Pierre Bergian Paints Empty Rooms

In Pierre Bergian, Purdy Hicks Gallery, 2013

Pierre Bergian paints empty rooms.  Well, not completely empty.  Sometimes there is a solitary piece of furniture, a ladder, a piano, a table, but these seem to do little more than add to the emptiness.  ‘My paintings are a little similar to still lives,’ he says.’Emptiness fascinates me.’ Or perhaps peace would be  a better word  to describe what this Belgian artist creates on canvas. Lacking a chair and a musical score, the only notes the piano suggests are yet to be played or belong to the past, facts which add to the silence rather than filling it.

Empty they may be, but they are full of atmosphere.  ‘My paintings are simply poetic; I am not interested in any conceptual meaning.’ They are also full of light.  ‘Being interested in light is not exceptional for a painter. But I never paint artificial light. I love sunshine coming into a room with a lot of shadow.  I make a difference between morning and afternoon light or evening light. I also like the light of the winter sun, coming in very deeply. Moonlight is fascinating! Especially in old houses, when this light reflects on the walls, floor and ceiling. Light in a building can be so delicate.’

Bergian’s fascination with rooms makes him a member of a select band of artists.   Ever since Bonnard and Vuillard entered art history books as Les Intimistes,  leaders  of  that little group of late nineteenth century French  painters  who specialised in ravishing interiors of domesticity  presented  afresh through  pattern and line borrowed from Japanese prints,   paintings  of rooms have had an official  place in art and  in our hearts.

But long before the dignity of an art historical label, there were painters attracted to the artistic possiblilities of rooms.  The fifteenth century artists of the Netherlands   made their biblical stories come to life by including  recognisable domestic details of the day, the fire guards, baskets and manuscripts which built  a bridge between the  viewers’ daily  life and the spiritual world depicted on the  panel.  Two centuries later, the Dutch explored the emotional possibilities of their homes as settings for family life and moral teachings , producing paintings  which today are are  rivalled only  in our affections  by the works of the Impressionists.   In 1889 Van Gogh painted one of the best loved rooms in western art:  through his heightened colours,  Bedroom at Arles   glows with the passion he felt for  his dream of an artistic brotherhood with Gauguin  in the warm and sunny  south of France.

Bergian may belong to the club, but he presents us with something subtly  different. To begin with, his paintings offer no hints about   the owners of the rooms.   Most paintings of interiors are filled with clues about their occupants which fly up to meet the viewer’s eyes.  An open book on a table top suggests a recent reader called to answer a knock at the door .  A pot of flowers on a window ledge suggests the nurturing hands which water it.   But Bergian   gives us no explanation for the ladder, the empty table or the bare windowsill and in this he is unusual. There is no sense of a busy household crammed with people, tasks and objects.   Domesticity is not what draws him.

Though sometimes inspired by a specific place, Bergian’s rooms are a composite of spaces which have attracted him.   ‘Some of the painted interiors are quite realistic. Others are compilations of what I have seen – impressions of reality.’    It would be a mistake to read his rooms as literally realistic.  Reality for Bergian is  reality of atmosphere.

What Bergian does is prioritise the room’s essence over  its  story – in fact, the essence IS the story. To achieve the effect he wants , he turns accepted ideas on their head.   The Netherlandish artists invented the enticing view through a window, a brilliant device to lead the viewer into a world  behind the wall .    In the background  of many of their religious paintings are views of Bruges, the city where Bergian has lived his life.   It would be no surprise were he to update this convention . But he does not.  In a perverse reversal of the rules, he uses  windows to bring us back into his rooms.

Nothing is quite as it seems on the surface.   The mountains  which attract him (‘coming from a flat country’)  could  be views through a window or pictures on a wall.    Somehow they exist on the same plane as the windows, a spatial ambiguity that adds to the magical atmosphere. The effect is the opposite of  that achieved by the  German romantic Casper David Friedrich whose window landscapes are a metaphor  for the spiritual realm which  lies  beyond the room.

Doors, too, play a different role from the conventional one.   Where the  seventeenth century Delft  artist de Hooch creates a complex sense of rooms leading  to an outer yard, to a hallway, to other rooms, Bergian’s doors, even when open, bring  you back into the central space he has created on the canvas. There is a kind of pictorial logic to his paintings.   ‘For me the interiors are constructed buildings. When painting or sketching, I walk in the spaces which I imagine. I often open windows , doors and passages, and close others to imagine another perspective, light or atmosphere . ‘

The stress on atmosphere leads to the slightly surreal air of many of the canvases.  Bergian points to his   interest in the Italian Giorgio  de Chirico, master of stillness and the mid day mood, to   explain the metaphysical element in his paintings,  although he says  ‘my work is more northern, nearer to Hammershoi’, the nineteenth century Swedish artist whose  rectangles of sunlight to add quiet drama to his sparsely furnished rooms. The giant apple enclosed by the walls of a small room by his Belgian processor Magritte, though superficially different,  shares Bergian’s  interest in the mysterious possibilities of interiors.

Behind the air of mystery in  Bergian’s images lies a taste for old interiors and  abandoned rooms,  an interest in what he calls the archaeology of the interior. ‘When I was a child, I loved to discover abandoned old houses in Bruges, Lille and Ghent. They were mostly empty and rather dark, of course, without artificial light. Medieval buildings are very mysterious. But twentieth century buildings are amazingly interesting too.  ‘   He does not think he is alone in this taste: ‘I am persuaded that we are unconsciously very fascinated by interiors of buildings because these are the places in which we spend the largest part of our lives.’

This interest translates into a painting technique of layers of colour and suggestive marks which are a kind of parallel on  canvas to the layers of history, of emotion, of atmosphere he finds in the interiors which fascinate him .  ‘Underlying layers of paint, or even of other interiors may be visible in my paintings.  This makes the work more like an archaeological object.

The paintings satisfy in a  formal way as well.  Bergian is an artist who likes a grid. This nod to abstraction reveals his modernity but ultimately it is used to intensify the atmosphere of his interiors. The doors and windows are structural devices which add an order to the image; his sensitivity to the power of colour, which looks, but rarely is, naturalistic, enhances the  strangeness, peace or drama  of the painting.

Bergian’s goal of creating atmosphere instead of a mirror image of reality makes him a visual poet of the interior. Painting, he says, can carry more than photography.    ‘I try to sniff the mysterious atmosphere of all these places and images. A result you can’t entirely get through photography. I prefer to work with a brush and paint. The process is slower, but you give the image more time to penetrate the mind.’

Frances Borzello

January 2013

Essay written for Pierre Bergian catalogue, 2013

Frances Borzello is the author of At Home: the domestic interior in art , Thames & Hudson 2006  (in French, Interieurs: les peintres de l’intimite, Hazan). Her most recent book is  The Naked Nude  published by Thames & Hudson.