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Portraits: John Berger on Artists

“A volume whose breadth and depth bring it close to a definitive self-portrait of one of Britain’s most original thinkers” – Financial Times
A major new book from one of the world’s leading writers and art critics.

John Berger, one of the world’s most celebrated art writers, takes us through centuries of drawing and painting, revealing his lifelong fascination with a diverse cast of artists. In Portraits, Berger grounds the artists in their historical milieu in revolutionary ways, whether enlarging on the prehistoric paintings of the Chauvet caves or Cy Twombly’s linguistic and pictorial play.

In penetrating and singular prose, Berger presents entirely new ways of thinking about artists both canonized and obscure, from Rembrandt to Henry Moore, Jackson Pollock to Picasso. Throughout, Berger maintains the essential connection between politics, art and the wider study of culture. The result is an illuminating walk through many centuries of visual culture, from one of the contemporary world’s most incisive critical voices.

Reviews

  • “Unruly attentiveness animates [...] a lifetime’s engagement with artists like Rembrandt, Goya, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon [...] Ingenious, jargon-free and direct [...] Berger is a formidable stylist.”
  • “A rich and loving exploration of art history, at once intellectually acute and deeply personal... vital and uncommonly engaging proof of concept for ideas that Berger has long espoused.”
  • “A volume whose breadth and depth bring it close to a definitive self-portrait of one of Britain’s most original thinkers.”
  • “Perhaps the greatest living writer on art … reminds us just how insufficient most art commentary is these days … an indispensible guide to understanding art from cave painting to today’s experimenters.”
  • “John Berger teaches us how to think, how to feel, how to stare at things till we see what we thought wasn’t there. But above all he teaches us how to love in the face of adversity. He is a master.”
  • “In this extraordinary new book, John Berger embarks on a process of re-discovery and re-figuring of history through the visual narratives given to us by portraiture. Berger’s ability for storytelling is both incisive and intriguing. He is one of the greatest writers of our time.”
  • “Berger writes about what is important—in contemporary English letters, he seems to be peerless; not since Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual world with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience. He is a wonderful artist and thinker.”
  • “Shows the 88-year-old British art critic at his bristling best.”
  • “John Berger is always illuminating and his latest book, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, doesn’t disappoint”
  • “A near exhaustive selection of the ever astute writer’s ‘responses’ to various artists and works, chronologically organised from early cave paintings through to the Palestinian artist Randa Mdah.”
  • “Berger is a writer one demands to know more about ... an intriguing and powerful mind and talent.”
  • “One of the most influential intellectuals of our time.”
  • “A vast and nourishing compendium... Life has more light and colour after an encounter with Berger.”
  • “Berger has always been a writer who understands that art does not begin and end with the canvas—instead, art (and great art writing) should stay with us as a communion between the overlapping titles we assign as portraits: wife, person, genius, artist. These titles, when carefully assigned, could be limiting, but in Berger’s expert hands, they are just the beginning.”
  • “Editors’ Choice”
  • “Berger’s art criticism transcends its genre to become a very rare thing—literature.”
  • “In the writings of John Berger we find a passion for art itself, for the created thing, that is everywhere tempered by an awareness of the social and political world, which too many theorists, whatever their special pleadings, simply ignore.”
  • “[Berger] long ago attained a position unrivalled among English writers or intellectuals of his generation; he seems to stand for a vanished era of critical and political seriousness … All that seems worth preservng and worth celebrating in a long and varied but essential volume like Portraits.”
  • “Regardless of the era he studies or the decade in which he writes, his lyrical prose always ultimately serves a fervent political concern … Berger’s writing is fearless, winnowing down canonized artists to their essential political bones.”
  • “This insistence upon unearthing for the present viewer the hidden labor of the artist, when coupled with his own technical knowledge of painterly art, delivers Berger’s essays from the tedium of much art criticism.”
  • “The pages are rife with muscular prose, sinewy intellectualism, and especially the sensual analogy for which he is most known. Portraits is so lively a book it can feel uncanny”

Blog

  • The Moment of Cubism

    In tribute to John Berger, who died on 2 January 2017, we excerpt ‘The Moment of Cubism’ from Landscapes, edited by Tom Overton. The 1967 essay of materialist art criticism, originally published in New Left Review, traces the lineages and legacies of Cubism. In it, Berger grapples with the sensation that “the most extreme Cubist works” – both “too optimistic and too revolutionary … to have been painted today” – are “caught, pinned down, in an enclave of time, waiting to be released and to continue a journey that began in 1907.”

    An interlocking world system of imperialism; opposed to it, a socialist international; the founding of modern physics, physiology and sociology; the increasing use of electricity, the invention of radio and the cinema; the beginnings of mass production; the publishing of mass-circulation newspapers; the new structural possibilities offered by the availability of steel and aluminium; the rapid development of chemical industries and the production of synthetic materials; the appearance of the motor-car and the aeroplane: What did all this mean?

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  • Art and Property Now

    In tribute to John Berger, who died yesterday, on 2 January 2017, we excerpt 'Art and Property Now' from Landscapes, edited by Tom Overton. The 1967 essay of materialist art criticism fed into Ways of Seeing (1972), the influential TV series and book that changed our understanding of art and its private ownership. 

    "Painting or a sculpture is a significant form of property – in a sense in which a story, a song, a poem is not. Its value as property supplies it with an aura which is the last debased expression of the quality which art objects once possessed when they were used magically. It is around property that we piece together our last tattered religion, and our visual works of art are its ritual objects." — John Berger


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  • Good To Know You!

    Andy Merrifield pays tribute to John Berger, who passed away aged 90 on 2 January 2017. 

    John died yesterday. I’ll remember his voice, his laugh, his charm and generosity. His words. Stripped-down words, mystical and carefully chosen words, earthy words, fierce words. They’ll always grab us, make us think, feel and act, piss people off. To weep for John is to weep on the shoulder of life. Remember him, gazing up at Aesop, in front of Velázquez’s great canvas?  

    He’s intimidating, he has a kind of arrogance. A pause for thought. No, he’s not arrogant. But he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. The presence of Aesop refers to nothing except what he has felt and seen. Refers to no possessions, to no institutions, to no authority or protection. If you weep on his shoulder, you’ll weep on the shoulder of his life. If you caress his body, it will recall the tenderness it knew in childhood.

    John didn’t suffer fools gladly, either. 


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