John Berger’s Portraits (Verso) is a collection of essays and reviews on art and artists spanning the centuries, and although for the most part the pieces concern elitist high art (for more on the elitism of the art world, see philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff’s new book Art Rethought, a deep consideration of what art is), Berger has a concern for the person rather than simply the autonomous artwork – the person as artist, the person as art viewer and, importantly, the person as a global citizen. Berger’s observations seem to be grounded in life, particularly political life. So, for example, he notes Bruegel’s critique of indifference, and Caravaggio’s identification with the poor. Berger also notes the theological in paintings – how Grunewald’s masterpiece, the Isenheim Altarpiece, shows that hope is like a faint light that has its beginnings somewhere, whereas doubt is a featureless, enveloping darkness, echoing perhaps the theology of Saint Augustine.
Berger understands art in history, and the way geography affects a society’s outlook and its art. In particular, while discussing Velasquez and landscape painting he theorises that the Spanish landscape has driven Spanish painters to focus on the power of art to conceal rather than reveal. If nothing else, these pieces are examples of sustained thinking about the implications of art on life and the implications of life on art. When it comes to Rembrandt, Berger notes the master’s work is ‘just this side of prayer’ as he paints his way through the despair of a society, like ours, where economic forces are crushing human intimacy.
Berger is a champion of figurative painting. He applauds the artist who can shed light on human relations, and in an extraordinary move, traces the ‘failure’ of Millet’s later paintings (as opposed to his drawings) to identify with his subjects and therefore confront injustice through the rise of expressionism, abstract expressionism and modern art’s inward turn. (In much the same way, I might add, Terry Eagleton’s latest book traces the rise but turn inward of cultural studies and identity politics, and their tendency to celebrate diversity but fail to address injustice at a deep level.)
Elsewhere, there are many passages to startle. He compares Francis Bacon to Walt Disney. He moves beyond art criticism to the observation of people. A piece on Rembrandt turns into a description of the gallery tour guide. He boldly pronounces the single-word overriding themes of key artists (Rembrandt’s is ageing, Matisse’s, leisure). He criticises the severance of links to our past, he champions little-known artists. He shows that art serves people, not people art.