Windows within Windows

John Berger – Landscapes (Verso)

On an ordinary page, right in the middle of this collection, John Berger states that ‘stupid people often accuse Marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art.’

It is one of those wake-up moments John Berger is so good at providing. He goes on to explain that these intrusions are painful and often have great suffering at their roots. Even Marxists do not welcome these into their contemplations. As a counterpoint, he then describes Picasso, staying at the Savoy in London, as a successful enfant terrible, no longer seeing the poor at café tables.

What Berger has done, persistently, from every angle, all his long life, is explore how our windows on the world are constructed. He questions what they engage with, edit out and why.

If we look at ‘English landscapes’ from the late 18th century, they are made through the lenses of Italy, and the grand tour. The misty blue beyonds are coming out of an appreciation of the Italian renaissance as the ‘pinnacle’ of perfect art, and also out of the artist visiting Italy.

They are historical constructs. This is how ‘Landscapes’ makes sense here. This is not a BBC4 scan of lush English Pastoralism to tasteful music.

Renaissance perspectivalism was seen, in the west, in British art traditions all the way up to the early twentieth century, as ‘more real’, ‘more natural’, more correct in the ways in which they represented the world. The example often given in art schools is Piero della Francesca’s View of an Ideal City (1470) which uses technologies of perspective to illustrate the ‘ideal form’ of utopian city spaces.

But perspectivalism was exactly that, a technology. These pictures contain the idea that their way of representing the world was becoming ‘more correct’, that western art gets better and better, more realistic, as history goes on, an idea that the era was steeped in, partly through the philosophy of Hegel.

Yet if we look at non-western art, we get a very different range of ways of representing the world. We also get very different ways of seeing through the ‘isms’ that shattered those simplistic ‘windows on the world’ in the twentieth century.

Within the western representational tradition, one of the few places we can find a very different take on visual representation is in the art of children. The idea of the child as something untutored lies here, of the ‘primitive’ as something to be ironed out of creativity.

These debates sit on bigger questions of nature versus nurture, of Rousseau and Locke. But when we look at an example such as Alfred Wallis, we can see how this intuitive, ‘untrained’ sense of visual representation isn’t exclusively produced by infants at all.

Wallis began painting in his 70s after his wife died, and was considered eccentric until discovered by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the early twentieth century, when modern artists were beginning to think all over again about the idea of the ‘primitive’ and the ‘sophisticated’ in art.

Similarly, what Berger does is to explore everyday life at the other side of his window on the world. He goes to the marginal edge zones figures such as Wallis came from, again and again, as much as he goes to national galleries to interrogate dubious masterpieces.

Rather than look at what is assembled ‘out there’ as a landowner might, looking at what he owns to then have it painted in oil, Berger travels to engage it in dialogue. So here we get lettuce, radish and horseradishes on market stalls in Krakow, next to discussions of Joyce’s Ulysses, now utterly levelled in its importance, back to the everyday it emerged out of.

For Adorno, a revolutionary painting teaches you how to read its new dialect at the same time as it utterly shatters the linearity of previous conventions, as did Ulysses, but with Berger we never lose sight of the everyday life such new forms came from.

Abstraction and other ways of seeing come out of the real. Artists abstract from that real, for various reasons. They are not trying to break into the real from the abstract, even if they try, even if this is what they think they are doing.

Berger might, then, add another thing that people often do, which is to declare avant garde art elitist and impenetrable.

But Picasso intentionally brought African forms into cubist perspectivalism, for instance, in his controversial Demoiselles d’Avignon. Both Cubism and the interest in non-western art were calculated to shatter the assumptions of a ‘natural’ form of representation, or a ‘correct’ form in perspectivalism.

The interest in so-called ‘outsider art’, arriving out of these sorts of discoveries, also examines – and murkily collects and sells – the art of asylum inmates. This can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Art Brut’ or ‘raw art’ and early twentieth century modernists and their interest in the art of the ‘primitive’, or untrained, or children.

But we need to question the politics implicit in terms such as ‘outsider’. For what are these artists and these ways of representing the work actually outside of?

It has been suggested, by writers such as Martin Jay among others, that the renaissance perspectival form is just one ‘regime of modernity’. It is just one way of representing the world, a product of just one culture, which, because of the violence of imperialism, saw itself ‘at the centre’ of ‘civilisation’ and the ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ to be in the ‘peripheral’ colonies they were subjugating and exploiting.

This is then mapped onto practitioners such as Alfred Wallis even in western territories, and onto asylum inmates. This is why Marxists do not welcome politics into their contemplation. Because the messages those intrusions bring are heavy.

In excerpts from his trilogy here, that begins with his novel Pig Earth, Berger sides with the ‘so-called backwards’, as he does so eloquently in his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man.

Berger is not just ‘for the outsider’, in some ways – although we have to be careful with this – he has lived with them and as one of them. We can ask questions about whether or not Wallis’s vision of the world is more correct than that of Francesca. Is it right to call Wallis ‘child-like’, ‘eccentric’, or ‘primitive’?

Such terms are at least implicitly imperialistic, we must stare those facts fully in the face and they are big intrusions.

Berger gives us different stories of both artists and peasants moving from place to place, via his own peripatetic life. He shows us, in short, the windows through windows through windows that writing about art inevitably involves.

Like Sigmar Polke, who treated his canvases with resin so you could see the frame behind, Berger does not try to convince us that he is providing a clear view through clean glass onto an objective reality. But oddly, via doing that he always gives us a richer, more authentic and real take on that reality.

Also like Polke, once he has disabused us of the notion of a straightforward ‘window on the world’, Berger overlays the resulting deflated space with poetry. Tom Overton’s editing has an important part to play here, as with the previous volume Portraits, he puts Berger’s artificially separated projects of fiction, criticism, biography and politics back into the single powerful river it always came from.

These collections are only just beginning to resurrect Berger from the default image of him smoking on television in big shirt collars. These are the landscapes of Berger’s life as he reaches its end, and they are nothing short of a journey through the whole of twentieth century Europe.

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