John Berger is known for his incredible level of clarity when it comes to art criticism. His writings on art have been admired for presenting a unique perspective on an activity that is familiar and usual yet includes an element of mystery. Berger explores dimensions of an artist’s personality, environment and society that are often hidden from an ordinary viewer or reviewer. His essays on Giacometti, Turner, Picasso and several others are texts that one is compelled to read again and again.
To some there can be various reasons for Berger’s extraordinary touch, who echoes his own comment on Pablo Picasso – at a young age, Picasso had attained the status of the mythological king Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold; likewise whatever painted by Picasso was converted into huge sums of money! – such that everything that is written by Berger has now transformed into texts of great value for artists, art students and general viewers and readers.
In fact,, this quality of his writing could not have developed if he had not had a great passion for the visual arts, because his point of view and position are of a compassionate participant, rather then a harsh critic. Perhaps his experience as a fiction writer (he won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel, G) adds to an understanding of other individuals’ creative processes.
A recently published book reveals his deeper interest in the world of visual arts. Bento’s Sketchbook includes his writings and drawings. Published by Verso UK, the book is an important document to understand the way he observes art as well as the world around him. As the back cover explains the name of the publication: “The seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza – also known as Benedict or Bento de Spinoza – spent the most intense years of his short life writing. He also carried with him a sketchbook. After his sudden death, his friends rescued letters, manuscripts, notes – but no drawings. For years, without knowing what its pages might hold, John Berger has imagined finding Bento’s sketchbook, wanting to see the drawings alongside his surviving words. When one day a friend gave him a beautiful virgin sketchbook, Berger said, ‘This is Bento’s!” and he began to draw, taking his inspiration from the philosopher’s vision.”
To a contemporary reader, John Berger is also a philosopher of art, thus the book, which may be inspired by Spinoza, can also be enjoyed on an independent scheme, since it offers his views and visions in an unmistakeably clear and concise manner, a mark of Berger’s writing. The text comprises observations on literature (Dostoevsky) reflection on the act of art making and personal recollections of his visits to art (related) spaces. Some of these embody subtle sense of humour along with great insight, such as when he writes about the Spanish Museum: “The Prado in Madrid is unique as a meeting place. The galleries are like streets, crowded with the living (the visitors) and the dead (the painted).
“But the dead have not departed; the ‘present’ in which they were painted, the present invented by their painters, is as vivid and inhabited as the lived present of the moment. Occasionally more vivid.” John Berger moves away from the cliché or jargon (so much part of today’s world of criticism) and conveys his profound thoughts in plain, pleasant and profound diction. His use of direct language and emphasis on discovering aspects of art which relate not only to the circle of art, but to the world at large, are connected to his position as a Marxist, since he, through his expression, is open to a larger public, instead of serving an exclusive elite.
The naturalness in his vocabulary is repeated in the way he drew portraits, figures, animals and places, sketches which are collected in the paperback. Looking at these drawings a reader is impressed with the flow of line, the urgency of mark making, the separation of tones – and most importantly the sophisticated level of skill. The keenness in observing detail and presenting in a lively manner in these drawings are qualities recognized in his writings. The author talks about drawing: “The act of drawing. Any fixed contour is in nature arbitrary and impermanent. What is on either side of it tries to shift it by pushing or pulling. What’s on one side of a contour has got its tongue in the mouth of what’s on the other side. And vice versa. The challenge of drawing is to show this, to make visible on the paper or drawing surface not only discrete, recognizable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance. And, being one substance, it harness the act of drawing.”
One is not sure how Berger writes, whether he uses a computer, word processor or a pen, but leafing through Bento’s Sketchbook, one realizes that no matter the process, there is not much difference between his writing on art and his making of art.
Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger. Published by Verso Books, 176 pages, 2011.
Aamna Hussain is a Lahore-based independent curator and art writer.