The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 23, 2002

He saw beyond art’s formal graces

Selected Essays
by John Berger
edited by Geoff Dyer. Pantheon Books, New York Pages xiii+ 589. $ 35

Selected EssaysIN my undergraduate days in the 1950s, I used to avidly read John Berger and V.S.Pritchet in the columns of New Statesman. Berger looked at paintings with a wide-ranging social conscience informed by Marxism. Pritchet revelled in the formal qualities of novels and other literary genres. As they matured, both became exceptionally good essayists and wrote novels of considerable merit. Berger’s novel, G, won the Booker Prize.

Ways of Seeing and Art and Revolution confirmed Berger’s status as a major critic who regarded the enjoyment of art as both an intellectual and an aesthetic experience. He saw beyond art’s formal graces and made original observations in a way that contemporary sharp-shooting Terry Eagletons fail to do, primarily because they are deficient in the range and keenness of his imaginative sympathies.

Berger’s criticism derives from his faculty of seeing the ‘quivering energy’ behind a work. Talking of early and later Degas in a recent collection, Shape of a Pocket (2001), he notes that the early works scrupulously observe reality but in later ones reality is ‘quiveringly perceived from within’. His criticism, like the drama criticism of his contemporary, Kenneth Tynan, explores from within the artwork its constituent social, aesthetic and political configurations.


The present collection, put together by Geoff Dyer from a large body of his writings, once again revives our faith in the lasting value of Berger’s art criticism. Apart from his favourite painters Matisse, Leger, Picasso and Kandinsky, there are here short assessments of poets and writers as well as of sculptors, architects, museums and photographers. The one motif running through them all is the close connection between artistic pre-eminence and social awareness. The Yeatsian difference between ‘perfection of work or perfection of man’ becomes problematic in his writing.

Explaining the title of Shape of a Pocket , Berger notes that ‘A pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement…the reader, me and those the essays are about’. It is not necessary, though, that they all agree. But meaning emerges through their dynamic interaction, enhancing our awareness of our own potentiality.

There is always a resistance to the existing order in an artist, says Berger. The aim of the critic, then, is to record the points of resistance in the subjects of study and show how these points confer relevance to a work. Selected Essays is just this evolving record of the ways in which Berger’s artists, viewers and readers come together in pursuit of the meaning of the artwork. Fernand Leger, peeking invisibly from behind Berger’s writing, would call it the creation of an ensemble.

In an essay ‘Painting a Landscape’ Berger remarks: "The marks on the canvas must have a life of their own…Given the artist’s ability to include his own work as part of the reality he is studying—the image will act as a metaphor". It is as a metaphor that art encompasses various stretches of our experience. This is why a painting ‘interprets the world in its own language…Photography has no language of its own’ (‘Understanding a Photograph’).

Berger celebrates Fernand Leger not because he deals with robots, but because he is socially conscious. Picasso, on the other hand, ‘does not belong to the twentieth century’ world of cities, workers at work and circus acrobats. ‘It is in the use to which he puts his temperament that Picasso is a modern man. (‘Fernand Leger’).

This is Berger’s way of discriminating between two towering painters and sculptors. Many essays in the present collection depend on the integration of the contingency of his own experience and the historical moment of the artwork under scrutiny. He moves everywhere with a sense of greater design and larger purpose, which accounts for the comprehensive scope of his observations.

In the essay on Ulysses this integration is seen at work. He notices Joyce’s penchant ‘for the lowly’: ‘He listened to their pains, their stomachs, their tumescences…the more carefully he listened…the richer became life’s offering…he showed me that literature is inimicable to all hierarchies and to separate fact and imagination is to stay on dry land and never put to sea’. In his own criticism of artists and writers, Berger never forgot this Joycean revelation.Berger has made forceful use of the essay form to provide him a flexibility of argument not available in a tawdry academic discussion. In his hands the essay becomes a medium of exploration cutting across rigid ideological positions. An early forerunner of cultural studies, he uses the essay to reach a larger readership, At 75, he is still our man.