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Long may he continue: on John Berger at 90

Writings, new and old, by the nonagenarian, Marxist and self-confessed “stop-gap” storyteller

by Andrew Lambirth  |  28 October 2016
John Berger © Jean Mohr
John Berger © Jean Mohr
A number of books have been published to celebrate John Berger’s 90th birthday this month, but this review focuses on four: two compilations—Portraits and Landscapes—a collaboration with John Christie, and a volume of new essays. Portraits is a vast and nourishing compendium of Berger’s essays that begins with a new preface by the master in which the first line is unequivocal: “I have always hated being called an art critic.” He admits, however, that he operated as such for a decade (mostly for the New Statesman), though in the milieu in which he grew up “to call somebody an art critic was an insult. An art critic… wasn’t as bad as an art dealer, but he was a pain in the arse”. Presumably that is why Berger prefers to be known as a storyteller or novelist, or, at a pinch, an essayist. But he has never stopped writing about art (he trained as a painter), and he is inevitably critical (in the sense of reviewing and assessing the art he is discussing). Why quibble over terms? Berger is a brilliant writer and explicator, internationally influential in a way that few art critics usually are. To read him is to engage in a dialogue that invariably stimulates and enriches. Life has more light and colour after an encounter with Berger.

His approach is to think himself into the artist’s studio, “and there I wait in the hope of learning something of the story of [the work’s] making”. This empathetic convergence yields dividends, even if Berger himself is always doubtful of the value of the outcome. Although he stopped painting at the age of 30 in order to write, he never stopped drawing, and it is perhaps this continued practice that gives him such direct insights into the activity and meaning of art. This awareness, when coupled with his consummate skills as a storyteller and an awareness of political urgencies, enabled him to develop a “sense of living connection” in the art of his time.

Berger began by lauding figurative painting and sculpture built on the discoveries of Modernist Abstraction, and stressed the importance of the artist’s receptivity or openness. His ideal method is to return again and again to the same artist, or the same work, for an extended process of consideration and reconsideration, finding something different each time. A number of the essays here are compiled in this way.

Berger’s measured prose takes his readers through the processes of his thought and looking with a clarity that is rare among writers of any sort, but especially among art critics and historians. He will employ various formats, from poems and reviews to letters, extracts from novels and plays and dialogues, all with the aim of varying the pace and surprising the truth. Dialogues with others are typical of his generosity of spirit—he is a great collaborator—but all too often what his interlocutor has to say is of less interest than his own observations. (John Christie is an exception here.) Berger’s insights are always worth pondering, whether it is Bruegel collecting evidence of human indifference, Daumier’s unique use of light, or the sadness in Monet’s eyes.

He approaches a subject from an unexpected and often revealing angle. One night he is lying in bed and his lover asks him who his favourite painter is. “I hesitated, searching for the least knowing, most truthful answer. Caravaggio. My own reply surprised me...” Berger encourages us to drop the habit of looking at paintings exclusively from the point of view of form. He supplies us with anecdote, biography, history, often poetry (a poem prefaces his essay on Degas, for instance), all skilfully employed to build a context that illuminates the subject. He also makes judicious use of quotation, Cézanne’s “colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet”, appearing at just the right point, for example. And he is neither afraid of the autobiographical, nor does he annexe it simply out of egotism or for effect (like so many contemporary writers). More than half of his essay on Käthe Kollwitz is about himself, history, publishing and ethics, but all of it has a bearing on the artist.

He is especially good on Hodler in Bern, on Matisse and colour, on Kokoschka, Robert Medley and a host of lesser-known artists such as Abidin Dino, Sven Blomberg, Michael Quanne and Rostia Kunovsky. There is a brilliant finale to his Rembrandt essay in which he explores love and history, longing and loss, and elsewhere a lovely evocation of Willesden Junction and Prunella Clough, whom he calls “the best painter of her generation”. His comparison of Francis Bacon and Walt Disney is more thought-provoking than comparing him to Goya or Eisenstein, while criticising Henry Moore early in his career nearly cost him his job and made him a national traitor. There are tender and poetic reminiscences of Ossip Zadkine, and he writes affectingly about love (in an essay on Maggi Hambling). He identifies the “accuracies of tact, of longing, of loss, of expectation” in Cy Twombly’s work, and calls him “the painterly master of verbal silence”. He memorably describes L.S. Lowry as “about as primitive as a Zen Buddhist monk”.

Berger will describe his dreams if he thinks they will lead us to an understanding of the art or artist he wants to elucidate. (He seems to favour Shakespeare’s approach: “By indirections find directions out.”) You think he is writing about Juan Muñoz, but then the focus shifts to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, only to shift back (via Red Lion Square and Meyerhold) to Muñoz. Similarly, he writes about Jaume Plensa by way of the Hebridean island of Gigha. We might be given Berger himself as a young painter, or an episode of politics, but each of his essays is always an overwhelmingly human document, even when touching on abstract thought or theory. Writing about Courbet, Berger tells us: “The only justification for criticism is that it allows us to see more clearly.” His lucid prose persuades us to see clearly indeed.

Landscapes is subtitled John Berger on Art, as if this can somehow be separated from his writing on artists. But publishing two volumes makes a wider selection of essays available, each book with a different focus. If the Portraits compilation is about individuals, Landscapes is about contexts, about how and why art is made; or as the editor, Tom Overton, puts it: “the conditions from which it arises, or the climate into which it was received”. Landscapes is a smaller book than its sibling, but equally rich, with a broad, pluralistic approach and collaborative ethos. As Overton writes: “Berger’s work is an invitation to reimagine; to see in different ways.”

The book is divided into two sections: Redrawing the Maps and Terrain. In the first half we have essays about the shaping of Berger’s thought, with thought-provoking pieces on Frederick Antal and Ernst Fischer, and a moving account of Krakow and an early friend called simply Ken. There is some marvellously descriptive and evocative writing here, but also challenging essays on the nature of portraiture and drawing. In an age of snap judgements and shallow knowledge, Berger is an exceptionally thinking man. He broods and considers, then he reconsiders, and the fruit of all this mental and emotional activity is these remarkable writings. Perhaps their effectiveness is due to his modesty and lack of illusions. In an essay entitled The Storyteller, he says: “I have never thought of writing as a profession. It is a solitary independent activity in which practice can never bestow seniority.” So, no prizes for being a nonagenarian then…

Landscapes includes such deeply-considered historical essays as The Moment of Cubism, The Clarity of the Renaissance and a piece about the beginnings of Surrealism. They contain good synoptic writing such as: “After 1600, the great artists, pushed by lonely compulsion, stretch and extend the range of painting, break down its frontiers. Watteau breaks out towards music, Goya towards the stage, Picasso towards pantomime. A few, such as Chardin, Corot, Cézanne, did accept the strictest limitations. But before 1550 every artist did. One of the most important results of this difference is that in the great later forays only genius could triumph: before, even a small talent could give profound pleasure.” Then it was the subject, not the way of painting it, which had to express the painter’s ideas and emotions.

Berger is still a Marxist, and is much exercised by what he calls “the disastrous relationship between art and property”. He writes about subjects that appear in few art books: the lives of peasants, and about displacement, migration and prison. But he is also a great and hopeful humanist and listener. The evident passion which fuels his writing is matched by tremendous compassion, and it is the singular blending of these characteristics which makes him such a compelling storyteller.

Lapwing & Fox is a correspondence book between Berger and the artist, writer and film-maker John Christie, and is the second they have published. (The first, I Send You This Cadmium Red, appeared in 2000.) The text is doubled: first a facsimile of the handwritten letter (from Berger), then a printed transcription, or, in Christie’s case, photographic reproduction of the small books he made to send to Berger, also followed by a transcription. Although Christie does occasionally append handwritten notes to his pamphlets, most of his writing is already typed, so a transcription seems somewhat superfluous, but he clearly decided the format should be maintained. Berger’s handwriting can be erratic, so the printed version is useful, and there’s a postscript on page 195 that does not appear in Christie’s original text, so the reader is encouraged to be vigilant.

The friends’ correspondence ranges over such subjects as portraits, the gaze and the mystery of space, with examples from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich (Christie’s favourite local museum) illustrating the commentary. There are lots of poignant personal stories from both Johns, and the dead move in and out of the text—parents, artists, friends, writers. There is quite a lot on Christie’s own work as print-maker and pastellist. Giacometti and Prunella Clough are discussed, and less well-known figures such as the poet Gael Turnbull and the artist Ian Breakwell. Both writers are sufficiently relaxed to be discursive as well as intently focused, and the book offers a delightfully informal but still serious account of what might be called an art friendship.

Confabulations, the book of new Berger material, is slightly disappointing in that it is so slim, and at least one of its chapters also appears in Landscapes. But why complain? Stories usually gain depth and resonance by repetition, though variation of telling also helps. (Two vignettes from another chapter of Confabulations appear in Lapwing & Fox, but with slight differences, which help to hold the attention.)

Berger begins his first Confabulations essay thus: “I have been writing for about 80 years. First letters then poems and speeches, later stories and articles and books, now notes.” Writing is a means of making sense of things, but also of communicating. Part of the spell is his modesty: “What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told and that, if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself not so much a consequential, professional writer, as a stop-gap man.”

His “notes” range wide: from Camus and Chaplin to song, swimming and the nature of language. There is a particularly beautiful story bringing together the eel fishers of Comacchio in Italy with folk music and a mosaic outside Ravenna. But it is not all celebration. His warnings about the state of society have become positively Shakespearian: “In the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.” And later: “Add to this the language used by the media to present and classify the world. It is very close to the jargon and logic of management experts. It quantifies everything and seldom refers to substance or quality. It deals with percentages, shifts in opinion-polls, unemployment figures, growth rates, mounting debts, estimates of carbon dioxide, et cetera, et cetera. It is a voice at home with digits but not with living or suffering bodies. It does not speak of regrets or hopes.” Much of the attraction of Berger’s writing is the hope it instills as well as the insight it offers. Long may he continue.

Andrew Lambirth is a freelance writer, critic and curator. He was the art critic of the Spectator from 2002 to 2014. His most recent book is the catalogue raisonné of paintings by Brian Rice (Sansom & Co, 2016)

Portraits: John Berger on Artists
John Berger and Tom Overton, ed
Verso, 544pp, £25 (hb)

Landscapes: John Berger on Art
John Berger and Tom Overton, ed
Verso, 272pp, £16.99 (hb)

Lapwing & Fox: Conversations between John Berger and John Christie
John Berger and John Christie
Objectif Press, 288pp, £28 (hb)

Confabulations
John Berger
Penguin, 160pp, £6.99 (pb)

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