Berger 1: Re-reading, Re-seeing
March 9, 2017 § Leave a comment
On the side of the powerful there is a conformism of fear – they never forget the Wall – and the mouthing of words which no longer mean anything.
John Berger wasn’t referring to Donald Trump here, but concluding an essay published in 2008 where he revised his earlier unfavourable judgement of Francis Bacon. What he had in mind were the walls of exclusion and imprisonment, whether metaphorical or solid, that remained beyond the destruction of the one in Berlin.
Berger was the first art critic I read, and I’m sure that applied to many other readers of Ways of Seeing in 1972. I still have the original copyright-free edition, but I’ve lost The Moment of Cubism, the next of his books I came to. Thanks to the two companion volumes of Berger essays, Portraits and Landscapes, published by Verso in 2015 and 2016, and prompted by his death in January, I’m revisiting the Berger of more than four decades ago while discovering for the first time the prodigious range and reach of a lifetime’s writing. Portraits is structured as a compendium of 74 extracts on artists he wrote about, from the prehistoric painters of the Chauvet Caves to generations born in the 1970s and 80s. Landscapes is more theoretical in its placing of how art is culturally constituted; it also pays homage to those whose ideas have nourished Berger.
I learned only in an obituary that he was born in Stoke Newington, which adds to the lustre of this, my own part of London, with its history of dissidents. He was above all a European, his ideas developed through close engagement with the work of thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Berthold Brecht, Rosa Luxemburg and, later, Roland Barthes. His own writing encourages that sense of rich cultural connection. Reading him now, I feel I’m absorbing an antidote to some of the dread and dismay wrought by the Brexit vote.
To call him an art critic is inadequate. He was a novelist who wrote about art and a consummate essayist who looked at art from the perspectives of history, politics and cultural change, often through the fluctuations in his own experience of these wider dimensions. Accordingly, art kindled and illuminated his understandings of them. In 1963, he first saw Grünewald’s altarpiece in Colmar, a vast polyptych of saints, angels and demons, birth and resurrection, whose crucifixion panels vibrate with intense suffering and grief. He was aware only of its bleakness. Living in a time of hope: ‘I had no need for anything else.’
Seeing it again, more than a decade later, on the other side of 1968, he describes how he was forced to place himself historically:
In a period of revolutionary expectation, I saw a work of art which has survived as evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured, I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across despair.
Grünewald had painted colour and light radiating within darkness, and the present is not a culmination, a peak from which we can look down on the art of the past assured of our superior progress.
Berger knew about the productive space between what the artist makes and what the viewer brings. He believed not in dogma or even certainty, but in looking hard and probing deep.
Where his thinking is imaginative rather than analytical the lines of reasoning can resemble tightrope walking. However many over-risky steps he takes, we are carried along by the passionate enthusiasm of his insights and the fullness of his conviction in telling the tale. In everything (and it’s his self-description) he is a storyteller. Or else he presents the forceful summations of an aphorist:
It is the lives lived during the last 50 years that have turned Michelangelo into a revolutionary artist. (from 1959)
Goya, the first artist of the 20th century…
What I did not know when I was very young was that nothing can take the past away: the past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.
All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognise.
Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious.
I suspect writing about art is a vanity leading to sentences like the above. When words are applied to visual art both lose precision. Impasse.
Berger’s commitment as a Marxist and materialist was made the subtler by such recognitions. He set great store by the mysterious: what lies behind a painting or story. The original sceptics of antiquity, he says in a piece on Velazquez, ‘rejected any total explanation (or solution) concerning life because they gave priority to their experience that life really lived was an enigma.’