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Book Review: The Portraits of John Berger

Perhaps it was in his essay on photography or portraits that John Berger pointed out the reason for artists’ urge in capturing the essence of a human being: depicting his inner personality and portraying his feelings and emotions. According to Berger, after the invention of photography, which provided a means to acquire an accurate, quick and affordable likeness of a person – better than a portrait painter’s canvas – artists started the myth of representing the internal self of their subjects/models.

Now John Berger, one of the most celebrated art critics of our times ventures on a similar endeavour. His new book Portraits contains a total of 74 essays on different artists (collected and edited by Tom Overton), and is published by Verso in 2015. The thick volume provides a much-needed occasion and opportunity to read his views on art from the cave period to contemporary figures such as Michael Broughton (b. 1977). Some other artists included in the publication are as varied as Rembrandt, Cezanne, Picasso, Mark Rothko, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Vija Celmins, Andres Serrano, Jean-Michel Basquiat and many more; but Berger not only reflects on artists from different epochs, he writes on artists from across the cultures and continents, for example, on Francis Newton Souza (from Goa) and Randa Mdah (Palestine). Thus his view – or point of view – is not Eurocentric, but possesses a global position, without the hint or tint of Western Art’s supremacy, an aspect that has been embedded in generations beyond borders through a shared model of teaching art history.

John Berger has always defied the pervading opinions and in his texts too, he questions, or rather challenges, norms. His essays on art and artists are not confined to formal issues, but bring in a broader social, cultural and political context. Thus he manages to place a painting in the autobiography of the maker as well as within the situation of society in which it was created. For example, writing on Turner’s works, in which details of a landscape or seascape seem to melt and merge, he connects these views to the painter’s early experience of being at his father’s barber’s shop and witnessing the atmosphere of foam, steam and fumes, which continued in the painter’s subconscious, and emerged in his canvases.

Or commenting on a photograph of Alberto Giacometti (by Henri Cartier-Bresson) he write: “…what makes the photograph remarkable is that it suggests more than that about Giacometti’s character.” The 1961 picture shows the artist wearing a long coat and crossing a peddled street of Paris. Somehow the pose, attire and situation rekindles the famous walking figures made by Giacometti, in which the essence of whole body is contained in the act of shifting limbs. Although Berger claims that “I have always hated being called an art critic. It’s true that for a decade or more I wrote regularly in the Press about artists, artists, exhibitions, museum shows, and so the term is justified.

“But 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 a little or nothing about.” Yet John Berger is the world’s leading art critic, influencing a large number of writers on art across the globe. His individual tone is unmistakable as he discusses the past, the processes and practices of artists in ways that seem logical, reasonable, and believable but always new nevertheless. For instance, talking about The Fayum Portrait Painters (1st-3rd century BCE) Berger reflects: “They served a doubled pictorial function: they were identity pictures – like passport photos – for the dead on their journey….. secondly and briefly, they served as momentous of the departed for the bereaved family.”

It is the unusual – rather extraordinary – reading of the work of visual arts that distinguishes John Berger from other writers/critics. One of the most important features of his writing is its accessibility. Instead of mystifying art (a favourite pursuit of art critics around the world and in Pakistan too) what Berger observes, sounds so logical, true and familiar that one tends to accept, admire and identify with it. One of its best examples are what he wrote on Picasso, that at the age of thirty the painter attained the status of mythological king Midas, who was known for touching everything and turning it into gold. Berger writes that like Midas, Picasso has acquired the same power because if he wanted an expensive car or a chateau, he only needed to paint it, since his canvas would fetch the same amount as the value of that product or property. But writing on Picasso’s late years, Berger states: “And so he was alone – like the old always are. But he was unmitigatedly alone because he was cut off from the contemporary world as a historical person.”

However unlike Picasso, Berger is still a relevant presence in the contemporary discourse on art, because it is only through pondering upon yesterday that one plans and practices strategies for present, a quest in dark, where the words of John Berger light the way further, for the future.

Portraits: John Berger on Artists, by John Berger, edited by Tom Overton. Published by Verso Books, Hardcover, 544 pages, September 2015

 

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