Reviewed by Jill
Art critic, novelist, painter and poet – the many facets of John Berger’s life and passions are revealed in Landscapes: John Berger on Art, a selection of his writings. His lifelong passion for art underpins strong opinions. He acknowledges the writers and others who influenced him, and entertains us with episodes from his life. The landscape is his life, his context, and the lives of those who shaped his thought.
This is a compilation of Berger’s writings over many years. Editor Tom Overton has selected essays, short stories, and poems, sometimes incorporating the poetry and words of others, where these have been significant to Berger. There are the scholarly, well-argued assessments of art movements, and artists themselves, stressing the value of political and social contexts, and taking a broad approach to certain periods in history. The writings are arranged in two sections: Down with Enclosures and Terrain. Each essay is self-contained, but connected with its neighbours.
Mood and content mould the writing.
There are gentle, loving and non-judgmental pieces on lifelong friends, people who influenced him. He records their conversations without quotation marks – as intimate exchanges. Ernst Fischer is one of these friends. Till close to his death, Fischer was ‘… fully alive because he was fully convinced’ (67). It was ‘impossible … to suppose that he was dying slowly, that every year he belonged a little less vehemently to life’ (67). Berger was present at Fischer’s death, and writes of the final hours. Fischer’s gaze became more distant, the touch of his hand was lighter. It brought to Berger’s mind the carved figures on Etruscan sarcophagi – body relaxed, head and neck alert, looking into a future projected during life.
His account of a conversation with a Turkish writer provokes lively imagery. Neither could speak the other’s language, and Berger refused interpreter assistance. The talk began with tentative stick figure drawings, and it grew from there. ‘I … did a drawing of myself as one of her readers. She drew a boat upside down to show she couldn’t draw. I turned the paper around so it was the right way up. …The more we drew, the quicker we understood. In the end we were laughing at our speed – even when the stories were monstrous or sad’ (21).
Some poetry is included. A Bertolt Brecht poem, An address to Danish worker actors on the art of observation, directs the students thus — see the familiar as strange, and the strange as familiar. The poem questions them. It fits nicely with Berger’s own drawing experience, and is appropriately placed after his discourse The basis of all painting and sculpture is drawing.
There are also reasoned opinion pieces, some quite compact, others lengthy and solidly supported by facts. His musings on portraiture versus photography, and art museum curatorial practices make interesting and sometimes provocative reading.
Berger’s deep knowledge is apparent in the snippets of art history and movements that insinuate themselves into some essays. At times I was painfully aware of the deficiencies in my knowledge, so learned and intense was Berger’s discourse. I found his piece on Max Raphael’s The demands of Art to be heavy going. While I comprehended such concepts as art-as-property, and interpretations of art in terms of class ideology, it was difficult to sustain interest. Other pieces on Renaissance and Cubism were similarly intense. The beauty of collected works is that the reader can put it down. If it becomes difficult to maintain focus, move away, and return another time.
Acerbic observations lurk amongst them all. He commented on Paris ‘… any large city is large enough to supply any journalist with the story he wants to find’ (148). He noted the art museum’s ‘… establishment as an amusement arcade for cultural trippers’ (149). He opines on non-art as ‘ that destructive egotism which every artist has to face … gives the sacred value of art to his smallest gesture – even to the imprint of his thumb – and to the most petty of his ideas’ (157). There’s a trove of similarly tart observations, waiting where you least expect them.
Yes — he does directly address his own art. To take paper, to draw describes his education, bringing in the practice and philosophy of drawing, and the magic of Picasso’s studies. He distinguishes three categories of drawing. The first of these are the studies, ‘… traces left behind by the artist’s gaze’ (22). His second category, traffic or transport, brings to the paper what is already in the mind, ‘… recording visions of the past’ (24). Then there are those done from memory — working notes for another time. This essay was written in 1987. Drawing is now enjoying a resurgence, and Berger’s comments are relevant to today’s practitioners.
With no apparent chronological order, the essays move around in time. Few show a date. This doesn’t matter, as the topic and Berger’s comments are comfortably suspended somewhere within our era. They will always be fresh. Occasionally the reader may want to place some of Berger’s assertions in their political and social context. The Acknowledgements section provides the dates, which range from 1954 to 2015. The earliest writings show the same neat, careful style as the latest.
This book represents good value and good reading. There is tremendous variety in length, subject and style. The ‘heavy’ essays are balanced by lighter, more personal accounts of people Berger knew. There is nothing laboured in his writing and no waste. Each word is carefully chosen, each phrase is constructed to create a balanced piece.
Sometimes I wondered what Berger would say were he able to revisit certain themes in 2017. Has Soviet art lived up to the promise of its 1954 embryonic new direction? Have art museums and their curators even found one?
Edited by Tom Overton
Allen & Unwin