Early on the morning of Good Friday 2008, John Berger made his way to the National Gallery in London to look at the Crucifixion by Antonello da Messina. It’s one of six versions the Sicilian painted, and the least allegorical rendering of the biblical story Berger knows: ‘the most solitary painting of the scene’. Standing in the gallery, sketchbook in hand, the writer was approached, he tells us, by ‘an armed security guard’ who objected to the placement of Berger’s shoulder bag on a gallery assistant’s empty chair. An argument ensued and Berger began to swear; he was marched to the exit and summarily deposited in Trafalgar Square. This is a curious anecdote, to be sure – are there armed guards at the National Gallery? – but a reminder too (through both the tale and its telling) that the ornery, eloquent and oracular critic has always been, perhaps above all, a performer.
Portraits is a hefty collection of Berger’s writings on individual artists. The essays and extracts are arranged chronologically by the artists’ dates rather than by time of writing or publication. (The book’s editor, Tom Overton, has catalogued Berger’s archive at the British Library, and is working on his biography.) In many cases – Rembrandt, Courbet, van Gogh and Picasso among them – we get a handful of pieces, sometimes decades apart, on the same artist, so that Berger’s modifications or complete reversals of opinion are starkly evident. In 1959 he was already able to say, ‘I have been writing art criticism long enough to be proven wrong.’ Berger is eighty-nine now, and has remained admirably busy in old age. But he long ago attained a position unrivalled among English writers or intellectuals of his generation; he seems to stand for a vanished era of critical and political seriousness, pursued in mainstream, non-academic arenas. In his introduction, Overton notes Berger’s habit of referring to himself as a storyteller. It’s true that he published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, in 1958, but the claim seems calculated to mask the fact he was first of all a skilled and provocative journalist, master of a certain moral tone.
His career as a critic took off at a time when the standard in Britain for magazine and newspaper reviewing – think of Reyner Banham, Kenneth Tynan – was absurdly, stylishly high. Reading Berger’s art criticism of the 1950s now, published in the likes of Tribune, the New Statesman and The Observer, he can seem at times like that familiar English figure, the left-leaning critic who is a little shy of, or even actively hostile towards, the avant-garde. (He was especially tetchy about Francis Bacon: ‘a brilliant stage manager, rather than an original visual artist’.) Berger’s impulse was always to look for the driving energy behind the pictures themselves, whether in the form of intellect, will or – as in the case of Goya’s Nude Maja – erotic obsession. In his criticism from the 1950s and 1960s, one can hear him powering towards his timely assault on art history in Ways of Seeing (1972).
That is to say, specifically, you can hear him rehearsing the pithy, aphoristic tone that worked so well on television. The early pieces, written at a time when Berger was a regular voice on BBC radio, are filled with epigrams that ought to be reductive (especially given the confident abruptness with which they are uttered) but are actually revelatory. In 1962: ‘We all feel better when we think of Leonardo da Vinci.’ Or this: ‘One can recognise a self-portrait a mile off, because of its particular kind of theatricality.’ Such formulations convince, even when their universalism seems forced. One is made to ask: what does ‘theatrical’ mean in the context of painting? And in a painting of nothing but a face? This style persists in Berger’s later writing, as in the magnificent assertion that the spaces in the Sistine Chapel ceiling were articulated ‘with the aplomb of a master snooker player’.
But Berger’s ease with assertion, as distinct from argument, can equally come off as crude and hectoring rather than polemically suasive. In 1962 he argued, with no little ingenuity, that the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder predict the concentration camps, especially the indifference without which they could not have functioned. It is a startling claim, but it depends on saying little or nothing else about Bruegel or concentration camps. This tendency to the grand historical – actually, pretty ahistorical – claim runs all the way through Berger’s work. In a late essay on Bosch he compares the painter’s The Garden of Earthly Delights with the imagery of CNN, and then with the ‘chaos’ of globalisation: ‘As Bosch foresaw in his vision of hell, there is no horizon. The world is burning.’ This is Berger at his most orotund and vague – a familiar tone that ensures he has few, if any, inheritors among younger critics and art historians, even if they were all brought up on Ways of Seeing.
Some of this is no doubt attributable to the great broadcaster’s temptation to compose camera-ready prose. That seems true, for example, of Berger’s manner of posing blunt questions at the top of his paragraphs and then answering them as if they were the only questions worth asking. ‘What was the nature of Goya’s commentary?’ ‘Why does a man paint himself?’ Even though Berger partly invented the solemn humanism of so much later broadsheet arts coverage, this tone is unthinkable today. But it raises the question of what we want from a popular, non-scholarly critic. Insider news and views? A species of higher gossip? Or a type of seriousness that risks hubris and repetition, but knows that in the realm of aesthetic judgement and its expression there’s ‘never a conclusion’? A seriousness that includes the real possibility, as Berger puts it in his preface, that the art critic might be ‘a pain in the arse’? That all seems worth preserving, and worth celebrating in a long and varied but essential volume like Portraits.