May 25, 2011
Painting and drawing have always been at the centre of John Berger's life - in his education, his early novels and his art criticism from the 1950s onwards.
John Berger and Tilda Swinton discuss image-making and read from Bento's Sketchbook. With a title inspired by a lost sketchbook belonging to the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Bento's Sketchbook is a clear-sighted meditation on how we perceive, and seek to explain, the world around us.
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Richard Turney reviews John Berger's Bento's Sketchbook for the Times Literary Supplement. Describing the book as a "combination of story, memoir, dream, essay and drawing," Turney focuses on the process of looking with which Berger engages, in particular Spinoza's concept of the eyes of the mind as metaphor for thought:
Each drawing acts as either the origin or destination for a piece of writing, with the link between image and text sometimes obvious ("The bicycle I made a drawing of this morning is over sixty years old ..."), sometimes rewardingly oblique. In between, Berger's participating "I" narrates stories of the urban poor, of exiles and peasants. The settings are generally prosaic - a "hard-discount" supermarket, a public swimming pool - and occasionally surprising: in a dream space "somewhere to the side of language" he dismantles an invisible "block" that imprisons a woman. There are pieces concerned with how drawing can create, or substitute for, various types of presence (a drawing of flowers nestles among the real bouquets placed in a coffin). If there is assurance in the efficacy of drawing as a mode of thinking, the potency of drawings as acts or performances is less certain. With its many explicit and implicit question marks, Bento's Sketchbook retains the private, exploratory feel of a sketchbook.
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.
Nicholas Wroe recently interviewed John Berger for the Guardian's "A life in ..." series. Opening with an anecdote and sketch from Berger's newest book, Bento's Sketchbook, Wroe describes the drawing as "emblematic of Berger's career as combative art critic, radical writer and consistent challenger of institutional power. Here you have a snapshot not only of his relationship with art and the art world, but also of his relationship with society and authority in general."
Bento's Sketchbook is a characteristically sui generis work, combining an engagement with the thought of the 17th-century lens grinder, draughtsman and philosopher Baruch Spinoza with a study of drawing and a series of semi-autobiographical sketches, through which Berger attempts to explore the world around him and his place within it. We observe the bullishly fit and active octogenarian Berger climbing peach trees in his alpine village, talking to immigrants in Parisian suburbs and municipal swimming pools, attaching himself to a guided tour of the Wallace collection and reflecting on the physical and political similarities between the American folk radical Woody Guthrie and the Russian writer Andrei Platonov: "both lent their voices to those without a voice, and both confronted rural poverty".
"Spinoza has been in my head for a very long time," he explains. "Reading Marx as an 18-year-old, I remember him responding to a game in which he was asked to name his favourite philosopher. He said 'Spinoza'. It is in some ways a strange book - it is not directly a study of Spinoza or directly a book about drawing. I wanted to write about looking at the world, so it's more about helping people, or persuading people, to see what is around us; both the marvellous and the terrible. It's no coincidence that Spinoza worked in the then new science of optics."