid-1980s, in some of his paintings of Kew Gardens and Syon Park, did he carry canvases with him when visiting gardens in search of motifs. The move to Sussex and the discovery of new locations clearly brought with them a major shift in his procedures, with the paintings produced instead in the studio after prolonged study in direct contact with the locations that inspired them. These altered circumstances triggered very visible changes in the look of Berg’s paintings. His career is thus pretty much divided down the middle because of the residential move, which 3


led him to the new boldness and risk-taking that we find in these marvellous late paintings. The transition, intriguingly if probably unconsciously, parallels the self-conscious rejection of Impressionism and the creation of Synthetism in the late 1880s by Gauguin and his associates. Paul Sérusier’s Bois d’amour of 1888 (now in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris), commonly referred to as The Talisman, was painted under Gauguin’s guidance as an attempt to render nature in a more abstracted form, as something eternal, rather than as a response to ephemeral conditions, insisting on the identity of a painting as a thing in itself rather than simply as a representation; with its rich blocks of strong colour and use of reflections to support the emphatic surface design, it anticipates characteristics of the paintings Berg came to produce just over a century later. Two years after the creation of The Talisman another French painter associated with the Synthetist movement, Maurice Denis, summed up its credo in a celebrated and much quoted opening sentence published in an article for the August 1890 issue of the review Art et Critique: ‘Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.’ By the time Berg had settled in West Sussex he was ready to be more adventurous in his travels, visiting not only Beachy Head on the coast eastwards from his new home – an exception to his habitual avoidance of nature in the raw – but also making return visits to Kew Gardens and Sheffield Park and Garden and discovering the rich visual possibilities of Stourhead, Dartington Hall, and even locations in Australia when he was invited to paint there in 2001. Both Sheffield Park and Stourhead are National Trust properties renowned for their historic landscape designs dating back several centuries, the former bearing the influence of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton, the latter designed in the 1740s by ‘gentleman gardener’ Sir Henry Hoare (‘The Magnificent’) and his architect Henry Flitcroft and regarded from its inception as ‘a living work of art’ and one of the greatest examples of English garden design sustained through subsequent plantings. 4


The paintings on display in this first solo exhibition of Berg’s work at Frestonian Gallery are with two exceptions all from a brief time span of 1998 to 2002, on either side of the artist’s 70th birthday in 1999. The bold design and mark-making and freshness of colour in these canvases look not only surprisingly contemporary nearly two decades later, but also with a paradoxically youthful ebullience and optimism. Yet they are the products of a lifetime’s devotion to the scrutiny of natural growth and form and of many decades of experience in handling oil paint and in retrieving vivid visual memories in the studio with the aid of watercolours, note-taking and sketches in situ. As with some of the greatest painters before him, including Monet and Bonnard, who had served him as touchstones since the mid-1960s, with age and long practice came the confidence to paint more loosely, with bigger gestures, and to condense and simplify his response to particular places in such a way that his paintings might lodge in the viewer’s memory much as those gardens had imprinted themselves on his. Even in the 1960s Berg’s paintings had been distinguished by the audacity of their colour; now in his maturity he found a delicate balance between conveying the original sensations that had prompted each picture and creating prismatic explosions of intense hues that excite the retina and that seem almost to project light and atmosphere into the spaces in which the paintings hang. Many of these canvases are bisected laterally, with the reflected image visually dissolving the materiality of the paint through which the earthbound landscape above is described. The ancient Greeks had conceived of all matter as being subdivided into earth, water, fire and air, a concept frequently celebrated in the art of fellow painter Joe Tilson (coincidentally born just a few months before Berg and a student at both St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art half a decade before him). In many of these paintings by Berg there appears to be almost a stratification in terms of these elements, corresponding respectively to the sky, the land and trees and finally the mirroring of these elements in the bodies of water below; the heat of the sun, conveyed by 5


the highlights and by the emanations of yellow, complete the presence of the fourth element. What for Tilson was a conscious theme, however, is in Berg’s case a more subliminal, intuitive response to nature that happens to correlate to a philosophical construct now buried deep in our psyches. The high-keyed colour in these pictures, much of it straight from the tube, unmixed, is repeatedly enriched by subsequent layers of colour applied both as flat shapes and as assertive brush marks. Berg’s expert handling of watercolour, notably on elongated conjoined sheets that enabled him to convey the panoramic sweep of the vistas displayed before him, certainly contributed to the ever-greater fluidity with which he handled oil paint later in his life. Greens and blues predominate, but with touches and sometimes broad expanses of yellows and reds that seem to set alight these otherwise cool, placid, luxuriant vistas. Much of the white ground shows through the fresh applications of brush strokes, producing effects of great luminosity. As with the Regent’s Park paintings made in his thirties and forties, Berg’s preference here is not for wilderness or nature left to its own devices, but on the contrary for nature already tamed, planned, controlled and designed. Responding to existing structures that inherently demonstrate a human hand in shaping growth, and a human eye in creating pleasing arrangements that soothe and beguile the spectator into a state of grace, Berg interweaves the humanity and delicacy of his own vision and personal touch. The control attested to in the upper register of the most characteristic of these paintings gives way, in the broader dabbing and especially the extravagant drips of diluted paint that animates the lower sections, to a sense of energy coursing through nature, trees and shrubbery dematerialising before our eyes. As devoted as Berg was to remaining faithful to his experience of specific places, he also takes note of the history of abstract painting, from Kandinsky to Abstract Expressionism, and of the parallels between pure visual form and music to which many of those painters aspired, and finds his own solutions for the orchestration of colour, shape and mark. 6


© Marco Livingstone 2018

There are enough similarities between these paintings and those painted in the East Yorkshire Wolds between 2004 and 2012 by David Hockney, his friend and fellow student at the Royal College between 1959 and 1961, to suggest the possibility of at least an unconscious influence on his more internationally celebrated younger colleague. Berg, after all, had been an important mentor to Hockney when he introduced him to the poetry of Cavafy and Whitman and served as an inspiring example of a gay man unapologetically living life to the full; they had remained friends and were fellow members of the Royal Academy, so Hockney would have been well aware of Berg’s lifelong devotion to landscape. Berg’s paintings, however, are painted far more in the studio from memory and his visual notes than en plein air, as was the case with many (though not all) of Hockney’s later Yorkshire canvases or, indeed, with Berg’s heroes, Monet and Bonnard. There is no sign of people anywhere in these landscape paintings by Berg, even though they are representations of much-visited gardens. Human presence, however, is everywhere implicit, from the historic designs of those celebrated, perfectly formed gardens to the way in which visitors to those popular sites are guided to wander through them, encouraged to linger at certain spots designed as deliberate vantage points or as resting places on one’s journey through the space. As a student, Berg had proved he was adept at drawing and painting people, but he learned quite quickly that for his purposes it would not be necessary to represent them in his landscapes. It is, after all, we as spectators who animate those spaces just as comprehensively when we view his paintings as when we visit the gardens that served as their inspiration.

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Plates

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2000 Stourhead, 1st July oil on canvas 63 x 89cm

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1993 Stourhead, 29th June oil on canvas 132 x 188cm

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1992 Stourhead, 24th June oil on canvas 132 x 188cm

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2002 Second Lake, Sheffield Park, Garden, Sussex Weald, 17-21 Aug oil on canvas 56 x 76cm

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c. 2002 First Lake, Sheffield Park, Sussex Weald oil on canvas 61 x 81cm

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2002 Second Lake, Sheffield Park Garden, Sussex Weald, 24th & 27th August oil on canvas 63.5 x 76.2cm

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2003 First Lake, Sheffield Park Garden, Sussex Weald, 10th & 11th September oil on canvas 63.5 x 81cm

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2002 Second Lake, Sheffield Park, Garden, Sussex Weald, 12-14 Aug oil on canvas 61 x 76cm

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2003 First Lake, Sheffield Park Garden, Sussex Weald, 14th & 15th August oil on canvas 61 x 76.2cm

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Previous page: 2002 Second Lake, Sheffield Park Garden, Sussex Weald, Late Summer oil on canvas 132cm x 366cm (2 parts)

2002 Second Lake, Sheffield Park Garden, Sussex Weald, 15th & 16th August oil on canvas 53.3 x 66cm

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1998 Temperate House, Kew, 20th February oil on canvas 83 x 114cm

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1999 Kew Gardens, 17th March oil on canvas 111.5 x 157cm

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1999 Kew Gardens, 2nd April oil on canvas 111.5 x 157cm

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1998 Kew, 21st August oil on canvas 76.5 x 91.5cm

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Biography

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Adrian Berg (1929–2011) was undoubtedly one of the great British landscape painters of the last half of the twentieth century. He whole-heartedly committed his life, work and huge talent to painting his favourite parks, gardens and vistas in the UK and abroad. For twenty-five years Berg assiduously painted the view of Regent’s Park from his window at Gloucester Gate, later on his subject matter broadened to the vast panoramas around Derwent Water in the Lake District, the glass houses and trees at Kew and Syon, the Moorish gardens of the Alhambra, the reflections in the lakes at Sheffield Park and Stourhead and the flora and fauna of the Sussex coastline. His distinctively vibrant paintings are not only an emotional response to his surroundings, but much more than that they are intellectual ideas in paint. Berg was a figurative painter in a time when institutional and commercial appetite for figurative painting was waning in the face of post-war abstraction, conceptualism and Pop art. But like his great friend and fellow RCA alumnus David Hockney, Berg believed that representational painting still had higher plains to reach and outer edges to explore. His appetite to keep pushing at these boundaries persisted right up until the end of his life. Although Berg was unwilling to court publicity he still received considerable institutional recognition within his lifetime. In 1986, The Serpentine Gallery held a major retrospective of his work, which subsequently toured the country. In 1992, he was elected as a Royal Academician, and in 1994 he became an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art. In 2012, Pallant House Gallery held a memorial exhibition to celebrate his life’s work. His work is held in many private and public collections, including, amongst others, the Tate, the Arts Council Collection, the Government Art Collection, the British Museum and The Victoria & Albert Museum. 41


Selected Solo Exhibitions

1964, 67, 69, 72 & 75 Arthur Tooth & Sons, London. 1973 Galleria Vaccarino, Florence. 1976 Galerie Burg Diesdonk, Dusseldorf. 1978 Waddington & Tooth Galleries, London. Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey. 1979 Waddington Galleries, Montreal and Toronto. Hokin Gallery Inc., Chicago. 1980 Rochdale Art Gallery, (paintings 1955-80). 1981 & 83 Waddington Galleries, London. 1984 South Gallery, Serpentine Gallery, London, (watercolours). 1985, 88, 89, 91, 93, 99 & 02 Piccadilly Gallery, London. 1986 Arts Council Exhibition, Serpentine Gallery, London. Travelled to The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and the Polytechnic Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. 1992 Brighton Festival, The Gardner Centre, The University of Sussex. 1993 Adrian Berg, A Sense of Place, Concourse Gallery, Barbican. Travelled to; Victoria Gallery, Bath. City Art Gallery, Plymouth. Newport Museum and Art Gallery. Mappin Gallery, Sheffield. Hatton Gallery, Newcastle. Royal Botanic Gallery, Edinburgh. 1994 Adrian Berg RA, Rye Art Gallery. 1999 Days of ’92, ’93, ’94, Royal Academy. Adrian Berg RA, Dartington Hall Gallery. 2002 Paintings and Watercolours 1962-1997, Hintlesham Hall. 2008 Adrian Berg, Gardens, Richmond Hill Gallery, London. 2012 Adrian Berg: A Memorial Exhibition, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. 42


Selected Collections

Barclays Bank, UK City of Bradford The British Council The British Museum Borough of Camden Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest Carlisle Museum and Art Gallery Contemporary Art Society Dartington Hall East Sussex County Council The European Parliament Government Art Collection Guildhall Art Gallery Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art Hove Museum and Art Gallery Leeds City Art Gallery The University of Liverpool Art Gallery Manchester City Art Gallery The National Trust Penguin Books Ltd Rochdale Art Gallery The Royal Bank of Scotland The Royal College of Art The Royal College of Physicians The Tate Gallery Towner Art Gallery Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum Victoria and Albert Museum 43


NOTES ON THE AUTHOR The art historian Marco Livingstone (born 1952) is a leading authority on contemporary art, with a particular interest in Pop Art and figurative painting, on both of which areas he has published extensively. He has curated major Pop Art exhibitions throughout Europe and in Japan and Canada as well as numerous touring retrospectives including those of Peter Blake, Patrick Caulfield, Jim Dine, David Hockney, Allen Jones, R.B. Kitaj, Peter Phillips, Paula Rego, George Segal and Tom Wesselmann.

Published by Frestonian Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition Adrian Berg: A Human Nature. 25 April – 9 June 2018, London. Design by BARBARA Photography by Justin Piperger All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of Frestonian Gallery. 44


Adrian Berg 'A Human Nature'  

Exhibition catalogue for work of Adrian Berg RA published by Frestonian Gallery Exhibition Dates: 25 April to 9th June 2018

Adrian Berg 'A Human Nature'  

Exhibition catalogue for work of Adrian Berg RA published by Frestonian Gallery Exhibition Dates: 25 April to 9th June 2018