Portraits: John Berger on Artists
(Verso Books, 2015)
For many of us, John Berger is a marker in time. There is the period before our first exposure to his profound and radical insights, and the period after, when the controlling circuitries of power and class are revealed. To study his six decades of criticism, essays, novels, and poems—forms that freely intermingle in his work—is an act equivalent to the sharpening of an art-writer’s pencil: imperative, formative, a foundational beginning.
Portraits, a tightly curated collection of Berger’s writings from the past half century, is portraiture in a prism. Each chapter is a vignette of the lives of Western art’s most studied artists, refracted through the eyes of a fiery 20th-century sage. Heavy-hitters like Piero della Francesca, Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Rembrandt, Courbet, Léger, and Francis Bacon are featured, along with lesser-known European artists such as Rosita Kunovsky and Martin Noël. (It is unfortunate to find little of the author’s writing on women artists included here.) Organized chronologically by artist, the scope of the collection is vast, beginning with the Chauvet Cave in France and concluding with Randa Mdah, a contemporary Palestinian artist. Literary forms vary too, from a play co-authored by Berger (Goya’s Last Portrait), to a delightful series of short letters written to his daughter Katya, riffing on Mantegna’s “oblivion” and the voluptuous torsos of his putti. Though most of the texts in the volume have been published previously, what Portraits presents is a sense of Berger’s lifelong cadence. Regardless of the era he studies or the decade in which he writes, his lyrical prose always ultimately serves a fervent political concern.
From the beginning of his days as a public figure, Berger has maintained a high—some might argue nearly impossible—pedagogical standard for visual art. Writing in the 1960s as the critic for the New Statesman, Berger famously staked his claim: “Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?” That seminal question, bolstered by an unflinching sensitivity to the plight of those suffering around the globe, can be detected in nearly all of the writing in Portraits. He finds in Goya’s images of barbaric acts a point of instruction, an evocation of how humankind’s compulsion for violence trumps rationalist thought: “The unique power of his work is due to the fact that he was so sensuously involved in the terror and horror of the betrayal of Reason.” In Jean-François Millet, he sees an admirable man that strove to live and breathe the arduous life of a peasant: “Millet was a moralist in the only way that a great artist can be: by the power of his identification with his subjects.” And in The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500 – 05), so often described in terms of puritanical punishment and horror, Berger finds hope for life beyond the temptations of capitalism: “What the painting by Bosch does is remind us—if prophecies can be called reminders—that the first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world-picture implanted in our minds [. . .] used everywhere to justify and idealize the delinquent and insatiable need to sell.” Bosch’s fire and brimstone, for Berger, is a call to refute the stratified order and assert human rights.
Berger has a staggering ability to unearth urgent, contemporary narratives from centuries-old works of art. In an essay on the 19th-century French realist Théodore Géricault, Berger puts forth a particularly contemporary definition of “madness” that reads as if inspired by the prevaricating rhetoric of our current American presidential candidates. Madness, he writes, lives within the gap between the rosy public narrative of an equitable life in a free-market society, and the experiential reality of that life, heavily weighted as it is with economic disparity and coded oppression.
Berger begins the essay, as he nearly always does, with a story of looking. His prompt is a flyer bearing a reproduction of Portrait of a Kleptomaniac (1822), Géricault’s painting of an inmate at the Salpêtrière asylum. In imagining the gaze of the artist toward his sitter, Berger finds an embodiment of two tragically entwined states: compassion and powerlessness. The artist is powerless to intervene into this man’s troubles, yet continues to look without pause. How else would he have captured such an honest portrait? Berger writes:
In all five portraits Géricault painted in La Salpêtrière the sitters’ eyes are looking elsewhere, askance. Not because they are focused on something distant or imagined, but because, by now, they habitually avoid looking at what is near. What is near provokes a vertigo because it is inexplicable according to the explanations offered.
Listen to the calls of our Republican agitators: this vertigo remains in effect. How to reconcile what is promised on campaign trails (for example, the oratory that upholds being “tough-on-crime”) with what is lived (institutionally sanctioned violence)? To attempt to do so is maddening, and often, like those Géricault painted in La Salpêtrière, we turn away into the distance, avoiding “what is near.” The gaze of the insane becomes an allegory for the effects of a population impoverished: it is a public and blinding madness. He continues:
There are historical periods when madness appears to be what it is: a rare and abnormal affliction. There are other periods—like the one we have just entered—when madness appears to be typical.
But for Berger, an itinerant storyteller, there is a form of hope. We must recognize our neighbors. We must love with “creative attention,” to borrow a phrase from Simone Weil, as Berger does. To forget oneself in another—to temporarily embody and move within another’s experience by painting their portrait in oil or words—is a powerful act of defiance.
Berger’s writing is fearless, winnowing down canonized artists to their essential political bones.
Sara Christoph is a former Managing Director of the Brooklyn Rail.