One can count on a writer like John Berger to rescue the term ‘landscape’ from the dregs of popularity where ‘landscape’ has, of late, found itself. Like Aladdin, Berger gives the old lamp a little shine and frees the term from the confines of a general, lazy misunderstanding that seems to have enveloped landscapes in the recent years. First published by Verso in 2016, ‘Landscapes: John Berger on Art’ brings together a number of the late author’s essays, poems, and prose pieces that clamour – clamour quietly, as is characteristic of Berger – against the danger of comfortable viewing. Berger’s unmatched power lies in his ability to offer alternative ways of seeing, with such gentleness and humility, that you begin to rue the day you got too snug behind your own worldview.
This selection of writings, edited by Tom Overton, takes you through places, lives, and eras that elicited from Berger, over the course of his long and intense existence, some form of tribute, some elegies, some clear-sighted observances. In the first part, titled ‘Redrawing the Maps’, are reminiscences of cities like Kraków that, for Berger, came to be tied up inextricably with love; memories of drawing lessons from his youth segueing into thoughts on a drawing by Picasso that, in turn, lead to ruminations on different kinds of drawing and what each means; impressions on the life and work of Walter Benjamin; and offerings on Frederick Antal, Gabriel García Márquez, and Roland Barthes. These are short and sensitive texts through which Berger combines life with art, and the present with the past; They become, therefore, movingly representative of the man himself for whom, direct sensory experience, history, fiction, painting, poetry, and criticism were all means of making it across the great valley with grace and aplomb.
The second part – ‘Terrain’ – includes chapters that derive more from Berger’s critical approaches to things. Although here, too, his ultimately sympathetic understanding of the world makes them poignant and palely fulfilling… like the memory of a meal. He discusses the sincerity in Renaissance paintings – the willingness of artists working during the Renaissance to be assimilated wholly into the images they were creating; he endeavours to pin the elusive Romanticism to a time and milieu in history; he looks at the troubled Victorian conscience by poring over the laboured art of George Frederic Watts. He transforms Vermeer into the patron deity of Delft, imagining that his gaze still occupies all the vacant rooms of the city. He takes a prolonged and panoramic look at Cubism and, in the instance it takes for a measuring tape to spring back into its coil, reduces it to a moment.
Before his eyes both geographic and temporal distances become compact, become mappable, become the roads he has travelled and the inns he has sojourned at. His essay ‘To Take Paper, to Draw’, for example, perfectly illustrates his knack for endowing every physical experience with temporal significance. He compares the act of drawing to ‘emigration’ and ‘exorcism’ – a kind of transfer, in either case, from one body or state to another:
‘In the first kind of drawing (at one time such drawings were appropriately called studies), the lines on the paper are traces left behind by the artist’s gaze which is ceaselessly leaving, going out, interrogating the strangeness, the enigma, of what is before his eyes – however ordinary and everyday this may be. The sum total of the lines on the paper narrates an optical emigration by which the artist, following his own gaze, settles on the person or tree or animal or mountain being drawn. And if the drawing succeeds he stays there forever.’
He continues to the second kind –
‘In the second category of drawings, the traffic, the transport, goes in the opposite direction. It is now a question of bringing to the paper what is already in the mind’s eye. Delivery rather than emigration.’
And the third he presents thus:
‘Finally, there are the drawings done from memory. Many are notes jotted down for later use – a way of collecting and of keeping impressions and information…The most important drawings in this category, however, are made…in order to exorcise a memory which is haunting – in order to take an image out of the mind, once and for all, and put it on paper…There is no bringing together here, no setting of a scene…The drawing simply declares: I saw this. Historic Past Tense.’
It would be interesting to think about this book in terms of the definition of landscape. Contrary to the vestigial position and properties it has come to possess, a landscape is never a simple arrangement of natural features. It is a combination of terrestrial, cultural, and historic details to which the ever-changing play of atmospheric conditions lends an unpredictability, a mutability, that in a sense makes every landscape alive and unique and impossible to reproduce except through poetic vision. In his poem ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, John Ashberry writes (of the soul) – ‘But how far can it swim out through the eyes/ And still return safely to its nest?’ Berger’s diverse writings in ‘Landscapes’ demonstrate just how far it can flutter, without losing its way back home.