Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527
The principal action in A Painter of Our Time takes place across a stretch of some four years in the life of the fictional Hungarian painter Janos Lavin. The story is told in part by Lavin’s friend John, who resembles John Berger in several ways—not least in his being an...
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- Critical Essays
The principal action in A Painter of Our Time takes place across a stretch of some four years in the life of the fictional Hungarian painter Janos Lavin. The story is told in part by Lavin’s friend John, who resembles John Berger in several ways—not least in his being an art critic during this period—and who has discovered Lavin’s journal in the latter’s studio after his return to Budapest in October, 1956. The text alternates between passages from the journal and the interpolations of John, who fills in the gaps, narrating more fully the events surrounding the reflections recorded in the journal.
The journal opens in January, 1952, and closes in October, 1956, some five days before Lavin’s disappearance from London. Two weeks later, John receives a letter from Lavin in Budapest. These are the last words that Lavin’s wife and friends hear of him. All of their inquiries about his fate after the repression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet troops prove fruitless, although there is the strong suspicion that he has perished, either in the fighting or in the political executions that followed.
During the period covered by the journal, the reader receives a privileged glimpse of Lavin’s tortured reflections on art and politics, his struggles with his own work during that period, and his guilty sense of having abandoned the legacy of his revolutionary youth by emigrating to London to continue his career as a painter. The external events that punctuate these intimate and moving reflections largely concern Lavin’s attempts to support himself as an artist, his initial failure to obtain exhibition space in any London gallery, and then his ultimate success—cut short by his abrupt departure and disappearance. Inter alia, the novel contains some splendid portraits of the bohemian world of London artists. This world intersects (like all art worlds in the capitalist West) with the lives and fortunes of the English ruling classes, whose purchasing power sustains artists and dealers, laying the material foundation for the continued production of new artworks. One of the novel’s most memorable moments occurs when John and Lavin visit the country estate of Sir Gerald Banks to view the latter’s collection, and Lavin, unable to control his rage, compares the collection to a big-game hunter’s trophy room.
The real “story” told here, however, concerns Lavin’s gradually emerging conviction that he must return to Budapest. Lavin’s decision grows out of a long meditation on the position of the artist in capitalist versus Socialist societies, but in the end, two events seem to determine him to leave London and abandon his wife and his budding career. The first is the news of his friend Laszlo’s execution for political crimes, a last gasp of Stalinist terror prior to the uprising in 1956 and the subsequent de-Stalinization of many of the Eastern European states. The second is the Hungarian Revolution itself. To comprehend Lavin’s choice, it is necessary to consider John Berger’s conception of the character, in particular the central motivation depicted in the journal and in Lavin’s actions: the relationship between the artist and politics.