Adrian Berg: Artist and teacher acclaimed for his lush, luxuriant landscapes

 

Thursday 03 November 2011 01:00
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In 1980 when a 25-year travelling retrospective of Adrian Berg's work opened in Rochdale, he was interviewed for the exhibition catalogue by one Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. The first question was: "Why did you become an artist?" Berg replied, "I can't answer any questions beginning 'why'." Such a response was typical, but it becomes even more revealing when you find out that the interviewer was an artifice created by Berg himself. He was a man whose ability to challenge was matched by his ability to charm, his mischievous wit and his talent as a landscape painter.

His rich use of colour, along with a dedication to detail rooted in the classical tradition, made Berg a landscape painter of extraordinarily beautiful works even while he rejected pervading fashions. Following his own path, he never gained the fame of some of his contemporaries, so could continue to enjoy challenging from the sidelines.

He was born in London in 1929, the son of Charles Berg, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who met and corresponded with Freud. His paternal family originated in Russia, from where his grandfather and settled in India as a timber merchant. He began drawing at an early age, influenced by the sights and sounds of Regents Park and later Harley Street, where he lived. He won his first drawing prize at prep school, and more in his teens at Charterhouse and the Royal College of Art sketch club.

He went to Cambridge to read medicine, lasting a year before switching to English, followed by a Diploma in Education at Trinity College, Dublin before deciding at last to pursue fine art at St Martins, Chelsea and the RCA.

Berg initially devoted much time to life drawings of black men. The fact that life drawing was key to his early work is no accident: he believed in the importance of a good education. While his appreciation of poetry and literature never left him (he was quoting Shelly and Auden on his death bed), he didn't believe one could be a good painter without mastering the basics. At St Martin's, Douglas Holden took his students round London to practise watercolour; Berg often said how hard it was, but how revealing. His watercolours of the Lake District are some of his most beautiful paintings.

After leaving the RCA and settling into a studio in Gloucester Gate, overlooking Regents Park, he began to develop his style. His first one-man show, at Arthur Tooth's in 1964, saw him moving from a geometric style to recording details of the changing views from his flat, using the windowpanes as a frame for each changing season.

He was with Waddington Galleries from 1978-83 then The Piccadilly until 1999. As his work became more complex, recording, the ripples in water and the effect of rain and wind, he often said, "I just paint what I see". Yet even while analysing nature's patterns he was turning eastwards, musing about Persian carpets, Islamic art and Chinese classical painting, a subject he devoted much time to in his last decade.

Berg won the gold medal at the Florence Biennale in 1973, had a major retrospective at the Serpentine in 1986 which received the National Trust's Foundation for Art Award. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1992. He was supported for 37 years by his partner Mike Osmund, with whom he moved to Brighton in the 1980s. Here, Berg focused on public gardens such Stourhead, Sheffield Park and Kew, as well as Beachy Head.

In 1999 he was provided by the Tate with a studio assistant, Sam Clarke, who facilitated a tour of the Antipodes, where, inspired by the the lush foliage, Berg expanded his range, creating opulent works luxuriating in colour and form; he cited his main influences as Monet, Matisse and Bonnard.

An excellent teacher, Berg taught at Camberwell, Central and the RCA – where Tracy Emin, who became a friend, called him "Bergy Baby". He bemoaned being "forcibly retired" at 60; I once had the pleasure of going to an exhibition of Bonnard with him; I learnt more than I could have in a year of study.

He enjoyed regular visits to London, and loved the deadline pressure of the Summer Exhibition and dealers' shows, once writing to me, "Guess what? I've already met both deadlines so can enjoy what early spring there may be." He quoted WB Yeats' poem "Imitated from the Japanese": "Hurrah for the flowers of spring / For spring is here again / Seventy years have I lived ... Seventy years man and boy, / And never have I danced for joy." He added: "but I was dancing to UB40's 'Red, Red Wine' some time between 3 and 4 am."

Julia Berg

Adrian Berg, artist: born London 12 March 1929; partner to Mike Osmund; died 22 October 2011.

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