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Portraits - John Berger, Tom Overton

Disclaimer: ARC read via Netgalley, courtesy of Verso.  Book is being released October 27. 2015.


                It was my friend who introduced me to John Berger.  When I say introduce, I mean in the way every reader does; in this case, by reading Ways of seeing (which is a very thoughtful, read it).  Since then I enjoy reading Berger.  I may not always agree with him, but I always learn something new or learn to look at something, anything, a new way. 


                Portraits are a collection of Berger’s writing on artists, and by extension art.  It is arranged in chronological order by artist, so we start in the Stone Age with the paintings on Chauvet Cave and ending with Randa Mdah, who if you are like me and have no idea who she is, she was born in 1983.  The chapter about her work is mediation, among other things, on the Israel and Palestinian conflict.


                And that is what makes this book interesting as well as what makes Berger so accessible and so wonderful for a reader like me.  I enjoy art, and I love going to museums, but I am not, in any way shape or form, an art historian or critic.  I love the work of Parrish for his color and his illustration, Toulouse Lautrec is awesome because of his horses, the same with Stubbs but with the addition of dogs.  One of my favorite paintings in the National Gallery in Washington DC is of the New Kirk in Amsterdam.  I like it because the artist has a sense of humor – there is a dog taking a piss in the corner.    I love Whistler, but not his mother – his etchings are where it is at.  Well, those and the Peacock Room.


                In short, I do not think (and most likely I am wrong) that Berger would condemn me, as some have, when I say something like my favorite painting in Montreal’s art museum is “We Were the First that Ever Burst the Silent Sea” by John Macallan Swan because it is of polar bears.  Because I see something new and different every time I look at, and it brings me peace.


"we were the first that ever burst into the silent sea" by John Macallan Swan (1847-1910).  Oil on panel, about 1900.  At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts


                Berger understands that for each person art is in some ways different.  This is way the essays about artists are constructed in different ways.  Many times, it is about a response to that art, a personal response.  Therefore, when writing about Antonello de Messina, Berger recounts a story about a guard, or when writing about Mantega, it becomes a conversation with his daughter.  There is something charming about these, and despite the personal nation and structure of these chapters, there is so much packed into them.


                It’s also hard not to like a book where Berger can say that Michelango’s Sibyls are really men in drag (he’s right).  There is a beautiful section on Monet that will make readers weep.  His comments on Goya and flesh are startling, but when you think about them and study a few paintings by Goya, it’s hard not to agree with Berger, whom himself finds that aspect hard to put into words. 


                The book is also about discovery, for he does either introduce artists that one hasn’t heard of or (and) new ways of looking at things.  His decision to not include color reproductions of the art seems strange at first (especially when dealing with say Matisse), but makes sense as the book goes on (especially with Matisse).  Perhaps some readers will wonder what about choices, in particular those that are left out – but if this is a personal museum, it really doesn’t matter.  Quite frankly, I like having my horizons broadened by the inclusion of less well known artists.


                In short, if you are even a little bit interested in art, read this.  It is at once the view of critic/historian but written with the view of the everyday viewer.  The “no nothing”.  Loved it.