The production of the world

For my final musings on Maurice Pialat's Van Gogh, I want to mention a wonderful essay on Van Gogh by art critic John Berger in his book The Sense of Sight. I think the following paragraphs do as much to describe Pialat as Van Gogh, and I hope to illustrate as much through the embedded clip (note spoilers -- though I'm sure that most of you may know that Vincent Van Gogh is dead):

For an animal its natural environment and habitat are given; for a man - despite his faith of the empiricists - reality is not a given: it has to be continually sought out, held - I am tempted to say salvaged. We are taught to oppose the real to the imaginary, as though one were always at hand and the other distant, far away. And this opposition is false. Events are always to hand. But the coherence of these events - which is what we mean by reality - is an imaginative construction. Reality always lies beyond, and this is as true for materialists as for idealists, for Plato and for Marx. Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of cliches. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.

All modern artists have thought of their own innovations as offering a closer approach to reality, as a way of making reality more evident. It is here, and only here, that the modern artist and the revolutionary have sometimes found themselves side by side, both inspired by the idea of pulling down the screen of cliches, cliches which in the modern period have become unprecedentedly trivial and egotistical.


further down, the essay really heats up... and it's worth considering how all of this may apply to cinema.

... Nothing appeared more sacred to [Van Gogh] than work. He saw the physical reality of labour as being, simultaneously, a necessity, an injustice and the essence of humanity to date. The artist's creative act was for him only one among many. He believed that reality could best be approached through work, precisely because reality itself was a form of production.

The paintings speak of this more clearly than words. Their so called clumsiness, the gestures with which he drew with pigment upon the canvas, the gestures (invisible to us but imaginable) with which he chose and mixed his colours on the palette, all the gestures with which he handled and manufactured the stuff of the painted image, are analogous to the activity of the existence of what he is painting. His paintings imitate the active existence - the labour of being - of what they depict.

Take a chair, a bed, a pair of boots. His act of painting them was far nearer than that of any other painter to the carpenter's or the shoemaker's act of making them. He brings together the elements of the product - legs, cross bars, back, seat; sole, uppers tongue, heel - as though he too were fitting them together, joining them, and as if this being joined constituted their reality...

He was compelled to go ever closer, to approach and approach and approach. In extremis he approaches so close that the stars in the night sky become maelstroms of light, the cypress trees ganglions of living wood responding to the energy of the wind and sun. There are canvases where reality dissolves him, the painter. But in hundreds of others he takes us as close as any man can, while remaining intact, to that permanent process by which reality is being produced.

Once long ago, paintings were compared with mirrors. Van Gogh's might be compared with lasers. They do not wait to receive, they go out to meet, and what they traverse is, not so much empty space, as the act of production. The 'entire world' that van Gogh offers as a reply to the vertigo of nothingness is the production of the world. Painting after painting is a way of saying, with awe but little comfort: it works.

Link to Vincent Van Gogh's complete catalog