Reading John Berger, and looking at Coll Hamilton’s paintings

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading John Berger’s ‘Selected Essays’ (edited by Geoff Dyer), the book that best illustrates both the range and acuity of this incomparable writer’s insights on art, literature, and politics. Dyer has long held up John Berger as a model of the kind of writer he wants to be himself, one unconstrained by genre or form, able to inject critical essays with all the narrative thrust and style of fiction and fiction with all the digressive, philosophical power of criticism. Most arts and humanities graduates will have confronted Berger’s seminal ‘Ways of Seeing’ at some point. His unflinching focus on social, economic and political context in relation to the interpretation of art, using a historicist viewpoint that undermines any post-Romantic notion of ‘individual genius’, still feels transgressive. Reading Berger, reading the process of his thought as much as taking in his conclusions, forces you to interrogate your own assumptions and received ideas about literature or painting, such as they are. More than that, I think reading Berger can make the reader understand how unfocused, how flimsy and unsystematic, his or her own ideas about art are in the first place.

Although in this collection there are pieces about photography, about the nature of mass demonstrations, about economics and politics, about the nature of looking itself, most of Berger’s essays are about painting. Reading them revealed for me how little I know about painting, or about art in general; not just that I’m unfamiliar with many of the painters he discusses (Antoine Watteau? Pierre Bonnard?), but that even those painters of global popular reputation (Cézanne, Picasso) I know only very slightly in terms of the specifics of their work. Not that this matters; the essays are like demonstration models of critical thought, and worth reading regardless. The long early essay, ‘The Moment of Cubism’, for example, is one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever read, and has forced me to educate myself more about the movement. The only slight drawback about reading Berger is his relentlessly serious perspective; I wouldn’t go so far as to call him humourless, but when I say that his comparison of Francis Bacon with Walt Disney is entirely unfrivolous and done with a completely straight face (to the benefit and detraction of both men), you might have an idea of what I mean.

So, not only has reading Berger underlined for me my ignorance about art in general, it has also made it clear that, were I to take a more informed interest in the subject, I would lack any kind of critical apparatus or critical language in which to articulate it. All the preceding must act then as a form of extended throat-clearing or special pleading for the next subject that I want to write about in this blog entry – the paintings of Coll Hamilton, and how, in the best possible way, I don’t really know what I’m talking about when it comes to his work. I’m going to make an effort at describing and appraising them, but all that follows could be summarised in the old cliché, ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.’ His website can be found at See Far Enough.

Coll (I’ve known him for quite a while, so referring to him as ‘Hamilton’ in the same way as I’ve referred to ‘Berger’ or ‘Dyer’ above would just feel weird) focused for many years on comic art and illustration, only returning to painting in the last two or three years.  This background in what Will Eisner called ‘sequential art’ hints at the importance of narrative and story in his work. Coll’s paintings manage to convey this sense of story not through a left-to-right composition, but through his arrangement of contrasting and mirroring figures. In many of his works, the eye is drawn to these central, realistically rendered figures first. When the eye moves on, it sees this figure repeated, or mirrored, in ever-more abstract modes. Reversals are important in this process too – in ‘Bandstand’, the eponymous structure is not mirrored in the model the children hold in their hands, but rather vice versa – we see the model and the original of the structure almost simultaneously.

In the painting ‘Exterior 4’, the Russian dolls in the hands of the second figure are reflected by the pensive doubles of the first figure that are wandering the snowscape behind them. The eye is drawn to the smaller figures before it notices the Russian dolls, and on noticing the Russian dolls the viewer is forced to reassess the relationship between the central figures and the background ones.

At the same time, as if counterpointing the viewer, there are often isolated figures in the background gazing on the foreground scene. In ‘Exterior 2’ this figure peers from behind a log pile, the gathered wood burnished in reds and flame-like orange as if already on fire.

In ‘Exterior 3’ a faceless woman approaches the naked male figure, whose ecstatic pose is curiously unsettled by his blank, passive expression.

‘Exterior 1’ invites the greatest speculation, as the retreating background figure (possibly a double of the foreground woman?) looks back over her shoulder in regret, or acceptance.

The line of his paintings is therefore frequently vertical – he uses opposing poles, pillars, oppositions. This is seen most clearly in the ‘Exterior’ sequence, where the line of the opposed bodies follows the line of the trees, and the naked male figure is complemented by the bare trunks, the winter austerity of a landscape that is also enclosed, mysterious. As if confident that these central figures have demonstrated his point, Coll sometimes leaves his backgrounds almost gestural, sketched in. This is particularly apparent in his portraits (not all of which are painted). ‘Ceiling Gazing’ is the best example of this, but it’s hinted at also in ‘Listening’, where the background becomes almost apocalyptically distressed, disturbing in its absence.


It’s this aspect that gives his work what could be called a ‘figurative abstract’ style (a term of my own invention that probably demonstrates more than anything else in this blog that I’m grasping at straws when trying to describe art … )

Coll’s paintings are therefore not narratives as such, certainly not in a linear sense – you do not read the painting from left to right to form a conclusion, and the eye is not guided towards it. Rather, they offer the viewer a selection of focal points, and invite comparison between them. Yet to say that they have no narrative at all would be to undersell the sense of story within them, the sense that there are hidden events off the canvas about which the viewer can only speculate. It is this interrelation of the figures and the hint of unsettled mystery that provides the paintings with what could be called a narrative. What is not seen takes on as much importance as what is in front of us, and if the start of the narrative is ‘off-screen’, then in many ways so is the conclusion. So far as his images can be seen as stories, the paintings hint at beginnings and endings while at the same time being more than just a suspended or isolated middle. Emblematic of this style, and possibly my favourite amongst his works, is ‘Interior 1’, which manages to combine portraiture, mystery, elemental oppositions of fire and water (the blood-reds and fiery palette of the left hand side starkly contrasted with the watery break on the right), and the hint of incipient violence in the two figures who have broken into a sealed and furnace-like space.

His figures, even in their assumed privacy, are always being watched, overlooked. They are always in some way at risk. I think it is this hint that enclosed spaces are vulnerable to insidious or even violent invasion, and that ecstatic or contemplative solitude is always contingent that gives Coll’s work its power and originality.


One thought on “Reading John Berger, and looking at Coll Hamilton’s paintings

  1. Hannah Renowden

    I LOVE Coll’s art and have spent hours just staring at them (morphing into the scenes as though i were a subject in them!) but have never been able to put my finger on what makes them unsettling. And you are right Richard, it’s that threat of empty spaces. It’s that feeling when you are out on a picnic, miles away from anyone who could ever hurt you, and yet you somehow feel so much more uneasy in this situation than wandering down a busy high street when anything could happen to you. It’s the whole “no-one can hear you scream” thing which makes them so unnerving and awesomely beautiful.


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