Gilbert White & The Oates Collections presents an exhibition of the paintings and watercolours of Adrian Berg, the first of what is hoped to be a series of such ‘interventions’ at the Museum, is a particularly appropriate way to introduce contemporary art into this context. This subtle and unostentatious painter, like the great naturalist, spent his entire adult life devoted to the singleminded pursuit of opening our eyes to nature. White’s extreme attentiveness to his immediate surroundings and the close observation he practised when travelling are both paralleled by the work of this artist two centuries later. Like the scientific studies that White bequeathed to the world through his celebrated writings, Berg’s unapologetically beautiful paintings are the product of a highly systematic process, born of a reverence for nature and a consciousness of our place within it.
Berg’s work will be on display with in the museum between the 18th May and the 12th July. The Exhibition is part to normal admission to the museum and gardens.
Adrian Berg (1929-2011) occupies a singular position in British art of the past half-century as a painter almost exclusively devoted to the English landscape. Those who knew him in the first decades of his career following his graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1961 might well be puzzled by the title chosen for this small display of watercolours made in a panoramic format from the motif and two much larger oil paintings painted from memory, rather than direct observation, in his studio in Hove. Travelling in order to find suitable subjects to paint was a solution that came to him by necessity when he was obliged in 1985 to leave the top-floor flat in a John Nash terrace at Gloucester Gate overlooking Regent’s Park in London; during the preceding quarter-century he had painted almost all his pictures from a room in that flat, gazing intently through the window at the ever-changing spectacle of the gardens directly across the road, through every season.
Such an attachment to nature as a subject for painting was unusual not just for a city-dweller like Berg but, more pointedly, in the context of the contemporary art world in which he found his place against all the prevailing tendencies. His fellow students included several who were associated with the origins of the Pop Art movement – among them Allen Jones, Peter Phillips and Derek Boshier – and also such reluctant joiners as R. B. Kitaj and David Hockney, who were very soon to become leading lights in the return to figuration. Later in the 1960s, he doggedly carried on painting in what others would have regarded as an old-fashioned way – recording vistas from direct observation, as the Impressionists had done a century earlier – in defiance of all the ‘advanced’ movements, including not only Pop Art but also Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, that were being championed by the arbiters of taste in the art world.
Berg’s interpretations of nature, often as shaped by humans into great gardens, were, however, highly inventive, constantly evolving. His early landscapes delighted in pattern-making, sometimes taking their cue from Persian carpets or responding to the formal issues in abstract art by making arrangements of episodic views presented in grid formation or that circumnavigated all four edges of his canvases rather than being presented as scenes viewed from a single vantage point. The colour is often high-keyed, conveying the emotion of his response to a particular place at a defined moment, and the paint applied with a sensuousness consistent with his love of Monet – whose obsessive return to key motifs under different conditions inspired his own lifelong devotion to favoured sites, constantly reinterpreted – and to French 20th-century masters such as Matisse and especially Bonnard. He often delighted in choosing views of dense vegetation reflected in bodies of water for a disorientating, almost kaleidoscopic, effect. Berg’s persistence in pursuing the beauty of nature, such an unfashionable subject during much of his life, may well have had a significant effect on his old friend Hockney, whom he had certainly influenced as a student when he introduced him to the poetry of Walt Whitman and C. P. Cavafy. When in the early years of this century Hockney turned passionately to landscape, a subject that he had only touched on before, for a decade-long celebration of the rural bliss of East Yorkshire, the example set by Berg must certainly have had an at least unconscious impact.
From the mid-1970s Berg had interwoven his paintings of Regent’s Park with studies made from life, particularly in watercolour, during visits to Derwent Water (more commonly spelled Derwentwater), Keswick and other famously scenic locations (previously recorded by such illustrious predecessors as Constable) in the Lake District. After his move to the south coast he broadened his travels not only to other locations within what is now the South Downs National Park, right to its eastern extremity at Beachy Head, but also further afield, with Kew Gardens and Syon Park in West London and the 18th-century landscape garden at Stourhead in Wiltshire among his preferred destinations for such pilgrimages. Painting in sketchbooks and on easily transportable small sheets, joined together into panoramic vistas that capture the sweep of his vision across vast tracts of land, Berg succeeded not only in capturing the look and spirit of these places but also in inviting us as spectators into imagining ourselves to be present there, too, in front of these seductive spectacles and to voyaging with him through those spaces in imaginative journeys akin to those conveyed in Chinese scroll paintings. In the much larger oils synthesised from the accumulated evidence of his sketches made in situ, exemplified here by the studies he made at Highdown Gardens on the South Downs, he sought to convey the immediacy of those original sensations in a more abstracted visual language that captured those sights as held in his memory.
We would like to thank Sam Clarke for his advice, assistance and generosity in facilitating the loans, and Marco Livingstone for proposing this display and for offering his insights into the work through his text. For further information on the artist, see www.adrianberg.com.
All works are from the estate of Adrian Berg.
Some works are for sale. Please enquire at the information desk.