- The Selected Essays of John Berger edited by Geoff Dyer
Bloomsbury, 599 pp, £25.00, November 2001, ISBN 0 7475 5419 6
John Berger’s selected essays run to nearly six hundred pages, yet that is just the tip of the iceberg if one looks at the totality of his published work: the essays and reviews about the visual arts – drawing, painting, photography, film – but also short stories, journals, screenplays, travel articles, letters, television scripts, translations, novels, poems, even a requiem in three parts which gives a wrenching account of the untimely deaths of three of Berger’s neighbours. From 1951 to 1961 he wrote reviews for the New Statesman, and subsequently published regularly in New Society, as well as New Left Review, the Observer, the Sunday Times Magazine, Marxism Today, Réalités, the Village Voice, Harpers, Granta, Expressen, El País and 7 Days. It is a daunting task to find some way of coming to terms with such a rich and extensive body of work, all of it marked by Berger’s unflagging seriousness, his insistence on somehow merging personal response, social insight, aesthetic theory and political commentary. Every piece is rigorously thought through but also heartfelt, sometimes almost embarrassingly so.
Berger’s reputation is that of a political radical, a romantic Marxist, a sympathiser with the underdog and the lonely rebel, a social critic and an outspoken castigator of market values – especially art market values – and of a predatory capitalism. Yet he is also obsessed by the past, even by the distant past – at times he is a romantic, at times a classicist. On occasion he has the appearance of a stubborn conservative, disregarding or brusquely dismissing new trends and new fashions. I anticipated positive references to Millet, Courbet, Cézanne and Van Gogh, but I was surprised to find how seriously artists such as Piero della Francesca, Dürer, Grünewald, Hals, Rembrandt, Poussin, Watteau or Goya are presented as templates for great art, today as in the past.
Impressionism, Cubism and Constructivism are celebrated, too, but Berger shows little interest in Surrealism, Art Brut, Abstract Expressionism, Assemblage, Pop Art, Conceptualism or other recent trends, and can be quite contemptuous of all of them. The 20th-century masters he praises most highly are Picasso and Léger – both Communist Party members. Léger, in particular, is a ‘heroic’ artist, who ‘rejected every implication of “Glamour”’. Eventually, however, Berger appears to have become disenchanted with Communism as a form of state power. ‘Early Constructivist’ works, made in the first flush of Revolutionary enthusiasm, expressed ‘the hopes aroused by the new functional possibilities of science and engineering for an industrially backward country in a time of revolution’ – hopes which were soon to be dashed. In a similar vein, Berger wrote a book about the dissident Russian sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, whose work was publicly denounced by Khrushchev and who subsequently emigrated to the West, just as Naum Gabo had emigrated many decades before. In each case, Berger expresses sympathy for both the artist’s work and his plight, yet also feels that his art deteriorated when he had to function within a market economy.
As time went by, Berger clearly began to broaden his understanding of Marxism. By the 1970s he is writing in New Society about Victor Serge and Walter Benjamin, independent Marxists who were opposed to the Party line or idiosyncratic in their interpretation of Marxist theory. Serge was a former anarchist who was soon expelled from the Party and ended up as a ‘left oppositionist’, disenchanted with Stalinism and turning towards Trotskyism. His novel Birth of Our Power, about which Berger writes eloquently, was set in 1917 in Barcelona, where the novel’s protagonists ‘had a quiet little room with four cots, the walls papered with maps, a table loaded with books. There were always a few of us there, poring over the endlessly annotated, commented, summarised texts. There Saint-Just, Robespierre, Jacques Roux, Babeuf, Blanqui, Bakunin were spoken of as if they had just come down to take a stroll under the trees.’ They were also optimists. As an Italian anarchist put it, ‘the hour is not far distant when a new sun will shine on all men alike.’ Cubism, too, was warmed by this new sun.
I suspect that Berger himself had read many of the same books, from the same canon of French revolutionary literature. He respected David as a painter because of his ‘revolutionary classicism’ and, in his book on The Success and Failure of Picasso, he cites Bakunin’s typically anarchist dictum that ‘the urge to destroy is also a creative urge,’ comparing it to Picasso’s observation that ‘a painting is a sum of destructions.’ Picasso’s formative years were spent in Barcelona, a city Berger characterises as lawless, violent and extreme in its politics. He goes on to connect Picasso’s central role in the development of Cubism to his experiences in Catalunya. It was Barcelona that gave him the energy to create ‘a revolution in art’, as Berger characterises Cubism, a revolution which abruptly ‘changed the nature of the relationships between the painted image and reality’. This revolution in art, moreover, was provoked by Picasso’s own ‘insurrection’, as embodied in the Demoiselles d’Avignon, a painting inspired by his memories of Barcelona. The Cubist painters, Berger concludes, ‘did not think in political terms. Yet they were concerned with a revolutionary transformation of the world.’
Cubism, however, ‘was only a beginning, and a beginning cut short’. The ‘post-Cubist art’ which followed no longer ‘reflected the possibility of a transformed world’, as Berger laments, but instead tended to be ‘anxious and highly subjective’. Within the category of post-Cubist art, Berger groups together Dadaism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and, more precisely, the work of Chirico, Miró, Klee, Dubuffet and even Picasso: the Picasso of the 1920s and early 1930s, before his work was reinvigorated by hostility to the Franco regime and Fascism in general, before he was able to paint Guernica; and, subsequently, the postwar Picasso, whose work became schematic and sentimentalised. Berger was surely right to place the development of Cubism within a political and social context. Unfortunately, his fixation with it as the one valid art movement eventually led him into an impasse. If Cubism had failed, what hope was there of further success?
This question was particularly acute during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Berger was active in the Artists International Association (AIA), a grouping founded in 1933 by British artists who shared a broadly socialist agenda, eventually focused on the struggle against Fascism – in Spain and then, with the rise of Nazism and the onset of war, throughout most of Europe. After the war the AIA divided, basically between pro and anti-Soviet wings, or, in more general terms, between an increasingly politicised and an increasingly depoliticised wing. Berger, at that time, was actively engaged with the more politicised tendency. It was not long, however, before Soviet condemnation of Modernism in art exacerbated the split still further. In August 1950, Berger exhibited his own work under the aegis of the AIA. His subjects, the Manchester Guardian noted, included ‘fishermen, oxyacetylene welders, builders and – shades of Léger – acrobats’. He was now in his early twenties. Educated at private schools, he had studied at the Central School of Art, after which he was drafted into the Army, where he encountered working-class men for the first time. Demobilised, he taught art for the Workers’ Educational Association, and painted in his spare time.