In an essay on the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, written in 1959 when John Berger was at the beginning of the writing life which would result in the production of memorable novels, short stories, screenplays, and striking art criticism, he declared that a serious critic should concern himself with “the art of the last and the next forty years,” the minimum time span for any truly significant alterations in human consciousness to occur. The long range of this prospect indicated the ambitions of a vigorously intellectual person blessed with enduring energy, a steady moral compass, and a persistent interest in the ways in which artistic creation is connected to social justice. It also enabled Berger to produce a series of essays that captured the attention of a trans-Atlantic audience as they appeared and which continue to engage readers through their perception and power.
The essays selected from various volumes by Geoff Dyer (the author of a critical study of Berger, Ways of Telling, 1986) are, in Dyer’s words, an answer to the question “Which book of Berger’s should I read first?” Since they follow the course of Berger’s thought across more than four decades, and since they are a carefully considered but clearly personal selection of provocative, often argumentative individual pieces, they are not units of a seamless construction. What they provide, in addition to the specific insights and ideas they present, is a kind of map of the mind and heart of a man whose often daunting intelligence is blended with an endearing commitment to a very humane conception of a cultural community and a genuinely spiritual feeling for the most fundamental needs of the human universe.
Right from the start of his ventures into the critical arena, Berger has been explicitly direct about his aims and convictions. His early, consuming interest in art is already apparent in his recollection that during the worst moments of the Nazi air assault on England, he “had a single idea,” to draw “all day long.” Nonetheless, he served in the British armed services from 1944 to 1946. Although he attended art school after the war and worked as an art teacher from 1948 to 1955, his commitment to a program of political activism is equally clear in his response to complaints in 1953 that “far from my dragging politics into art, art has dragged me into politics.” His first collection of essays was published asPermanent Red (1960) in the British Isles, but it was published in the United States as Toward Reality (1962) in a cautious adjustment of what might have seemed a too-inflamatory declaration of an unfashionable position. Berger’s reflections in a preface for the 1979 edition admit that in some ways, “I would be more tolerant today,” but reaffirm his most fundamental position. “On the central issue,” he states, “I would be even more intransigent. I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property. . . . Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop any further.” While conceding that since the mid-1950’s, “conditions have changed,” and “I have changed,” Berger maintains that “most of these generalizations and insights strike me as still valid.” The linkage between artistic expression and political involvment that is the dominant theme and the prevalent strategy for coherence among these essays affords Berger the opportunity to develop an argument of considerably more subtlety, depth, and sophistication than his pronouncements on “the central issue” might suggest.
The essay “That Which Is Held” (1982) opens with the sentence, “I am thinking in front of Giorgione’s Tempest and I want to begin with a quotation from Osip Mandelstam.” This immediate appeal to an audience that is familiar with the painter and the poet mentioned by Berger is characteristic of an approach that assumes a thoughtful, inquisitive response to art as the truest path toward enlightenment and fulfillment for human beings. In the essays chosen from his first books, Berger builds an aesthetic foundation that forms the core of his convictions about what is most enduring in terms of artistic creation and what aspects of humanity are addressed by these concerns. Primary among these is the twenty-page essay, one of the longest, “The Moment of Cubism” (1969) from the book of that title. Berger has been moving toward this summation with essays on British sculptor Henry Moore (1898-1986), Spanish painter Juan Gris (1887-1927), French painter Fernand Léger 1881-1955), Spanish painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), and French painter Henri Matisse (1869-1954), among others, in essays dating from 1953, offering ideas and insights such as “A drawing is an autobiographical record of one’s discovery of an event—seen, remembered, or imagined,” from “Drawing” (1953), that reveal both the shape of an evolving sensibility and an introduction to the history and highlights of Western art.
The individual essays have not aged any more than their subjects, and to...
(The entire section is 2070 words.)