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.

Just as, for Berger, the world is structured in terms of an opposition between what is visible and what is not, the material and (this, at least, is the wager) the spiritual, so arts, artists, paintings, practices, systems of thought are all divided between those which ‘cling to the surface of things’ and those which invite or allow us to imagine what is beyond them, and what it is beyond their power to represent. This opposition is set up in essay after essay, as the permeability of a favoured work or form of art is contrasted with the merely flat or the treacherously reflective, or with the complacency that comes with plentitude. It works also as an opposition between the past and the present, the pre-capitalist and the capitalist, the country and the city. A meditation on the ideal palace built by the French postman Ferdinand Cheval at Hautrives in the Drôme, contrasts the ‘ideal urban surface’, brilliant, reflective, and apparently denying that there is anything behind it, with the peasant for whom what is visible is a sign of the invisible. The peasant comes in quite often as a guarantor of Berger’s faith in the invisible. ‘Any peasant not entirely dispossessed of his land,’ he writes, in an essay on the sacred in Zurburan’s painting, ‘would recognise what I’m talking about.’

As we read through the essays, this opposition comes to seem more rigid than rigorous. In the second essay painting and film are contrasted in terms I have already borrowed: films (Berger is here quoting Lucien Sève) ‘cling to the surface of things’, but painting ‘interrogates the visible’. The sixth essay is a meditation on Spanish painting, arguing that though it takes its language from the other side of the Pyrenees, its distinctive character comes from the geography of Spain itself, or more precisely of the meseta, the flat, featureless, unpaintable steppes where the spirit can sustain itself only by a belief that there must be something more, an ‘essence’, beyond the pitiless desolation of the landscape. This landscape is the opposite of the landscapes surrounding the cities in Italian Renaissance painting, where there is no distinction between appearance and essence. So now Velazquez, El Greco, Ribera, Goya seem to engross all that the greatest art can do: their paintings speak to us of the surfaces beneath the surfaces, ‘and so take us nearer to the last, behind which the truth begins’. In the work of Piero della Francesca, by contrast, or Raphael, or Vermeer, ‘all is visibility.’ In another essay, the same opposition turns up to distinguish Jackson Pollock, who insisted that there was ‘nothing behind’, from the ‘act of faith’ that had distinguished all previous painting ‘from palaeolithic times to Cubism, from Tintoretto ... to Rothko’: the belief that ‘the visible contained hidden secrets.’ In yet another, however, painting is characterised as being about ‘the physical, the palpable, the immediate’, and it is music which is the art of ‘what is behind the given: the wordless, the invisible, the unconstrained’.

The more often I came across this opposition (and there are many more examples), the more it seemed in danger of becoming a distinction without a difference. In one of the best essays in the book, a tour de force of evocative criticism, Berger argues that Renoir’s nudes are ‘the opposite of naked’. Renoir is characterised as a man so frightened by ‘some aspect of reality’ that he set out to embellish reality and so to conceal it. ‘He studied the surface or the skin of everything he saw before his eyes, and he turned this skin into a veil which hid what lay beneath the surface.’ ‘Everything has been dressed by the act of painting.’ ‘Within, there is nobody – the living flesh, so alive, is the equivalent of a dress that nobody is wearing.’ Berger invents a dozen different ways to express the central paradox of the essay, that in Renoir’s paintings skin is clothing, He argues that the strange chastity of the paintings is the result of a fearful need to abolish all differences between surfaces, and with them all identities. The paradox, the strangeness, cry out for explanation, and find it in an account of the psychopathology of masculinity, or one version of it. ‘These are sweet paintings of a terrible loss. They speak to the dreams of frightened men, their obsession with the surface of femininity, and their lack of women.’

After reading this essay and (for example) the essay on Pollock, it wasn’t clear to me why it mattered, in terms of Berger’s notions of painting, whether a painting is thought to cling to the surfaces of things or to offer those surfaces as intimations of the invisible. Either way, it seems, Berger will look for what is beyond the object, equally prompted to do so whether he believes it invites that kind of response or repels it. Either way, he finds in painting the occasion for compassion, beyond the blankness of mere appearance. There are differences, of course, which are represented as differences of value, but what do they amount to? They depend upon what may be another act of faith on Berger’s part: that he can tell the difference between the work a painting does and the work we do on it. The ‘beyond’ of the paintings he most admires is celebrated in a language of the spiritual and of the sacred; they demand that we should look through the surfaces of things, as well as at them; they discover things for us. We look through the paintings of Renoir in spite of an urgent injunction that we should not, and what is behind them, described in words like ‘anxiety’ and the ‘terrible’, is what we discover, we diagnose. But if intimations of invisibility are so nomadic – residing now in one art, now in another, sometimes in one school of painting, at other times in painting itself – it seems more likely that they are an effect of the language in which Berger attempts to evoke the aura of things painted than that this language is an effect of the paintings themselves, the language they demand to be described in, if they are to be described as they really are.

This isn’t a conclusion that will impress Berger, who shares with Wordsworth an intense suspicion of language as well as a belief in the intuition of the peasant. He writes of Henry Moore’s work that ‘it lent itself to a particular kind of cultural appropriation. It could easily be covered with words, and so become all things to all men.’ In an essay on narrative he argues that ‘the problem of narration’ is not ‘ “finding the words” ’, but ‘choosing and placing events ... allowing or instigating their wordless dialogue’; ideally, words disappear into the objects they name. The problem of language itself is the ease with which ‘the order of words’ can so easily be separated from ‘the order of what they denote’. Berger differs from Wordsworth, however, in that his suspicion of language is counterbalanced by an uncompromising faith in the eye: ‘only the eye can do justice to the phenomenon of existence’ – which must be true, if like Berger we conceive of existence almost entirely in visual terms, as a phenomenon, something shown.

The power and value of the visual arts is not only that they suggest the ‘beyond’ of surfaces: they discover the beyond of words as well. ‘The artist is the first to recognise when a language is lying.’ At its most problematic, as in the essay on Moore, Berger’s account of the visual arts seems to value them especially for their ability, as he believes, to put us in touch with the pre-verbal, the largely visual and tactile experiences of infancy. Aside from the question of why that should be a particularly good thing for art to do, it never becomes clear how it can do it. If it is a problem (for whatever reason) that consciousness is so thoroughly constructed by language, how can art force a passage through language, and how can we know that it does?

‘The moment a writer’s attention is diverted by considerations of style, rhetoric or verbal glory, his words, instead of containing, will merely evoke.’ It won’t please Berger, therefore, that what I most admire in this book is the power of what reads to me like a most considered style, a very deliberate rhetoric, to evoke his own passionate responses to the paintings he describes. He is as much a conscious stylist as those other evocative critics he most reminds me of, Hazlitt and Pater, with all their energy though without their clarity in argument. It is a style which takes more risks than theirs to represent the energies of thought and feeling, a soundbite style of short sentences and paragraphs, often seeking to ground its authority in axioms and flat assertion. It can be pushy and occasionally banal: ‘Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older women.’ The best writing, however, is as energising as it strives to be – the last pages of the essay on Renoir, or the description of the effigy of Victor Noir in the Père Lachaise (the death ‘selected with the same fastidiousness as the shirt or boots’), the meditation on Velazquez’s Aesop – an imaginary portrait with which he has come to identify. No wonder: it is at least as much like Berger himself as it can be like Aesop, as uncannily faithful as El Greco’s portrait of Hemingway which goes under the name of The Tears of St Peter.

There is a quiet and very moving essay in John Berger’s new book which recalls his last conversations with his mother. Her last words – not her actual last words, but the words of hers which Berger chooses to end his essay – go like this: ‘Love, my mother had the habit of saying, is the only thing that counts in this world. Real love, she would add, to avoid any factitious misunderstanding. But apart from that simple adjective, she never added anything more.’ Perhaps my difference with Berger, or my difference from him, comes down to a difference of linguistic upbringing, of mother tongue. The last words I remember my mother saying to me were ‘fuck off’. Again, they were not her actual last words, but the last words of our last conversation that I can distinctly remember, and they stayed in my mind perhaps because they summed up so much of how, even then, I liked to remember her, as she had been before her memory fell apart. I had just interrupted her.

‘You wouldn’t have said that,’ she complained, ‘if you’d waited to see what my sentence would’ve ended up with.’

‘You’d only have ended it with a preposition. With. Or in or on or off.’

‘Fuck off,’ said my mother.