John Berger / The Shape of a Pocket / Review by Jeanette Winterson
John Berger : The Shape of a Pocket
John Berger’s collection of essays gathers together six years of passionate thinking.
July 11th, 2001
The passion is the mark of the man. There is nothing distanced about Berger. He handles thoughts the way an artist handles paint. His mind is spattered with colour. These essays smell of oil and resin and sweat, not only because they are about painters – but because his writing has a physical reality.
Central to this collection, is the essay, Against the Great Defeat of the World, which begins with a commentary on Bosch’s 1500’s painting, Millennium Triptych. One of the panels of this painting is a depiction of Hell, which Berger singles out for its ‘spatial delirium’. It is this space, without horizons or boundaries, that Berger sees as prophetic of the modern world – a world where nothing flows and everything interrupts. A world that is a wilderness of separate excitements; ‘wretched pieces that do not fit together.’
Berger loathes the neo-liberalism of the global market – it’s new world order, its insistence on ‘free’ trade whatever the cost, and the terrifying madness of a system that accepts no alternative to its core value of money.
Those who think that art is not important, or that art is a luxury, forget that in a money culture, art stands for the genius of the human spirit. A spirit not contained by the need to buy and sell; a spirit of exploration, relationship, and involvement. Our fragmented soundbite media tears us away from the creative attention we need to focus on ourselves and the world. Art restores that creative attention – asks us to look, listen and feel. Art re-connects what the market place tries to separate.
Berger is a connected writer. These essays move from the rock paintings of the Chauvet Caves, fifteen thousand years older than the caves at Lascaux, through Rembrandt, and Michelangelo, to Frida Kahlo. What emerges is a convincing picture of art as an activity that is essential to our humanness, and to our understanding of what humanness is.
On Frida Kahlo, Berger talks about her method as one which brings pain to the surface. She liked to paint on metal, for its skin-smoothness. Body of work has meaning here. Out of her own damaged and disfigured body, she made pigments and lines that rise through the isolating experience of pain, to make pain shared, even liberating.
For Kahlo, a likeness is not important; she goes underneath likeness, and finds identity.
‘The drop of paint does not describe the body liquid, but seems to be its double.’
It is this fidelity to truth that Berger notes as the gift of the real artist. Fidelity, for Berger, is a relationship with the object, whether the vase of flowers, or the human body, or the abstract pattern. Far from being a god-like creator, Berger’s artist is a collaborator – one who is not afraid to ‘get in close’. Dead art happens when the artist stays at ‘a copying distance.’
This wonderful insight is the best explanation I have read of the difference between real art and its sham Art as commodity, whether bad pictures, hyped artists or reproductions, disallows risk. The product is sterilised and pre-packed. It might seem pleasing, but it cannot satisfy. To be authentic, art requires more than technique; it is a passionate encounter.
‘To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies, and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness.’
In a lovely essay on Van Gogh, Berger explores the fusion of the art against the fission of the life. The stereotype of the mad genius is redundant – a story society uses to protect itself from creativity. We all suffer and break. If artists suffer and break more dramatically, it is because they feel more acutely. Van Gogh could feel grass grow. He painted boots, peasants, chairs, sunflowers, not as photographs in oil, but as living energy. It is the intensity of his relationship with what he saw that translates into the pictures. It is what Berger calls ‘a stripped respect for everyday things.’
Art interprets humanness, and nowhere is this more intimate than in the portrait. . Berger is fascinated by likeness – what it is and what it is not. The portrait is a motif for this collection, but two essays explore the problem directly.
The Fayum Portraits were painted around the time of the Gospels. They were found a hundred years ago in Egypt. Painted on linen or wood, while the sitter was still alive, they were eventually attached to the mummy, to serve as identity pictures, and family mementoes. Why, asks Berger, do they still move us as though they were painted last month? The answer is complex but ends with this – ‘The painted gaze is entirely concentrated on the life is knows it will one day lose.’
This concentration is what we find in Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Berger points out that the human could no longer simply be copied, as in Renaissance, it had to be found in the darkness.
Most of us see in a glass darkly. We do not know our own face, which is why the face of the beloved is so startling and precious. Art offers a similar lit-up recognition. Some of these flares of light burn brighter or longer than others. We need them, because like Rembrandt, we are ‘looking for a way out of the darkness.’