Book Review: Portraits by John Berger


Most of us are in love with permanence. We cling to the hope that something outlasts us, not just in the short term, but forever. These things, we think, are meant to be constant. Yes, we temper our love with an acceptance of transience, grudging and rueful, but the simplest hopes are the ones that take longest to pass. We want certain things to be for always.

When we accept that always is a fiction, or at least something so far out of our grasp that it might as well be fiction, an elegiac tone creeps in. It’s time to summarize, wrap up that thing that we wanted to keep. Perhaps, surely, it will outlive us in some aspects, but that only turns the eye toward our own mortality – and the less said about that the better.

John Berger turns 90 this year. I have blogged about him previously, but the release of this new anthology of his work reminds me that I will see the day when he is no longer writing. When David Bowie died, I wrote that you should always have some heroes who are younger than you, so that there is always a new thing to look forward to. Among writers who write about art, whether critic/historian/journalist or what-have-you, there is none whom I admire more than John Berger. And this book, delightful though it is, is an acknowledgement of his own transience.

If you have read Berger’s nonfiction books to date there is much here that is familiar. It draws on his writings back into the 1950s and right up to the present. Much of the more recent material, articles he has published here and there, have not been collected in book form before, and are worth the hefty price of the book. The editor, Tom Overton, has arranged the contents chronologically by artist, which allows us to read Berger on the same artist at different points in his career. This is not a revelation; Berger’s opinions and feelings have remained consistent, while his language has moved more from the analytical to the philosophical. Wisdom is a hard word to use correctly; certainly Berger’s views have been wise from the start, even when I disagree strongly. Overton, a writer who also catalogues Berger’s archive at the British library, has chosen carefully and with generosity. 502 pages might seem like a lot, but not in this case – in fact, a second volume, entitled Landscapes, is in the works. Casual readers, or those daunted by the idea of too much Berger, might settle for the 2001 volume, Selected Essays of John Berger, edited by Geoff Dyer.

The front cover shows one of the Fayum portraits, Egyptian funeral paintings done in the 1st to 3rd centuries CE. The artists are unknown, as are the names of the dead, but the rare delicacy and skill with which they worked is unmistakable, even after so many hundreds of years. Something has remained, something permanent. A book like Portraits aims at a summing-up, a life contained because it has or is about to end. As everyone who has ever written about Berger must note, he sees himself as primarily a storyteller. Stories have endings, no matter how much we might wish they didn’t. It’s human nature to want things to end before they get stale or repetitive, and yet we don’t want them to end until that point is almost at hand.



One thought on “Book Review: Portraits by John Berger

  1. Pingback: Two Books | Art Matters

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