Through a Glass Darkly: Landscapes by John Berger

By Sheila Singhal on February 06, 2017

Photo: Courtesy Verso Books, 2016

Anyone who has ever studied art in a western educational institution has no doubt been assigned the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing as required reading. In that work, also turned into an award-winning television series, Berger argued that “seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but . . . the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Edited by author and curator Tom Overton, Landscapes: John Berger on Art (Verso, 2016) presents a much more expansive view of Berger’s world than in Ways of Seeing, through a selection of essays, poems, and literary excerpts from 1953 through 2015.

By Overton’s own admission, not all the texts are directly concerned with the visual arts. The first essay, for example, “Kraków” (2005) is hardly about art at all, but is instead a look back at early artistic and literary influences on Berger. In lovely elegiac prose, Berger explores the Polish city alongside the ghost of his early mentor “Ken” — identified later in the book as a “subversive professor” named Arthur Stowe, who had died decades earlier.  

There is also a bravura translation of Bertholt Brecht’s “An Address to Danish Worker Actors on the Art of Observation” by Berger and his second wife Anya Bostock (1961). The poem addresses creative spirits of any stripe, rather than those involved solely in the visual arts. “To observe,” says one stanza, “You must be able to compare. To be able to compare/You must have observed already./From observation comes knowledge./But knowledge is needed to observe./He who does not know/What to make of his observation/Will observe badly.” It is the type of admonition to which Berger himself returns over and over throughout his written work.

Some of the texts, however, are fascinating disquisitions on the actual work involved in producing art. In “To Take Paper, To Draw” (1987), for example, Berger describes the creation of a life drawing in almost excruciating detail. Every stroke of pencil on paper is described, along with every passing thought on how the drawing is progressing. Although there are no new revelations here for anyone who has ever undertaken a similar drawing, as a stream-of-consciousness exploration of the creative process, it is a fascinating exercise.

Photo: Courtesy Verso Books, 2016

Berger also devoted a considerable portion of his writing to reviving and celebrating the reputations of great writers and thinkers in fields such as art, semiotics and Marxism. Figures such as Frederick Antal, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Fischer, Max Raphael, and Rosa Luxemburg are lionized, as are artists such as Picasso, Gris and Apollinaire. Nor did Berger limit himself to a Western European tradition. Among the essays are numerous references to Turkish art, and essays exploring current political realities in Palestine and Pakistan.

The book covers more than sixty years of writing, and the sensitive selection of the texts in Landscapes owes a considerable debt to Overton’s knowledge of Berger’s prodigious output. There is an immense range of work in the book, and if sometimes the thoughts expressed seem obvious to today’s readers, it has perhaps less to do with a lack of originality, than a reflection of how profoundly Berger’s ideas have permeated contemporary art discourse.

Berger makes it clear, however, that he doesn’t much like the art world, drawn though he is to it, time and time again. This is perhaps partially a function of his unremitting Marxist stance, but no one comes out unscathed, from art historians to curators to the artists themselves. 

At the same time, however, Berger doesn’t spare himself. In an essay on critic Ernst Fischer, Berger describes himself in a chalet, waxing poetic about how window screens make everything flat and two-dimensional, and that there was “more of nature in a Persian carpet than in most landscape paintings.” To which Fischer dryly replies, “We’ll take the hills down, push the trees aside and hang up carpets for you.”

Although the tone of many of the essays can be brusque, there are moments of breathtaking beauty. The essay, “A Gift for Rosa Luxemburg” (2015), also the most recent work in the book, revolves around a simple set of matchboxes featuring illustrations of songbirds. From this simple object, Berger extrapolates to the life of an elderly Polish woman, a trip to Moscow, the tragic life of Luxemburg herself, and moving letters from prison. 

Berger was a towering figure in the field of art criticism, albeit often a polarizing one. But there is no doubting that he saw the essence of art in the essence of life. To see was to live, and to fully see — as art requires — was to be fully alive. 

The book’s final essay, “Meanwhile” (2008), is largely about imprisonment, both physical and metaphorical. One of the final lines in the essay is this: “Liberty is slowly being found not outside but in the depths of the prison.” Or, to quote Dylan Thomas, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Perhaps, what ultimately mattered to Berger — who saw us all as prisoners of preconceived ideas, political movements, and our own foibles — was that we learn to sing in our chains. Because, in the end, the only landscape that truly mattered to Berger was the landscape of the human heart.

Landscapes: John Berger on Art by John Berger, edited by Tom Overton, was published in 2016 by Verso, and is available in the NGC Boutique

By Sheila Singhal| February 06, 2017
Categories:  Recommendations

About the Author

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal

Sheila Singhal is a writer, editor and blogger living in Ottawa, Canada.

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Copyright National Gallery of Canada 2017