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PRINT March 2017

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John Berger

Still from Ways of Seeing, 1972, a TV show on BBC. John Berger.

TO EXPLAIN why John Berger was such a great writer about art, it’s easiest to start with questions of boredom. What first struck me, when I saw the classic 1972 TV series Ways of Seeing and read the book adapted from it, was the way Berger made boring old paintings of men in ruffs look interesting. He was able to do this—and so much more—because he was the least boring writer on art there has ever been. Think, on the other hand, of that lavish catalogue accompanying the wonderful show of whatever at the museum of wherever. You really wanted a souvenir of your visit, but when you looked at the catalogue’s essays, your heart—well, it didn’t exactly soar, did it? You bought the book anyway and lugged it home. But that sensation, as you slit the shrink-wrap—was it a tremble of anticipated pleasure or a faint gurgle of dread? Either way, the feeling when you got to the end of the texts was surely one of relief: Phew! That was a bit of a slog, but I learned something. Contrast that with Berger, with the thrill you get when reading him—on any artist, from any period in history—at any phase of his long writing life.

In 2015, curator and writer Tom Overton excerpted stuff Berger had written about artists and arranged it chronologically so that the resulting collection, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, comprised a highly individualized history of art. Glancing through the contents, I guessed that I’d read everything before, but that familiarity manifested itself as an almost physical sensation of excitement: flash after flash of revelation and discovery. Each piece comes as close as possible to placing you directly in front of the work of whoever is being discussed. No, no, that puts it far too tamely: whoever’s story is being told.

In a 1984 interview, Berger claimed that even when he was working as a regular art critic for the New Statesman in the 1950s, he was really writing stories. Personally, I find Berger’s insistence on identifying himself as a storyteller a less-than-adequate description of what he was up to, but his ability to embed a critical assessment of an artist’s work within a narrative is indeed matchless. This, combined with his knack for evoking the look of a canvas or sculpture in words, counteracts some of the expected hostility to his writing in an unexpected way. First collected in Permanent Red (1960), those early articles are informed by a straightforward ideological agenda: “Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?” Since this rubbed plenty of people the wrong way, the letters page of the New Statesman often became an entertaining battleground—never more so than when the dim-witted Stephen Spender set himself up for a devastating counterpunch. After Spender wrote to complain that Berger was “a foghorn in a fog,” Berger replied by thanking him for the compliment: What could be more useful in a fog, he asked, than a foghorn? A more protracted struggle was waged with the Statesman’s other art critic, the painter Patrick Heron, who promoted abstraction against Berger’s stubborn advocacy of social realism. The odd thing, now that the verdict of posterity has been secured, is that one can still read Berger’s pieces with immense satisfaction and pleasure even though, in critical terms, he consistently backed the wrong horse.

From the early ’60s on, Berger wrote more expansive (sometimes book-length) essays in which the task of critical judgment was subordinate to sustained examinations of the nature of his—and our—relationships with artists and their work. He did this so intimately that it was sometimes hard to say whether we were witnessing a lapel-grabbing fight or a passionate embrace. What we did know was that we were gripped, absolutely, irrespective of how much we knew about the artist in question. This is crucial. Some authors say they are writing for “the general reader” (whoever that might be), others for a cohort of fellow experts. Berger did away with the distinction. The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965) could be read by people with only the faintest knowledge of Picasso or—such is the originality of Berger’s insights—by specialists who had spent their lives studying the artist.

Having avoided quoting examples of the qualities I’ve sketched, I’d like to end by returning to Portraits. As it turned out, there were a couple of essays I hadn’t seen before, one of them on Mark Rothko, from 2001. “It seems to me,” Berger begins, “that Rothko’s life’s work makes a story, one which is a little like a fable.” After tracing Rothko’s life, he writes that from the age of forty-six, Rothko “never looked back. Or, to be more precise, he did nothing else but look back in a way such as no painter before had ever done!” Rothko’s paintings “are about colours or light awaiting the creation of the visible world. Their expression is of an intense premonition, as might have occurred in the flash of the Big Bang! . . . The colours he so laboriously created are waiting to depict things which do not yet exist.”

I’ve called this an essay on Rothko, but it takes the form of a letter to Berger’s daughter. Before signing off (“All my love, John”), he asks, “Am I crazy?” Ah, but how sanely dull the world and its art would seem without someone to illuminate it for us like this.

Geoff Dyer is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (Pantheon, 2016).

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