An illuminating article by John Berger (with an exchange of letters between the author and Elizam Escobar)
The history of painting is often presented as a history of succeeding styles. In our time art dealers and promoters have used this battle of styles to make brand-names for the market. Many collectors - and museums - buy names rather than works.
Maybe it’s time to ask a naive question: what has all painting from the paleolithic period until our century have in common? Every painted image announces: I have seen this, or, when the making of the image was incorporated into a tribal ritual: we have seen this. The this refers to the sight represented. Non-figurative art is no exception. A late canvas by Rothko represents an illumination or a coloured glow which derived from the painter’s experience of the visible. When he was working, he judged his canvas according to something else which he saw.
Painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find. More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existant, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown.
Animals were the first subject in painting. And right from the beginning and then continuing through Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian and early Greek art, the depiction of these animals was extraordinarily true. Many millenia had to pass before an equivalent “life-likeness” was achieved in the depiction of the human body. At the beginning, the existant was what confronted man.
The first painters were hunters whose lives, like everybody else’s in the tribe, depended upon their close knowledge of animals. Yet the act of painting was not the same as the act of hunting; the relation between the two was magical.