BY Jay Murphy in Reviews | 06 MAR 95
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Issue 21

John Berger: A Tribute

BY Jay Murphy in Reviews | 06 MAR 95

Very few writers of art criticism in the latter part of the 20th century have had as profound an influence on their times as John Berger. Yet, as these two concurrent exhibitions demonstrate, for all his passing into the common lore of art history and art appreciation classes through texts like Ways of Seeing (1972) and About Looking (1980), Berger remains - for an American audience especially - an elusive, idiosyncratic and almost unassimilable presence.

The exhibitions feature excerpts from Berger's numerous photo-and-text art books and a group of 30 portraits of the writer by his frequent collaborator, the photographer Jean Mohr. Surprisingly, the exhibitions also concentrate on one of the least known aspects of Berger's prodigious output: his drawings. The emphasis on this most intimate and traditional of art forms may seem odd for a writer and artist who has commented so much on photography, whose work includes screenplays written with Alain Tanner, and whose greatest achievement may well be his novels: the 1972 Booker prize winner G. and the Into their Labours trilogy. In the latter, the cubistic, multiple perspectives of G. are replaced by a narrator who recounts experiences in a rhythm that has been likened to a requiem. But this emphasis makes sense given the accents of Berger's art writing: the idea of art based in love and intimacy; the tracings of memory in digressions of a brief poetic prose and a delicate will to unity. In short, an accent on lived experience, physiology and perception. Berger relies on the synchronous power of poetry and cyclic myths to articulate a world view that is resistant to corporate capitalism.

For Berger, 'every injustice' is grounded in global capitalism's 'unilinear view of time, in which the only relation conceivable is that between cause and effect'. All of Berger's work can be seen as an attempt to evoke the lived durée of experience, to hold onto it or retrieve it against the onrushing technological totalities that have been called 'progress'. This is the root of Berger's fondness for storytelling and his reliance on oral language and histories. This is also why he would find Paul Strand's Mexican photos appealing; taken, he writes, with an exposure time that seems to be an entire lifetime. Although his career as an artist was interrupted by his almost accidental detour into commentary rather than artistic practice, an exhibition of drawings strikes close to the centre of Berger's enterprise.

Berger has written that drawing formulates a memory - 'a reminder' - only present through drawing itself. His charcoal, pencil, mixed media and collage figure drawings; the sketches; the portraits of friends, family and himself, often seem to be an act of homage - either to the body (Psalm 139, 1991), or to specific places (Untitled, 1993 and Seascape, 1993). Often they are surrounded, overlaid, or otherwise extended, by a smokescreen of words; like in his portrait of Tom Watts (1991). This attempt at synaesthesia also lies at the heart of Pages of the Wound, his new collection of poems, drawings, and photographs that seeks strength from the elemental - sex, passion, nature - to strive for a higher, previously lost, unity of experience.

Jean Mohr's photo-portraits are also evidence of the many-sidedness of Berger's endeavour: he is pictured in his writer's studio, with lovers or friends, or shovelling hay with a pitchfork in the small peasant community of Savoie near the French Alps where he has chosen to live. One understands the alert and mercurial intelligence, the humour and equally the almost goofy nature of the subject. As he relates in Another Way of Telling, when awakened by a blind Indian girl scratching on his mosquito net, he answered in the whinnying calls of a horse, the yapping of a dog and the cry of a peacock until the girl, in her enjoyment and beauty of expression, enters into an exchange with the unseen figure of Berger, who records her reactions with a camera.

In pointing out the use of the cultural authority of high art by advertising (Ways of Seeing), in characterising emigration and homelessness as near-universal qualities of the artist, or in paying attention to perhaps the most taboo issue of the art world - class - Berger anticipated many contemporary concerns. At issue here is the point of contact between the recording and creating angels, and how much fragmentation of experience can be tolerated while holding our hope for the invisible whole: what Berger has called 'the wheel turning and the ground on which it turned'.