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Another Way To See

By (March 1, 2016) 2 Comments

By John Berger, Edited by Tom Overton
Verso: 2015

There are many reasons everyone should learn how to draw, but perhaps the most important one is to learn how to see. My own drawings are neither very accurate nor very pretty. Therefore—because I’ve nothing better to hope for—I’m not bothered that my favorite exercise produces no more than a fractal scrawl. This is what I do: I transcribe the lines I can see in the palm of my hand without looking at the paper or lifting the pencil from it. For at least an hour afterward, my vision feels more improved than by a new pair of glasses. The sweep of my gaze is likely to be caught by the angle of a window frame, the reflection in a tumbler, or my own shadow. I see them as if for the first time. “I can’t explain how the drawn enters a drawing,” writes John Berger, “I only know it does. One gets closest to understanding this when actually drawing.”

John Berger is an art critic who actually draws. This fact will not escape you if you read any of the essays collected in Portraits, even if you don’t read the editor’s introduction: “Berger’s first career [was] as a painter, studying at the Chelsea and Central Schools of Art, exhibiting around London.” When Berger looks at a painting, he can’t help but imagine the technical challenges of the artist, perhaps with a tinge of nostalgia. He stopped painting (though he kept drawing) and took up JohnBergerwriting instead. “There were too many political urgencies to spend my life painting.” It was as a writer that Berger ultimately made his fame. Among other accomplishments, he won a Booker Prize for his novel G.; but he’s best known for his nonfiction, for his BBC special Ways of Seeing and a ceaseless flow of passionate art criticism.

Because of the same political urgencies that turned him from painting to writing, Berger became a Marxist. He wasn’t the joining kind of Marxist—no one could make a more fractious cadre than the highly individualistic Berger—but the concerns of his writing exhibit the influence of dialectical materialism. This influence is nowhere more apparent than in the curious inversion Berger makes of the usual priorities of critics and art historians, who love to talk about schools and traditions, the reception and theory of art. Imagine the trinity of eyes that behold a painting—the first eyes, those of the artist who is also the first viewer, the secondary eyes, those of all the viewers whose evaluative preferences surround the object like a cloud of signs, and the ultimate eyes of the present viewer. Berger is interested in the artist and the present viewer and nothing in between. For him, as a Marxist, the value of a painting naturally comes from the labor of the painter; and as a consequence, he believes art is communication, a transaction between artist and viewer, the formal logics of art history be damned. Describing a Rothko, he writes,

I forgot about impressionism, Cubism, twentieth-century art history, Modernism, Postmodernism—and saw only the story of his love affair, his liaison, with the visible.

This insistence upon unearthing for the present viewer the hidden labor of the artist, when coupled with his own technical knowledge of painterly art, delivers Berger’s essays from the tedium of much art criticism. He speculates daringly and transports us to the studio. Writing about Vija Celmins, about whom he has no basis for this speculation, he says,

I picture her in her studio shutting her eyes in order to see—because what she wants to see, or has to see, is always far away. She opens them to look only at her drawing. What she does with her shut eyes is like what we do when we put a sea shell to our ear to listen to the sea.

Novelistic, tendentious exposition like this is perilous but exciting. Berger defends his method: “the story doesn’t of course tell the whole truth – what story does? – but perhaps it makes the essential truth…a little clearer.” The “essential truth” is what Berger looks for in every painter he considers in the book.

Portraits was collected not by Berger himself, but by an editor, Tom Overton. This seems to be the pattern for summative collections of Berger’s essays, the last, Selected Essays, having been put together by Geoff Dyer. Whereas Dyer excerpted from Berger’s many smaller books and grouped his selections by the volume from which they came, Overton’s editorial style is more interventionist. He has organized pieces by setting them out chronologically according to the artist each considers. Portraits thus appears to be a sort of history of painting, cobbled together from an unsystematically comprehensive critical oeuvre. The pieces include an astonishing variety of genres—poems, letters, stories, lectures, dialogues, and straightforward exhibition reviews. Despite this profusion of genre, Berger’s style is consistent.

He likes to anchor his pieces around superlatives. “Dürer,” he tells us, “was the first painter to be obsessed by his own image.” And, “Rembrandt was the first modern painter.” Every painter is the first or the most or the master of something: “Cy Twombly is the painterly master of verbal silence!” And, “Bruegel’s paintings are more relevant to modern war and to the concentration camps than almost any painted since.” This fondness for hyperbole seems designed to pierce the scrim of academic constraint, to arrive at something essential—or at the very least, something memorable.

rockBerger often succeeds in his mnemonic mission by dint of a sharp observation or a neat turn of phrase. “Cows,” he observes, “are very delicate on their feet: they place them like models turning on high-heeled shoes at the end of their to-and-fro.” And in another place, talking of a painting by Cezanne, he writes, “the indentations of some rocks in the forest of Fontainebleu [in Cezanne’s painting] have the intimacy of armpits.” These verbal felicities are no accident. In his essay on Twombly, he conceives of the writer’s labor like this:

A writer continually struggles for clarity against the language he’s using, or, more accurately, against the common usage of that language. He doesn’t see language with the readability and clarity of something printed out. He sees it, rather, as a terrain full of illegibilities, hidden paths, impasses, surprises, and obscurities. Its map is not a dictionary but the whole of literature and perhaps everything ever said.

Because Berger experiences the act of writing as a momentous struggle with every sentence—a skirmish, as Martin Amis might say, in the war against cliche—he often sets the scene of his own writing at the beginning of an essay. “I am sitting in a stationary car,” he begins, “thinking about Marisa Camino’s strange exhibition which took place earlier this month in the forest of Söhrewald.” That could be the first sentence of a novel. Indeed Berger’s self-portrayal, both as a writer struggling with words and as a viewer adventuring to see, often feels more dramatic than analytic. On at least one occasion, the drama completely overtakes the analysis: a piece about Antonello da Messina becomes an anecdote about Berger getting tossed out of a museum by a petty-minded rule-mongering museum attendant:

When the Super arrives, he stands, arms akimbo, more or less behind me, to announce: ‘You will leave the gallery under escort. You have insulted one of my men who was doing his job, and you have shouted obscene words in a public institution. You will now walk in front of us to the main exit. I take it you know the way.’

They escort me down the steps into the square. There they leave me, and energetically jog up the steps, mission accomplished.

Perhaps this attention to the materiality from which art is traditionally supposed to elevate and purify us is another consequence of Berger’s Marxism. It shows up in other ways as well. This is how he explains the difference between two self-portraits by Dürer:

What can explain the striking difference between the two paintings? In the year 1500 thousands of people in southern Germany believed that the world was just about to end. There was famine, plague, and the new scourge of syphilis. The social conflicts, which were soon to lead to the Peasants’ War, were intensifying. Crowds of labourers and peasants left their homes and became nomads searching for food, revenge—and salvation on the day on which the wrath of God would rain fire upon the earth, the sun would go out, and the heavens would be rolled up and put away like a manuscript.

Without drawing attention to it, Berger insistently and persuasively pushes a materialist interpretation of art history. Material life and class are also categories relevant to his speculation about the contemporary meaning of art:

I’m writing in a Paris suburb and I’ve been to the Sunday market. I saw young couples there, pale, not well dressed against the rain, wearing jeans, hair lacquered, with city acne, holding hands, pushing prams, teasing in argot, each one with their thin, crooked-toothed dodge for a happiness. And as I watched them I said to myself: What would they say about The Flaying of Marsyas?

If combining ideological earnestness and a novelist’s individuality of form and observation seems to you a tricky act to pull off, you’re not wrong. There really isn’t another art critic—that I’m aware of, anyway—who can do what Berger does. And the tensions he so inimitably maintains can produce insights of extraordinary power, unconventional because of the ideology, persuasive and striking because of the aesthetic sensitivity. Perhaps my favorite example of this combination in Portraits occurs in the chapter about Monet. “Impressionism,” he suggests, “lends itself to nostalgia.” And this is ironic because the impressionists believed that their art “was forward-looking and based on a scientific study of nature.”

facTo back up this critique, Berger combines a phenomenologically sensitive account of what happens to the viewer looking at an impressionist painting with a story about Monet. When you look at the thousand flicks of paint comprising an impressionist picture, “the precision triggers your visual memory, while the vagueness welcomes and accommodates your memory as it comes.” Soon, “you fall through a kind of whirlpool of sense memories towards an ever receding moment of pleasure.” And therefore, “what an impressionist painting shows is painted in such a way that you are compelled to recognize that it is no longer there.” Believing themselves positivists, the impressionists were actually nostalgists. To drive his point home, Berger turns to biography:

Monet confessed to his friend Clemenceau that his need to analyse colors was both the joy and torment of his life. To the point where, he went on to say, I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife’s dead face and just systematically noting the colours, according to an automatic reflex!

Without a doubt the confession was sincere, yet the evidence of the painting is quite otherwise. A blizzard of white, grey, purplish paint blows across the pillow of the bed, a terrible blizzard of loss which will forever efface her features. In fact there can be very few death-bed paintings which have been so intensely felt or subjectively expressed.

And yet to this—the consequences of his own act of painting—Monet was apparently blind. The positivistic claims he made for his art never accorded with its true nature.

One thing shown by this generous, even compassionate polemic against the pretensions of impressionism, is a possibility of Marxist criticism hardly ever seen: its profound humanism. Berger’s passionate interest in the artists behind the paintings he writes about never devolves into moral censure, though he is often prepared to explain the discrepancy between what they did and what they thought they were doing.

Their labor, argues Berger, however misconceived it might have been on occasion, deserves our respect. The attention and thought he lavishes upon the canvases constitute a powerful defense of the value of human art:

How much courage and energy were necessary to struggle for the right to paint in different ways! And today these canvases, outcome of that struggle, hang peacefully beside the most conservative pictures: all united within the agreeable aroma of coffee, wafted from the cafeteria next to the bookshop.

This recognition of the poignant improbability of the artworld is the ultimate theme of all Berger’s art criticism.

After reading Portraits I naturally found it necessary to spend some time in a gallery. Odd details began to jump out at me. As I looked, I wondered about the studio where the canvases I studied had been painted, and about the world in which that studio had its place. What drawing does for my perception of the visible world in general, reading Berger does for my perception of art—it gives me another way to see.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.