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What Lies Behind

Portraits: John Berger on Artists, by John Berger, edited by Tom Overton, Verso, 544 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1784781767
A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, by John Berger and Jean Mohr, Canongate, 176 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1782115038

Here is John Berger, observing a doctor dealing with a patient:

Once he was putting a syringe deep into a man’s chest: there was little question of pain but it made the man feel bad: the man tried to explain his revulsion: “That’s where I live, where you’re putting that needle in.” “I know,” Sassall said, “I know what it’s like. I can’t bear anything done near my eyes. […] I think that’s where I live, just under and behind my eyes.”

Here, on one of his major preoccupations: the modern experience of European peasantry:

The ideal urban surface is a brilliant one (e.g., chrome) which reflects what is in front of it, and seems to deny that there is anything visible behind it. […] To the peasant the empirical is naive. […] What is visible is usually a sign for him of the state of the invisible.

And here, on the masters of Spanish oil painting:

The wound in Spanish painting is so important because it penetrates appearances, reaches behind them. Likewise the tatters and rags of poverty […] visually what they do is to tear apart, to reveal the next surface, and so take us nearer to the last, behind which the truth begins.

These quotes come from two recent publications of Berger’s writing: the first, from A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, first published in 1967 and lately reissued; the others from Portraits: John Berger on Artists, a selection of his writing on art. What they have in common is a preoccupation of Berger’s: the idea of that which is behind or beyond the veneer of appearances, the deeper truth which lies beneath the surface. The truly great artists, for Berger, are those who struggle to break through to the other side. The struggle is against tradition and convention, which serve the interests of the powerful by restricting human experience and possibility to the superficial, immediate and given.

A bit of background: as a young man (he was born in 1926) Berger dedicated himself to painting, and surrounded himself with bohemian and politically radical artists. In the preface to Portraits, he writes: “in the milieu in which I grew up since I was a teenager, to call somebody an art critic was an insult. An art critic was somebody who judged and pontificated about things he knew little or nothing about. He wasn’t as bad as an art dealer, but he was a pain in the arse.”

But a pain in the arse (arts?) was just what Berger was to become. Throughout the 1950s he served as an art critic for the New Statesman review. A Marxist and feminist, driven by a belief in the importance of the ideological meaning of works of art, he quickly generated controversy. In 1972 he announced himself to the British public at large as a gadfly on the rumps of both the artistic and literary establishments. His BBC television series Ways of Seeing (and the book of the same name) was an unconcealed attack on conventional art history and criticism, accused not only of getting art wrong, but wilfully mystifying it to the detriment of the public’s ability to engage with it.

That same year his extraordinary novel G won what was then the Booker-McConnell Prize; accepting the award, Berger declared that he had done some background checks on the origins of the Booker wealth, discovered unpleasant dealings in the Caribbean sugar plantations, and would be dedicating half the prize money to the UK Black Panthers.

(Ireland, incidentally, played a small role in Berger’s story. In 1944 he was drafted into the British army. He refused the rank of officer, despite his public school background, and, apparently as a punishment, was sent to serve at Ballykelly, Co Derry. There he lived among working class men for the first time, and as a survival strategy set himself up as letter-writer for his uneducated colleagues. This would seem to have influenced his development as a writer, as well as his politics.)

By now Berger has published over forty books. Ways of Seeing is a staple on reading lists for art and art history students – its feminist critique of the representation of women in art and advertising has proved influential. Titles such as About Looking and Understanding a Photograph have continued his campaign to demystify art for a general audience. In addition to producing volumes of poetry, plays and screenplays, he has flourished as a novelist. And the Booker committee would seem to have forgiven him – the epistolary novel From A to X made the 2008 longlist. He has also published a number of works which defy categorisation. Bento’s Sketchbook is a meditation on drawing, illustrated with Berger’s own sketches, and broken up by a number of passages from the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. A Fortunate Man is another such bespoke form. A collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr (with whom Berger has worked on several projects including The Seventh Man, a study of immigrant workers in Europe, which he funded using the rest of the Booker money), it is the result of a number of weeks spent observing John Sassall, a GP based in rural Gloucestershire.

What first interests Berger about Sassall is the fact that, as a worldly man, he made the choice to tend to the health of country folk of little education. (In this he is similar to Berger himself, who has for many years lived among rural peasants in Quincy, France; he chronicled their disappearing traditional way of life in a trilogy of novels titled Into Their Labours.) Sassall’s decision was not for want of curiosity or professional ambition. He is as much an experimental scientist as a practitioner, ever seeking new knowledge, questioning and exploring, pushing the boundaries of his own and, in his small way, his discipline’s field of knowledge.

With his omnivorous appetite for knowledge and his self sufficiency, Berger sees Sassall as living, in the 1960s, something of the nineteenth century ideal of the universal man. And in his approach to his patients there is a need to be in some way universal. Sassall understands that his patients require more from their doctor than a scientist who can analyse their physical condition and prescribe remedies. To treat them most effectively he needs to take what we would now call a “holistic” approach; and that requires entering into an empathetic relationship with them, to see beyond the surface of their symptoms. They come to him in need of not just being seen, but being recognised – and that way lies the most effective means of treatment, for their mental as well as physical well-being:

An unhappy patient comes to a doctor to offer him an illness – in the hope that this part of him at least (the illness) may be recognizable. His proper self he believes to be unknowable. […] If the man can begin to feel recognized […] he may even have the chance of being happy.

There are a number of contradictions at play here: Sassall the individual, set apart from his patients by his position and his education, yet attempting to universalise himself so that he can enter into almost fraternal relationships with all; Sassall the diagnostic scientist, looking for the common thread in his patients’ symptoms that will allow him to identify a generic disease, yet trying to see them fully in their own individuality. But what is most problematic for Sassall himself is this incongruity: Sassall the fortunate, privileged man, among the ill-educated folk of a rural outpost. Those who could have known more – been more – had their lot in life been different.

Sassall is not a political man, yet he feels painfully the tragedy of the dumbness of those he enters into dialogue with, a tragedy which Berger reads politically:

The inarticulateness of the English is the subject of many jokes and is often explained in terms of puritanism, shyness as a national characteristic, etc. This tends to obscure a more serious development. There are large sections of the English working and middle class who are inarticulate as the result of wholesale cultural deprivation. They are deprived of the means of translating what they know into thoughts which they can think.

The misfortune is on the side of his patients, but the toll is taken on Sassall. The empathy which enables his excellence as a doctor is also his weakness. He is vulnerable to bouts of depression, brought on periodically when he cannot any more ignore “the bitter paradox which provokes the disquiet [he] feels at the contrast between himself and his patients and which can sometimes transform this disquiet into a sense of his own inadequacy”.

Berger takes a rural general practitioner and makes a hero of him. Sassall’s life is seen as a victory in the struggle for authenticity. And A Fortunate Man is a victory of empathetic observation, on Mohr’s part as well as Berger’s; the unposed photos of Sassall, his patients, and the surrounding countryside are perfect accompaniments to the text, whose meaning they converse with, affirm and deepen.

When it comes to art critics, the knowing reader, regardless of their own politics, is wise to be wary of those who carry the tag of “Marxist”. At its worst and most simplistic (“Vulgar Marxism”) the tendency is to react against the “isolated genius” school of interpretation so extremely, and to so dutifully shift the emphasis away from the individual and towards social and historical context, that the artist becomes nothing but a victim of circumstances, their agency shrunk to nothing.

Berger, on the contrary, is a valuable critic because of his empathy with the artist and his ability to illuminate the motives – personal and artistic as well as ideological – that lie behind the artworks. He does not apply any theory in a mechanistic way, but always listens closely to the artwork itself. And for him the trouble with conventional art history is how exceptional talents have been subsumed into the mass of conventional artists, their exceptionalism denied; as in this passage from Ways of Seeing, excerpted in Portraits:

Certain exceptional artists in exceptional circumstances broke free of the norms of the tradition and produced work that was diametrically opposed to its values: yet these artists are acclaimed as the tradition’s supreme representatives: a claim which is made easier by the fact that after their death, the tradition closed around their work […] continuing as though nothing of principle had been disturbed.

Academic art history, the conventional tradition of art criticism, and even the texts which accompany paintings on museum walls, conspire to mystify the artwork and obscure its true power, rendering the great and radical works impotent. The effect is felt by even the casual observer of art, who tends to misidentify this phenomenon as their own shortcoming:

Visitors to art museums are often overwhelmed by the number of works on display, and by what they take to be their own culpable inability to concentrate on more than a few of these works. In fact such a reaction is altogether reasonable. Art history has totally failed to come to terms with the problem of the relationship between the outstanding work and the average work of the European tradition. The notion of Genius is not in itself an adequate answer. Consequently the confusion remains on the walls of the galleries. Third-rate works surround an outstanding work without any recognition – let alone explanation – of what fundamentally differentiates them.

In essay after essay Berger demonstrates how the masters of European painting (just a few pieces in Portraits consider three-dimensional art) have taken the best from the tradition that formed them while simultaneously breaking free from it. On Courbet: “As a practitioner he remained traditionalist. Yet he acquired the skills he did without taking over the traditional values which those skills had been designed to serve.” On Turner: “His truthfulness to [his own] experience was such that he destroyed the tradition to which he was so proud to belong.” The Spanish greats, chief among them Velasquez, Goya and Picasso, all shared this trait: “The great painters of Spain took European painting and turned it against itself.”

Another way of thinking of this is in terms of language, and the possibility of subverting a language from within it (recall Caliban in The Tempest: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse!”). Berger explains how tradition can stifle a lesser artist’s ability to see the world truthfully, in the way that is needed to create great art: “Without a pictorial language, nobody can render what they see. With one, they may stop seeing.” He presents Basquiat as an artist who shattered the codes of visual art because “he sensed that hidden truths cannot be described in any of the languages commonly employed for the promotion of lies”.

To what end do the great masters engage in this struggle with tradition? Not merely to assert themselves, their individuality. It is Berger’s conviction that greatness in art has something to do with an artist’s ability to deal with a contradiction: the challenge of representing through surface appearance that which lies beyond or behind surfaces – finding a way to use a visible medium to hint towards the invisible. He is critical of Jackson Pollock, whom he accuses of accepting, and giving expression to, rather than challenging the moral norms of his (capitalist) historical moment. Berger portrays this as the tragedy of a great talent which has misdirected its energies – the talent is proven great because in its way it has broken free of the tradition it has inherited, but only to replace it with a depthless vision which denies the possibility of a beyond:

[O]ne act of faith has remained a constant from paleolithic times to cubism, from Tintoretto […] to Rothko. The act of faith consisted of believing that the visible contained hidden secrets […] Thus paintings were there to reveal a presence behind an appearance. […] Jackson Pollock was driven by a despair […] to insist, with all his brilliance as a painter, that there was nothing behind, that there was only that which was done to the canvas on the side facing us.

By implication, there is some similarity between the great artist and the political revolutionary: an affinity between the invisible beyond-the-here-and-now hinted towards by an artwork, and that ineffable future moment that lies beyond the horizon of revolution.

Portraits, containing texts from the 1950s to the current decade, has the feel of a retrospective exhibition. It is arranged in chronological order of the artists’ lives, not by date of composition, and many of the chapters contain pieces Berger wrote at different times about the same artists. In some cases this shows his revision of his original positions: famously, he compared Francis Bacon to Walt Disney, and denied his importance as a painter; years later he was sufficiently impressed by an exhibition of Bacon’s paintings to retract his denunciation. Henry Moore was likewise debunked and later praised.

So, what is Berger’s own aesthetic? First, there is a lack of bravado or showy literary sophistication – itself a salve in a literary world stuffed with the slick, clever and brash. This is even true of the formally inventive G, whose fragmented form, urgent tone, and interjected addresses to the reader (“Say now to me. Now to me say to me.”) seem like efforts to break beyond the text itself, to make immanent a moment just behind the horizon.

If G is not wholly successful it may be because it strains that bit too hard. But the later novels come to share a quality with the best of Berger’s non-fiction, which is a quietness that I think of as painterly. Not in the sense of vivid visual imagery, but a quietness like that of a painter at work, concentrating close up to the canvas. Precise sentences are applied confidently, like brushstrokes. The whole is built patiently; there is balance and harmony as in good painting. And there is an egalitarianism about this aesthetic. That may be Berger’s real stylistic achievement: to have developed an aesthetic which expresses his ethic.

The 1995 novel To the Wedding ends with an ensemble portrait of a village wedding which recalls the essay in Portraits on Courbet – who “insist[ed] on every apparent part as equally valuable”. Here is Berger on Courbet’s depiction of a village funeral in the painting A Burial at Onans:

Emerging from the zone of darkness are the faces […] painted without idealisation and without rancour […] [H]e had refused to organise (harmonise) these appearances into some false –  or even true – higher meaning. He had refused the function of art as the moderator of appearances, as that which ennobles the visible. Instead, he had painted […] an assembly of figures at a graveside, which announced nothing except: This is how we appear.

Berger is unwavering in his commitment to the idea that the political or moral significance of an artwork matters: that there is something meaningful and important at stake. In an illuminating essay on Piero de la Francesca, he writes: “During the centuries when science was considered the antithesis of art, and art the antithesis of wellbeing, Piero was ignored. Today we need him again.” Berger’s work speaks to us with an urgent insistence that we must take art seriously, for the sake of our selves and the world. In an age when so many have accepted the impotence of art, we would do well to listen.


Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as a writer and editor. Follow him on twitter: @MatthewP_B



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