To Go Close Means Forgetting: John Berger’s Art Criticism

Many gallery and museum goers are guilty of what I’ll call the identification fallacy, that is, confusing the name of the artwork/artist with the experience of the work. For many viewers, that moment of identification—usually accomplished with the help of a wall label—marks the end of seeing. As a result, a rich, intricate artwork that has the potential to occupy our eyes and minds for hours is reduced instead to “a Picasso” or “a Martin.” But for the critic who wants to encourage viewers’ deep engagement with the work, the question becomes, how to help viewers resist this birder-like tendency to treat artworks as names to be collected/checked off a list?

I’ve been dipping into John Berger’s essays on art, and I’m fascinated by how he solves this problem. Here’s the opening of the appropriately named essay, “A Gratitude Hard to Name”:

Is it still possible to write more words about him? I think of those already written, mine included, and the answer is “No.” If I look at his paintings, the answer is again—for a different reason—“No”; the canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made—not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.

Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will try with words.

In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the obvious question: why did this man become the most popular painter in the world?

You’ll find the full essay here.

When it comes to art criticism, we’ve been trained to expect to be told the name of the artist somewhere in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Here, only in the 3rd paragraph do we begin to have a guess as to who the artist might be, and even then, Berger does not name him, but only mentions his status as “the most popular painter in the world.”

In fact, Berger never mentions the artist’s full name, giving us only his first name, 2 lines away from the end of the essay. I’ll quote the final 2 paragraphs so you have a full sense of the effect. Berger imagines the artist working on the drawing of the ruined abbey:

As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He recognizes the sensation—he has often experienced it, indoors, outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this pressing—which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in his lifetime—he responds with incredible speed and the utmost attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his feet—on one of which (on the paper) he will write Vincent.

Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?

Berger employs this delayed naming in many of his essays on art (to varying degrees: sometimes it’s just a paragraph), as well as in his profile pieces. For instance, in his essay “A Girl Like Antigone” he does not name his subject, Simone Weil, until the very last sentence. But the effect is the same: we engage particulars instead of generalizations; our preconceptions are suspended, and line by line a new understanding emerges, with Berger as our guide. Our relationship to Berger’s writing as well as to his subject becomes more intimate. As Berger says elsewhere, regarding the artistic process in general, “To go close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self.“ Berger helps us forget so we can go close.

***

A note regarding the new anthology Portraits: John Berger on Artists, edited by Tom Overton. The “delayed naming” technique is clearly important to Berger’s “project” (a word that Berger himself would probably find too grandiose), as he has employed it in essays from the ‘60s to the present. For this reason, I’m dismayed at what I imagine was Overton’s editorial decision to remove the original titles of the essays, and replace them with the name of the artist they discuss. So now “A Gratitude Hard to Name” is bluntly called, “Vincent Van Gogh.” Of course 500+ pages of Berger’s incredible writing gathered in a handsome volume is to be celebrated, but it’s unfortunate that Overton compromised the integrity of the titles.

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This essay is a follow-up to my piece posted on Essay Daily last week: Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness

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