I promised to review the last two books of John Berger‘s work issued before his death, and here you are about to read those reviews. I’ll deal with them chronologically:
Landscapes is the second of a two-volume collection spanning almost all of Berger’s work, compiled and edited by Tom Overton, who catalogued Berger’s papers for the British Library, where they now reside. Somewhat broader in scope than its much larger companion, Portraits (reviewed here) Landscapes deals with more than just art, including literature and politics. It is significantly shorter than Portraits, and offers plenty of rich material, but I would like to have seen a few additions, specifically:
Twelve Theses On The Economy Of The Dead (1994), an essay well described by its title, and rather indescribable otherwise. Berger included it in two books, the poetry collection Pages Of The Wound (1994), and the prose collection Hold Everything Dear (2007); I’ll leave it to you to decide which form it is. Fortunately, you can hear Berger read it here.
Will It Be A Likeness? (1997), an essay/radio play included in his book, The Shape Of A Pocket (2001), and available to listen to here. As with some of his best work, Berger moves from art to personal anecdote to political commentary with ease and deeply observant thought. I will treasure it, if for nothing else, for giving me the phrase “a kind of Switzerland of perception.”
This sort of best-of collection is designed to show the author in the best light, while at the same time aspiring to some sort of comprehensive survey. So kudos to Overton for not shirking when Berger missteps – a rarity, to be sure, but he did blunder now and then. His 1958 essay, “The Biennale” (pp. 155-58), manages to show Berger almost completely wrong in his criticism, yet he does so with firm convictions, and you cannot in the end blame him. Berger’s tastes in art leaned toward the representational, and the emergence of someone like Jasper Johns, whose groundbreaking Flag paintings made their Venice debut that year, leave Berger at a loss. The artists he championed have not fared so well, whereas Johns is an iconic figure in 20th Century art. Well, not even Berger could be right all the time.
Confabulations was published just before Berger’s death in November 2016, and represents his last collection of all-new material. Inexplicably, some four months after his passing, this book has not been issued in the United States. I had to order the British edition, published by Penguin. I’m quite glad I did. Get with it, US publishers!
Confabulations shows no signs of senescence, nothing to mark this as a final book. Berger’s insight are as sharp as ever. (I find myself inevitably referring to Berger in the present tense; his writing seems to encourage this.) The highlight of the book is the long essay, Some Notes About Song (for Yasmine Hamdan), which begins as a freewheeling letter and proceeds from there along a path that is circuitous without meandering, touching on art, music, dance, language (spoken and gestural), and more. Its sprawling purview reminds me of what I see in Berger at his best: he does not isolate art, but always sees it in a myriad of contexts; he sees art as part of life, rather than an academic specialty to be examined in isolation. In this Some Notes About Song reminds me of his other long essays, particularly one of my favorites, A Story For Aesop (1986), from his 1991 book, Keeping A Rendezvous – also absent from Landscapes, which is making me doubt Tom Overton’s skill as an editor.
The final essay, How To Resist A State of Forgetfulness, is particularly appropriate to these days, when the Trump administration is working hard to pervert the definitions of normal and true. Berger, though he lived for decades in France, was a keen observer of US politics. As with art, as with everything, he knew that looking closely was the way to understanding. Alternative facts do not stand up to scrutiny, and resistance needs precision of language to bring out the deep and deeper truths. The art world will miss John Berger a great deal; the entire world should miss his careful eye.