Thursday, November 16, 2006


On John Berger

John Berger, the British Marxist art critic, is the only writer whose art criticism I've been able to read, or to read more than a page or two. His writing about works of art and artists, about art history, artistic concepts and movements, is wonderfully free of overly academic murk and sludge. He writes always from a perspective of trying to respond to a particular piece of art in the immediacy of seeing it, as it communicates with the viewer in the living world in which they both exist, in the context of history.

In a short article by Berger titled "Ossip Zadkine," originally published in 1959, Berger describes a large bronze sculpture by Zadkine that stands overlooking the harbor of Rotterdam. The sculpture was made as a monument, a memorial of the massive destruction, by bombing, of the center of the city in May 1940 -- Rotterdam was one of the European cities (Warsaw was another) targeted by the German Nazi government for systematic extermination bombing.

Berger describes Zadkine's sculpture:
You walk around the plain granite block on which the figure, cast in dark bronze, simultaneously stands, dies and advances. The scale is big. Two or three large gulls can perch on the hand that appears to be flattened against the surface of the sky. Between the outstretched arms the clouds move. A ship's siren sounds on the other side of the water, and you think of the largest anchor, but buckled, and trailing not over the seabed but over those moving clouds. At night it is different. It becomes a silhouette, less symbolic and more human. Shadows, which are half the visual language of sculpture, are obliterated. Only the gesture therefore remains. A man stands, arms raised to hold off an invisible load between him and the stars. Then in the early morning you see again the lime of the gulls and the dead fixed texture of the massively cast bronze in contrast with the bright, crinkling surface of the water. Thus the sculpture changes with the time of day. It is not a passive figure with a corrugated cloak waiting to be benighted, lit up, scorched and snowed upon until it becomes no more than the unmeltable core of a snowman. Its function and not just its appearance depends upon the hours. It engages time. And the reason for this is that its whole conception as a work of art is based on its awareness of development and change.
Berger speaks more about the dual qualities of the sculpted figure, appearing simultaneously to be falling and advancing:
The torso of the man is ripped open and his heart destroyed. [...] the wound, which is fact is a hole right through the body, is seen in terms of the twisted metal of the burnt-out shell of a building. The legs give at the knees. The whole figure is about to fall.

[...] This is also a figure of aspiration and advance. The heart is ripped out, but the head and hands are not only held high in anguish and a vain attempt to hold off, they also raise and lift. The legs not only give at the knees, they also bend because they are steady. And from every direction as you walk round this figure, the step appears to be forwards. The figure has no back--and so cannot retreat. It advances in every direction (and do not think I am now talking metaphorically; I am being quite literal). On the site of the old city a new one was to be built. One week after the German attack, plans were made to rebuild Rotterdam after the Germans were eventually driven out. And so the curses also become a rallying cry.
Another excerpt from John Berger, from a longer essay, "The Moment of Cubism." In it Berger makes an in-depth exploration of the intentions, methods and world outlook of various early 20th century artists whose work is now commonly referred to as cubist (including Picasso, Juan Gris, and others), and also traces some of the historical background in art and in the world at large. From "The Moment of Cubism":
The metaphorical model of cubism is the diagram: the diagram being a visible, symbolic representation of invisible processes, forces, structures. A diagram need not eschew certain aspects of appearances: but these too will be treated symbolically as signs, not as imitations or re-creations.

The model of the diagram differs from that of the mirror in that it suggests a concern with what is not self-evident. It differs from the model of the theatre stage in that it does not have to concentrate upon climaxes but can reveal the continuous. It differs from the model of the personal account in that it aims at a general truth.

The Renaissance artist imitated nature. The Mannerist and Classic artist reconstructed examples from nature in order to transcend nature. The Cubist realized that his awareness was part of nature.

Heisenberg speaks as a modern physicist. "Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves: it describes nature as exposed to our method of questioning." Similarly, the frontal facing of nature became inadequate in art.
The above excerpts are taken from John Berger's Selected Essays (Vintage, 2001). I've never read anything by Berger that I didn't find provocative and fascinating. I often read him when I need to clarify and refresh my mind in times when I'm busy too much with dull routine things.

If you're not familiar with the work of John Berger, a good one to start with is his book Ways of Seeing (Penguin Books), based on a BBC television series of the same name. The book includes many pictures (reproductions of paintings, photos, pictures of magazine ads, etc.) to illustrate the artistic theoretical concepts Berger talks about. Many other works of his are also available.

I recently found a John Berger website that provides basic information on him and includes a link to a publisher's page listing many of his pubished works.

Much more information on the sculptor Ossip Zadkine can be found at the website for the Ossip Zadkine Research Center. It includes photos of many of his works, a short biographical summary, and other information. You can use the search function to search the website for pictures of the Zadkine sculptor described above (a couple of large-size versions, and some smaller models of it he also made). The sculpture is titled "La ville detruite" ("The Destroyed City").

Yes, that's much more enjoyable to read than most art criticism -- heck, it's almost a prose poem. Cool.
Yes,Lyle,I have that 2001 Vintage Selected Essays,it's an amazing book!
I saw your blog when I am searching Nazim Hikmet who is my great man and John berger.Your blog is so good.
Loves from Naz─▒m's country:-)
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