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Still vital, still visionary: Time Out and the Jewish Chronicle review Bento's Sketchbook by John Berger

Kaitlin Staudt11 May 2011

Time Out's Chris Boun reviews John Berger's Bento's Sketchbook. Focusing on the connection between noticing and drawing, Boun understands the volume's images as emblematic of possible ways of seeing:

Berger's entanglement with [Bento] here isn't so much a philosophical treatise as a reflex-response, a metaphysical mood-board of languorous illustrations and literary vignettes that he bounces of apposite extracts from Spinoza. It's a novel and captivating approach to a difficult realm of thought, which Berger begins as a flirtation - as he reflects on everyday encounters with neighbours, with roadkill, with authoritarian security staff in an art gallery - and gradually manoeuvres into an intimate minuet with Spinoza's key work, the 'Ethics'.

As such, 'Bento's Sketchbook' is a perfect introduction, not the arcane mathematical logic of Spinoza's metaphysics but to its intuitive, sensual component. And by the end Berger's hunch that the act of drawing epitomises that characteristic space in Spinoza's thought where feelings and reason (or desire and materiality, or animate and inanimate) are allowed to collide and commingle feels like an uncannily perceptive one. More than this, though, it's a book that allows Berger's wide-ranging talents and interests - artistic, polemical, humanistic - to come together and prove that, at 84, his 'ways of seeing' are still vital, still visionary and perhaps even clearer than ever.

Also stressing the link between vision and image, the Jewish Chronicle's Jonathan Beckman describes the book as "filled with energetic drawings, fleeting memories, political outrage and Spinozan moralia."

What binds all these together, if anything, is Berger's demand for attention, whether in drawing, writing or politics. The process of sketching changes the way that you observe the world: "At a certain moment - if you're lucky - the accumulation becomes an image - that's to say it stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence. Uncouth but a presence. This is when your looking changes." Similarly, Berger believes that the power of good fiction will continue to be felt after it has been read: "something of its way of giving attention... will remain with us and become our own. We will then apply it to the chaos of ongoing life, in which multitudes of stories are hidden."

He repeats the refrain that, "we who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination."

There is something of Barthes's view that photography is orientated towards death here, but it is set off against a cheerier welcoming of ripeness, that finds expression in one of the first sketches of quetsches drooping off a tree.

Visit the Jewish Chronicle to read the review in full.

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