Thursday, 5 January 2017

Olly Beck on John Berger

Moments Lived: The Death of John Berger

Marcos, I want to say something about a pocket of resistance. One particular one. My observations may seem remote, but, as you say, ‘A world can contain many worlds, can contain all worlds.’
John Berger in correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos [i]

About Looking (and Listening)

Towards the end of last year, a seismic year if ever there was one, I sat down and watched a film by the Argentinian director Pablo Giorgelli called Las Acacias (2011). The premise was straightforward: A lonely, bitter and begrudging middle –aged truck driver carrying timber from the forests of Paraguay to Argentina’s capital city is instructed by his boss to allow a vulnerable young single mother and her one year old daughter to hitch a ride. With sparse dialogue and shot almost entirely in the cramped cab of the driver’s truck, what unfolded was a moving, humane portrait of two bereft adults and a wide-eyed sometimes crying child stuck on a long journey together. When it had finished I said to myself, ‘I am so glad I watched this’. The film had nourished me in a way that is difficult to put into words. Three days ago when I heard the news that John Berger had died and I started to contemplate what he meant to our culture, this film resurfaced in my mind.

Berger was many things – artist, tutor, art critic, novelist, screenwriter, television presenter, playwright, poet – but for many he was one of our great contemporary essayists; a lucid construer of accessible but meticulously informed exquisite mini-masterpieces. And the thoroughness which underpinned (whether directly or indirectly) these prolific chamber pieces was Berger’s unabashed but at same time adaptable Marxist viewpoint. In an insightful article by Robert Minto celebrating the latest curation of Berger’s essays ‘Landscapes’ Minto points out that Berger’s Marxism was an elastic Marxism: ‘What Landscapes in turn makes clear, through its assemblage of more programmatic pieces – book reviews, manifestos, autobiography – is that Berger is a rigorous thinker with a theory of art. That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s. Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.’[ii]

How to Resist a State of Forgetfulness

Consider this 2015 meditation from ‘Confabulations’ on the absurdity of Picasso’s painting Las Femmes d’Alger (1955) dedicated by Picasso to the Algerian struggle against French colonialism selling for near on 180 million dollars: ‘During the last week I’ve been drawing mostly flowers, motivated by a curiosity which has little to do with either botany or aesthetics. I have been asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalized, and are not particularly addressed to us. Is it possible to ‘read’ natural appearances as texts?’ And then a paragraph later he writes: ‘In the totalitarian global-order of speculative capitalism under which we are living the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting us from what is true, essential and urgent. Much of the information is about what was once called politics, but politics have been superseded by the global dictatorship of speculative capitalism with its traders and banking lobbies.’[iii]   

Now consider Syria’s plight through the lens of the recent tragedy of Aleppo; that ongoing, unresolved torturous scream which originated somewhere, sometime in the arrogant Imperial 1800’s. What makes Berger’s written thought boundlessly readable is this striving against a world that is becoming increasingly rigid and trapped again; this time by a capitalist machine that appears to be have been left on autopilot by a driver so drunk on financial excess and their own self-spun disinformation, one wonders what will happen when either the satnav malfunctions or the fossil fuel runs out. It is a world that is often panicked by its own endless feeding of information and the internet curtains we a prone to hide behind. A supple Marxism is merely one of many avenues which might lead us back to our own sense of a shared humanity, grounding us back in the world, rather than this current condition of perpetually lying to ourselves about what achievement and success is or is not; of what it really means to be alive, living, and creative.

Rembrandt and the Body

There is a little bit further to go in this brief adulation of someone who should  be given more than just a forgotten grave in England, for perhaps it will be in equally failed Paris rather than London that Berger will find his resting place. John Berger was a man who took his time on death, restlessly communing and speculating over the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this inevitably. Not only that, he would write moving obituaries on the most ‘obscure’ of friends, dedicated but unrecognised in their field. When you read about Sven from Sweden in Confabulations you find an artist totally committed and living the life within his meagre means. Berger doesn’t really tell us if he’s a great painter rather he focuses on the Sven’s struggle and how after his the funeral he steps into Sven’s studio: ‘After the funeral, the hundred or so people attending were invited to a buffet meal in the garden, outside which Sven had been allotted a municipal studio. At one moment I left the garden and opened the studio door I remembered on the ground floor. The studio was uncannily tidy. The tidiness bespoke his absence. There was nothing on the easel. A number of canvases were visible instead of being face to the wall; the strong ones looked stronger; and the weaker ones looked desolate. What astounded me most, however, was the large reproduction pinned at eye level to the wall which was facing the easel. It was the Rembrandt Simeon… It is thought to be the last painting Rembrandt worked on.’[iv]

I picture Rembrandt’s unfinished painting of the old man Simeon holding the Christ child while what appears to be a young woman lingers in the background. Rembrandt had made two busier more detailed versions when he was younger but this final attempt is stripped back, muted; almost quivering because of what is suggested rather than defined. I could stare at it for ages. And following Berger perhaps I will make some sketches of it in ink or watercolour; just for me, as a way of passing time, as a way of soaking up experience in time. The image takes me back to the film: the aging muddled man, the young anxious mother, and the beautiful wide-eyed child – her whole life ahead of her.  

(Text by Olly Beck, 5 January 2017)         

[i] John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket, Bloomsbury, 2002, p.233
[ii] Robert Minto, A Smuggling Operation,, 02/01/17
[iii] John Berger, Confabulations, Penguin, 2016, pp.136-137
[iv] Ibid, pp.57-58

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