Letting Art Speak

John Berger’s Portraits offers an idiosyncratic and loving survey of art history.

Berger Illo.

Illustration by Emily Flake

Confronted purely as a physical object, John Berger’s book Portraits appears to be one of those volumes that’s been designed to be owned rather than read. Bound in raw burlap and printed on thick paper, it intimidates in its material solidity, lacking both the elegance of an expensive coffee table book and the easy accessibility of a simple primer. Dive into it, however, and you’ll discover a rich and loving exploration of art history, at once intellectually acute and deeply personal.

Now approaching 90, Berger remains best known for Ways of Seeing, his 1972 BBC miniseries and its accompanying book-length essay. Excerpted from his vast array of other writings, Portraits offers a snapshot of the rest of his career, one that’s been spent in constant conversation with the works of others. Portaits could have easily been a stolid monument, mere evidence of a lifetime lost to contemplation of the image. Instead, its essays and extracts—ably edited by Tom Overton—are surprisingly flighty, Berger’s style varying from one entry to the next. Read in sequence, they offer a surprisingly vital and uncommonly engaging proof of concept for ideas that Berger has long espoused. Works of art, as Berger proposed in Ways of Seeing, aren’t simply meant to be seen—they’re meant to help us see. Portraits testifies to both the difficulty, and the rewards, of putting that theory into practice.

For a book that discusses more than 70 artists, it features surprisingly few images of their works. Those that it contains are rarely helpful—always in black and white, sometimes fuzzily reproduced. These images, Berger writes in his preface, “are simple memoranda” meant to help focus the attention. A longtime admirer of Walter Benjamin, Berger isn’t one to turn up his nose at reproductions. But spare as these reproductions are, they invite readers to seek out those images on their own terms, creating new encounters in new contexts. More interested in stimulating conversation than in controlling it, Berger never seeks to have the last word.

Of all the images discussed in the book, the most carefully reproduced appears on the cover. One of the Fayum mummy portraits, a collection of funeral images “painted in the ancient Greek tradition,” it depicts an elegantly appointed woman. Though it looks as if it had been cut from an old issue of National Geographic, it approximates the real thing, thanks in part to the downcast clarity of the subject’s eyes. It’s her gaze—suggesting private sorrows, deeply felt—and those of her fellow mummies that capture Berger’s own as he contemplates these images. He argues that this look inaugurated something new in the history of portraiture. “It was the painter rather than the ‘model’ who submitted to being looked at,” Berger writes. Contemplating these images today, we recreate this old interaction, subjecting ourselves to inspection by the painted figure. Indeed, this exchange of looks ensures their persistent contemporaneity, perhaps because it lets “their individuality feel like our own.”

Even as he speaks of the Fayum painters in their particularity, this is as close as Berger comes to a universal theory of art: To examine a work is to insert oneself into a chain of glances, a chain in which one is always seeing oneself being seen. Or, to put it differently, to study a painting is to let it study you, which means letting it speak in its own way with its own words. And yet, as Berger writes in a recent essay on Martin Noel, “When words are applied to visual art, both lose precision.” If we’re to avoid this “impasse,” Berger’s work shows, it can only be by letting art change the way that we speak, even, or especially, when we’re speaking of art.

This is why Berger’s style varies so widely throughout Portraits, each entry shaped by his encounter with an artist’s creations rather than an attempt to simply describe those creations. The chapter on Titian, for example, takes the form of a series of short letters between Berger and his daughter Katya in which the two negotiate their relationship with one another as they reflect on the 16th-century painter’s fleshy canvases. Meanwhile, his writings on Goya tend toward the fictional, encompassing an excerpt from his novel A Painter of Our Time and a few scenes from a play he wrote with Nella Bielski. In their idiosyncrasies, these passages don’t just capture encounters with art works; they show art underwriting other encounters and other acts of the imagination altogether.

To discuss a painting is inevitably to discuss what it’s like to stand before that painting. No mere narcissism, acknowledging this fact allows us to dwell on the specificity of each new encounter with each new work. This may be why those such as Albrecht Dürer who were drawn to their own images seem to fascinate Berger more than others. As always, what matters most to him here is the subject’s gaze: “Why does a man paint himself?” Berger asks. “It is to produce evidence, which will probably outlive him, that he once existed. His look will remain, and the double meaning of the word ‘look’—signifying both his appearance and his gaze—suggests the mystery or enigma which is contained in that thought.”

Like the Fayum portraits, Berger suggests, Dürer’s canvases make explicit what all artworks do: They contemplate us as we contemplate them, showing us what it means to linger over the act of looking. Appropriately, Portraits revels in this truth at every turn. Instead of explaining, interpreting, or even simply describing, these selections investigate the underpinnings of experience—not what we know, but how we know it. “The only justification for criticism,” he writes, “is that it allows us to see more clearly.”

In Berger’s hands, then, art itself is a kind of criticism. It “cannot be used to explain the mysterious,” only to make the mysterious “easier to notice.” For all that he has written, his genius is evident not in what he says of art, but in his ability to amplify its many voices.

Portraits by John Berger. Verso.

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