RIP John Berger
Last week the esteemed writer and Marxist art critic, John Berger, died at the ripe old age of 95. Best known for his seminal book Ways of Seeing, and the four-part television series based on it (currently available free on U-Tube), Berger began his career as a painter, but abandoned this for writing, because “painting seemed to be irrelevant in a world so chaotic and conflicted”. Irrelevant or not, he certainly devoted much time to thinking about it once he had ceased to practice. Notable among his acute perceptions was the fact that photography has transformed the way art is viewed. Renaissance masterpieces were generally spiritual or religious in nature, designed to be viewed in a single location – most often a church of some sort – where they were installed as a central part of the overall structure. Icons were even believed to possess a numinousity of their own which merited extreme veneration. But now these images can be viewed in our homes, with our wallpaper, carpets and furniture as their background. They can also appear in books, as postcards, beer-mats, posters, and be imprinted on T-shirts or any other fabric. All of this radically alters the meaning and nature of the image itself. In referring to the National Gallery in London’s Virgin of the Rocks, by Leonardo Da Vinci, he observed that, in the gallery’s catalogue, the description of this painting ran to fourteen pages of dense scholarship about provenance and previous owners. None of this, he said, really concerns the picture. It is there to affirm the work’s authenticity – and mainly to disavow the authenticity of the same painting hanging in the Louvre, where the French insist that it is the English not they who have the copy. So art becomes about its value, about money rather than beauty or genius. The very hefty gilded frames that adorn these masterpieces suggest no less than this. Berger must have marvelled at recent auction sales, where both Lucien Freud and the still-living Peter Doig had works sell for close to 30 million. He noted that information also changes our perception, citing the familiar example of the cornfield with crows painted by Van Gogh an hour before he shot himself. Then he turned to Franz Hals vast portrait of the almoners’ directorate, observing that our view of these stark and sombre, white-frilled faces is dramatically changed by knowing that, before he embarked on the painting, the alms house had given grindingly poor old Hals three loads of peat to prevent him freezing to death over the winter. Berger wryly pointed out that the music played over images in art documentaries like his can transform our understanding of the work in often unhelpful or erroneous ways. Paintings, he said, are meant to be viewed in silence. He also criticized the zooming and panning in films, which distorts our comprehension of something made to be seen as a whole. Asking a group of school children to comment on Caravaggio’s portrait of Jesus with two argumentative men, he found that the girls all thought the figure of Christ was female, and the boys thought it was male – but, without being aware of the painter’s homosexuality, every kid recognized a gender ambiguity.
Ahead of his time in the very early seventies, Berger espoused a feminist view of the nude in art, assembling a panel of prominent women in his series to discuss their impressions of how the female form was presented in classical paintings. He himself saw the women in many, if not most of these major works as pliant, hairless and sexless, but always receptive to the male advance, noting adroitly that nudity here is a form of dress that is undressed. Sometimes even the flimsy garments are as revealing as a naked figure, falling suggestively in places, or clinging to prominent features. Berger was always quick to say that we ought not to take his word for anything – we ought to look and see for ourselves. And, as King David said, we have eyes but we do not see. As a way of seeing, Berger’s work is invaluable, and his was a life well lived – God speed, Johnny.
Politicians have always been excruciatingly shallow and terminally hypocritical, but they usually conceal these traits better than is currently being done. Had Trump lost the election – which, according to the popular vote, he actually did – his name would by now be a byword for ridiculous failure. As it is, though, we have two candidates for leadership of Canada’s Conservative Party openly boasting that they are Trump-style politicos. The aptly-named Kelly Leach brays about her proposed draconian policies towards Muslim immigrants – policies which in fact would violate our Charter of Rights. The oafish loud-mouth Kevin O’Leary tells us how rich he is, and abuses contestants on his – yes! – reality-TV show. You can’t blame the multi-millionaire businessman for seeing a slight resemblance between himself and the Donald. But neither of these opportunistic reptiles seems to understand that there is a difference between Canada and the USA – the main difference being that they don’t have a hope in hell of getting elected leader. The prospect of them, however, makes me realize why I voted for Trudeau le Petit. Better sunny ways than bilious hubris.
Paul William Roberts