Notes on John Berger’s “Portraits”

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“The given is a prison.” – John Berger, Portraits, p. 37.

For a few years now I’ve been loving the writing of the English critic, novelist, and cultural historian John Berger. I came to him through the work of Geoff Dyer, who is a huge Berger fan himself and made me aware of Berger’s classic book About Looking. A few years ago Berger published Bento’s Sketchbook (2011), a meditation on art, the creative process, and perception. His most recent book is Portraits which traces a history of painting from cave painting to the modern era. Each chapter focuses on a single artist and explains to us what we see and what it means. This narrative approach to surveying the history of art has been used before by others, but there is something deeply personal here about the way Berger brings his own artistic experience to bear on his assessments and reflections on the dozens of works discussed in the book. His knowing is integrated—he’s like a super museum tour guide whose commentary weaves the art’s presence into that of your own life. But that sounds too formal. Sometimes when reading him I have the odd sensation the he’s talking to me—to us—as we putter around a large overgrown garden, stopping here and there to chat as we gather vegetables for dinner. As Berger says in Bento’s Sketchbook, “I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world.”

In Portraits Berger writes magisterially about expressive culture. What makes his sentences incisive and epic and his language clear and simple is his grasp of art’s underlying urges and details. For him, the details are everything and even when we think we see everything (the book includes numerous black and white photos) he reveals details that we didn’t know were there in the first place—the shape of a hand, an unusual or impossible perspective, the way light falls, or the striking stillness of gaze in an otherwise chaotic face. The next step is how Berger connects these details to meanings. Through him we see that artistic practices are “the exact measure” (48) of things going on in the wider world at the time–sometimes in times that are surprisingly like our own. For example, here is Berger discussing The Garden of Earthly Delights (1500-5), a triptych by the Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) whose three panels depict Adam and Eve in Paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, and Hell.

 

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Berger uses our own hyper-present, hyper-connected moment to make sense of what he considers to be the prophetic perspective in the hell panel on the right side:

“There is no horizon there. There is no continuity between actions, there are no pauses, no paths, no pattern, no past, and no future. There is only the clamor of the disparate, fragmentary present. Everywhere there are surprises and sensations, yet nowhere is there any outcome. Nothing flows through: everything interrupts. There is a kind of spatial delirium” (36).

As you read Berger you come to wonder about the relationship between the artist and the critic and how they need one another. Berger is both. In other parts of the book his practical experience sings in passages in which he discusses how drawing, like criticism, is a two-way activity that gives back to the maker:

“To draw is not only to measure and put down, it is also to receive. When the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one, through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing” (85).

Insights like this are all over this 400-page book. My takeaway is that when Berger explains the elements that make art so powerfully revealing you have the sense that he could locate exactly those signifying details in just about anything he turns his attention to. This kind of writing—well, it’s not a kind really, since Berger’s prose is singular—shakes us awake. Berger rattles us into understanding that all of our pursuits—from the personal to the political to the technological—have the depth qualities of art. In Portraits Berger the critic and painter helps us see that there’s always more here than meets the eye.

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