Back of Beyond

John Barrell

  • Keeping a rendezvous by John Berger
    Granta, 252 pp, £14.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 14 014229 0

‘If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier: messages which come from the back of the visible. And this, not because all painters are Platonists, but because they look so hard.’ Throughout this very varied book, and especially when writing on art, John Berger invites us to acknowledge the absolutes and universals which, he insists, lie behind the surfaces of things. He doesn’t have a great deal to say about those absolutes, and asks us to be content with terms like the essential, the invisible, the sacred or the real, as if the words themselves, floating free of any discernible theology or metaphysics, can answer the questions they raise by the simple urgency with which they are uttered. For me they can’t: and yet I found myself hurrying through these essays, eating them up, as if I really believed they could feed the hunger they created. The greater my disbelief, the more often it was suspended. For at his very best Berger can describe a painting, can evoke the aura emanating from the objects it represents, with such eloquence that he can inspire us, or me at least, with universal longings.

Most of the essays in Keeping a rendezvous are about visual art, about the resistance art offers to time, to tyranny, to materialism. But none of them is about art alone: they place the paintings, the sculptures, the films, the photographs they discuss in the context of geography, sexuality, the nature of time, the rise of the multinationals, the collapse of totalitarian Communism. There are also poems on the assassination of the Chilean socialist Orlando Letelier and on the Basra Road massacre. There are meditations on emptying a septic tank, on dreaming about a bear, on evolution and the behaviour of apes in zoos, on travelling by motor-bike.

All these pieces are animated by a single idea, and it can be summed up in a single word, the ‘beyond’ – uttered, if nouns could be, in the imperative mood. It is founded on a familiar ‘ontological wager’, as Berger calls it: we have to believe that there is something behind things or we are condemned to live in a world without conscience, compassion, justice, or hope for the oppressed. It is in the interest of capitalism to persuade us that surfaces are all the substance there is, that the world is a world of objects, arranged, like a shopping-list, only by the random impulses of acquisitiveness. It was the tragedy of Communism that in revealing the materialist basis of historical change, it could prophesy a future defined only by the logic of historical materialism. Neither capitalism nor Communism, however, can suppress or permanently defer the belief in, or the desire for, a beyond, and nothing can exemplify and release that belief or desire so well as the visual arts – pre-eminently, painting. For painters, or the best painters, interrogate the objects they create: they represent the surfaces of objects in such a way as to call attention to the fact that they are, precisely, surfaces; that there is always something behind them. The representation of the visible world becomes an intimation of the invisible, the beyond.

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