John Berger considers Franz Hals “the only painter whose work was profoundly prophetic of the photograph.” Hals’s paintings bear little resemblances to photographs, but what Berger means is that they think like cameras. Like his contemporary Rembrandt, Hals paints his nude as she really looked, Berger says; neither painter painted a Platonic ideal of his subjects. But Berger believes that Rembrandt achieved realism though his view of redemption, while Hals achieved his through a kind of desperation that Berger admires. I’m not sure if Berger associates that desperation in any way with photography.
Berger’s view of Rembrandt mirrors mine of Dostoevsky, whom I consider a realist. Rembrandt applies “a realist practice more radically than any other Dutch painter to the subject of individual experience. It is not his choice of biblical subjects which matters here, but the fact that his religious view offered him the principle of redemption, and this enabled him to look unflinchingly at the ravages of experience with a minimal, tenuous hope.”
Dostoevsky’s characters are the most realistic I’ve ever encountered if, like Berger, one refers to the realism of “individual experience.” I feel drawn to Dostoevsky’s Christianity because, unlike a lot of Christianity I’ve experienced in the West, it offers insight into the horrors of experience. It is precisely Dostoevsky’s “minimal, tenuous hope” that permits him to sketch Dmitri and Ivan Karamazov. Christians with little experience of redemption flinch, like Job’s friends, in the face of tragedy, unable to accept it in terms other than divine retribution.
Berger’s view of Hals as the only painter-prophet of the photograph stems from his observation that Hals was driven, unlike his predecessors, to paint a world with contingency and without conclusions. This almost existentialist viewpoint Berger finds in Hals accounts for what Berger perceives as Hals’s desperation and impatience. Hals’s naked woman on the bed “does not, like [Rembrandt’s] Bathsheba, glow from the light of her being. It is simply her flushed, perspiring skin that glows. Hals did not believe in the principle of redemption. There was nothing to counteract the realist practice, there was only his rashness and courage in pursuing it.”
But how closely does a photograph render experience as opposed to only appearance? Because Berger goes on to say that Hals doesn’t get across merely his model’s glowing skin. Hals’s practice “was not to reduce a bouquet of flowers to their appearance . . . it was to reduce closely observed experience to appearance.” Most photography gets across only a subject’s appearance and not her experience, I think. Translating experience to appearance seems like a worthy goal for photography, though Berger doesn’t say as much.
And is photography art enough or broad enough to distinguish between a Hals photograph and a Rembrandt one, if you will, excluding digital postproduction work, which can make a photograph into anything? From the standpoint of composition, lighting, and the knack for, and skill of, capturing photographic images, can one distinguish between a Rembrandt realism and a Hals one in photography?
Finally, what is Hals’s – really, Berger’s version of Hals’s – equivalent in literature? Friar Lawrence-like, “I do spy a kind of hope” in the most seemingly-hope-forsaken literature. I don’t find Faulkner’s novels and his Nobel proclamation that “man will prevail” to be contradictory. Berger’s own Lucie Cabrol is one of my favorite characters in literature, and her third life suggests a “tenuous” silver lining to her tragedy. Can a novel be at once bereft of hope and yet great? Maybe Jude the Obscure, though its hopeless feel may stem more from its lack of comic relief than anything else.
I find even philosophically hope-forsaken literature (Sartre’s No Exit, Kafka’s The Penal Colony) to be oddly hopeful – hopeful, perhaps, at a spiritual level.
Can the same thing be said for Hals’s work or for photography at its essence? Does Berger agree with Roland Barthes that photography’s power comes from its lack of artifice:
It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself. The noeme of language is perhaps this impotence, or, to put it positively: language is, by nature, fictional; the attempt to render language unfictional requires an enormous appraratus of measurements: we convoke logic, or, lacking that, sworn oath; but the Photograph is indifferent to all intermediaries: it does not invent; it is authentication itself; the (rare) artifices it permits are not probative; they are, on the contrary, trick pictures . . . (Camera Lucida 85, 87)
Is language by nature hopeful, and is that hope bound up with its essentially fictional nature? And, given that fiction is often more spiritually accurate than fact is, is that so bad?
And now that digital postproduction – Photoshop and the like – has made photography’s artifices less “rare,” would Barthes find today’s photography less (Barthes’s word) astonishing, less (Berger’s word) despairing, more linguistic, fictional, hopeful?
[All Berger quotations and paraphrases are from his 1979 essay “The Hals Mystery” from The Selected Essays of John Berger. If I had read more of Berger’s essays on art than I have, I might know more about his views on photography. But my point here isn’t to figure that out. All emphasis original.]