Portraits: John Berger on Artists is an exploration of centuries of art through the eyes and penetrating prose of the art critic, John Berger. Beginning with the paintings in the Chauvet Cave (c. 30,000 years BCE) through to the early 21st Century with the work of Randa Mdah, Berger situates the artist and his/her art in a historical context while simultaneously making us re-see already familiar works of art in a totally new way.
The book is poorly illustrated, its black and white photos blurred and of little help. However, most of the art referred to in the text is easily accessible on the Internet in full, blazing color.
In all, Berger discusses 74 artists and their works. Some of his essays are stronger than others, but all offer new insights. And some of these insights are breathtaking. Berger has an uncanny ability to take something initially appearing as tangential in a painting and make it his focus. He does this, for example, with the hand prints in the Chauvet Cave; the opaque window in Carvaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew; the eyes in Diego Velazquez’ Aesop. He draws our attention to a detail in a painting that was always there but that somehow we had overlooked.
Berger interacts with art in a deeply personal way, humanizing it for us and for himself. His chapter on Rembrandt forges an intimate connection with the artist and his work to such a degree that we begin to see the famous paintings in a new light. And this is true not just of Rembrandt but of many of the artists Berger discusses.
In his analyses of artists and their art, Berger reveals much about himself, his approach to art, and his politics. He doesn’t withhold his opinions. And he doesn’t hesitate to go sauntering off in an entirely new direction, describing a chance encounter with something or someone that fascinates him. For example, in the chapter on Willem Drost, Berger is captivated by the image and words of an elderly, diminutive tour guide who tosses off her expert knowledge of the paintings in a unique, almost cavalier manner. As she completes the guided tour and abruptly exits the gallery, Berger muses on the possible contents of the Marks and Spencer bag she carries.
Finally, what makes Portraits so impressive is Berger’s penetrating prose and his ability to juxtapose seemingly disparate entities in his discussion. For example, he describes Yvonne Barlow’s paintings as having a musical sense of composition—“Chopinesque.” In a letter to Leon Kossoff, he claims an art studio is “like a stomach. A place of digestion, transformation, and excretion.” Cy Twombly is referred to as “the painterly master of verbal silence.” And Berger assures us he “listens” to the paintings of Liane Birnberg. Such juxtapositions startle. They force one to pause and re-think everything one thought one knew about art.
In the end, Berger’s Portraits is not simply a discussion about art. It is about the role art and the artist have played and continue to play in our lives. It is about art speaking to us on an intimate level. And by looking at art through the lens of this intense, perceptive art critic, we learn about the heart and soul of John Berger, about artists and their art, and about life.