|Jan/Feb 2017 Reviews & Interviews|
Landscapes: John Berger on Art
Bloomsbury. 2017. 254 pp.
ISBN 978 1 78478 584 0.
Yes, I'm still amongst other things a Marxist.
The essays in this book can leave the reader in no doubt about the truth of John Berger's statement. In spite of its title, and in spite of the landscape in Thomas Gainsborough's "Portrait of Mr and Mrs Andrews" that graces the dust-jacket, this book is not about landscape art. Instead, as Tom Overton puts it in his Introduction, it is about "searching for the conditions from which [art] arises, or the climate into which it was received."
So, Berger expresses his views on what constitutes "a valid work of art," on what art is, its purpose, and what it does for us. And always, he comes back to its social and historical context and value. He writes of "the bourgeoisation of the finished work," of "the revolutionary meaning of the works," and of the increasing view of art as property—a commodity embedded in the capitalist economic system.
In spite of speaking of the spiritual value a work may have for the artist, he calls the idea that art "is a depository of transcendental values" an idealistic view. In order to rightly judge a work of art, he tells us, we must ask "Does this work help or encourage men to know and claim their social rights?"
"Art is born out of hope" he claims, and an artist's way of looking at the world "increases our awareness of our own potential."
These are statements of his own beliefs, but the arguments he offers to support them I found confusing, often irrational, and hard to follow. Take, for example, this passage from "The Moment of Cubism" where he discusses the consequences of historical change:
There was no longer any essential discontinuity between the individual and the general. The invisible and the multiple no longer intervened between each individual and the world. It was becoming more and more difficult to think in terms of having been placed in the world. A man was part of the world and indivisible from it. In an entirely original sense, which remains at the basis of modern consciousness, a man was the world which he inherited.
In "The Moment of Cubism," Berger writes perceptively and clearly about the historical context that helped shape the Cubists' unique view of reality (even if they were unaware of these influences as they worked) and about the way they constructed their work. Unfortunately, one has to work through several pages of Berger's political ideology in order to get to this analysis.
Amongst all this, however, there are clear and demonstrably true descriptions of the state of the art world in the most recent decades, of the commercial imperatives which drive museum curators, of the subjectivity of art and art criticism, and of the trends and cults influencing present-day art and artists. Commenting critically on the Venice Biennale of 1958, he writes that the works displayed had one thing in common: "the image of muck and garbage." He sees pettiness, poverty, gimmicks, and a "thinness of ideas and aims," which he puts down to social and psychological factors that produce fear, cynicism, and human alienation and that make this "non-art" possible.
Also, there are parts of essays, reviews, and poems that, for me, provided valuable insights into particular historical periods and the art and artists who reflected current life and helped shape the ideas and work of those who followed them. In particular, I appreciated Berger's descriptions in "To Take Paper, to Draw" of the artist's perceptions of line, space, and arrangement in the development of a drawing. Anyone who has attempted life-drawing will recognize the process he describes, even if they were unaware of it beforehand. His essay "The Basis of All Painting and Sculpture is Drawing" is similarly enlightening and enjoyable.
Just occasionally, there are passages such as his description of his encounter in a field with two donkeys, where he shows he can be a superb story teller, but these moments are rare.
This is not an easy book to read. The pieces in were written between 1953 and 2015, and it would have been helpful if they had been clearly dated so one could see how Berger's views changed and matured. Also, Berger discusses and compares the work of specific artists and refers to many named works of art, many of them well-known but others more obscure, yet there is not a single picture in the book. Unless you are extremely familiar with a wide range of art, you need to have a computer handy so you can look up images of the works discussed.
John Berger died at the age of 90 on January 3rd, 2017, while I was reading this book. Tom Overton, who knew him and his work well, and who wrote the Introduction to Landscapes, said of him: "His great themes were the experience of exile and the disastrous relationship between art and property," and that his legacy was "one of encouragement and hope, and a massively diverse range of work in all genres."
Landscapes is a map of the beliefs and ideals that shaped Berger's view of art.
You can read an obituary for John Berger in The Guardian.