Once Upon a Time – John Berger

- Katherine Hannah

A Painter of Our Time by John Berger
Verso 2010. 201 pages. ISBN 978-1-64467-639-2.

Earlier this year Verso published Bento’s Sketchbook, John Berger’s 30th book. Bento’s Sketchbook is typical of Berger’s work in that it fuses imaginative reconstruction and research with personal inquiry into aesthetic effects and practice. Berger is sufficiently esteemed – enough of a blue-chip brand among leftist intellectuals who remember the Cold War- that he has earned a green light to publish at will. Bento’s Sketchbook looks something of an indulgence. The Bento of the title is a 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher better known as Baruch Spinoza. Berger has set out to recreate this influential thinker’s lost sketchbook by filling an empty notebook of his own with drawings made in response to a re-reading of the philosopher’s work. Essentially, then, Berger has moved into a territory of spurious contrivances – the realm of parasitic literary tourism like Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust. Nevertheless, Bento’s Sketchbook promises “an exploration of the practice of drawing and a meditation on how art guides our gaze to the world.”

By now Berger can probably rely on an established readership of melancholy engagés, who find in his work’s somewhat anachronistic commitment to politico-moral soul searching, a nostalgic balm that mitigates their feelings of obsolescence. The romance of lost causes, the dignity of sticking to impossible commitments – the good times are always coming, but the noble misery of waiting out their absence has its psychic pay-offs too.

But there was a time when Berger had to work harder – a time when he was willing to refine the yields of his exploratory and meditative interludes into the kind of philosophical content that would give intellectual charge to that most democratic of art forms, the novel.

A Painter of Our Time was Berger’s first novel. Published more than 50 years ago, at a time when centralised communism was still vying with democratic capitalism for ideological supremacy, it’s no surprise that the novel’s atmosphere of earnest intellectual travail should seem exotically remote. Janos Lavin – the painter of our time – is an aging Hungarian émigré artist. He lives with his wife Diana in a flat-cum-studio on London’s Fulham Road. Lavin is a painter’s painter, he rarely exhibits, has little following in the market, but is revered by a number of his more successful peers.

The first thing we learn about Lavin, though, is that he has vanished. A narrator by the name of John takes the reader into the painter’s abandoned studio, and while exploring the correlative paraphernalia of the absent artist, he discovers a journal. On closer examination it turns out the journal covers the period of a few years leading up to Lavin’s disappearance. And so the excavation begins. Lavin’s entries are mostly allowed to form their own sequential narrative links, but our narrator (an art critic and a friend of the painter) also adds context and explanation. Lavin is mostly absorbed in his memories and in gathering, analysing and transposing the visual ingredients of his work. In order to see Lavin as a human being interacting with others, then, we are lucky to have John along as our guide.

As a painter, Lavin lives in the present, drawing on contemporary life for symbols and subjects. When he isn’t painting, though, or thinking about painting, he wrestles with memories of a fallen comrade and with the formative commitments of his youth. It’s something of a point of pride for Lavin that the political rigour of his youth has not been tempered by age. As he ruminates on the life of that fallen comrade (the firmest companion of his early years), he imagines how they might now have conversed: “We would still have spoken about Socialism, still stretched our imaginations to the maximum to picture eventual Communism, still have referred to bourgeois values, the class struggle, the role of the workers, the necessity for Party discipline.” Lavin reaffirms his ideals with the worldly proportion of an aging man – he cherishes the goals they point to but with little real sense that their realisation is imminent. In this sense, Lavin’s political instincts have become the source of another kind of aesthetic consolation. Lavin is not, however, the kind to let any consolation go unscrutinised. As his journal draws close to the date of his disappearance Lavin admits he was born discontented, and when he asks himself why he’s keeping this journal, his answer is characteristic: ‘Perhaps to stop myself painting bad pictures.’ On the other hand, he is capable of untarnished optimism when it comes to the purpose of art and the goals of the artist: “We create to improve the world, ‘to establish,’ as Tolstoy wrote, ‘brotherly union among men.’”

Lavin keeps up to date with the dictates on art that emanate from behind the iron curtain – “the validity of Socialist Realism … must be judged according to the degree which it arouses the consciousness of the working classes to an awareness of their heroic role” -  while maintaining strict fidelity to his own unformulated (but not apolitical) aesthetic principles. He is dismissive of party edicts for agitprop art, but under his own ideological steam, he is an iconographer of the workers’ revolution: ‘Have begun a canvas of a welder … Despite gloves and mask, his action must have the precision of a Renaissance Cupid touching Venus’s tit.’ Were he a choreographer, you can imagine Lavin celebrating the balletic cohesion of a tin mine.

Lavin’s Marxist sympathies and his need to justify the utility of the artist give Berger room for some interesting commentary on the cultural role of painting. “Whenever a society has been consciously concerned with its collective legends, painters have been given large walls or ceilings to paint them on. When private property itself became the legend, the small easel picture became the new art form.” There’s plenty to muse on there, and here: ‘As part of the business of everything being made a commodity, the shop window has taken the place of the altar-piece and the painting. Tens of thousands look into these windows and wonder. Here are the modern still-lives and the modern heroes and heroines.’ The common ideal which these updated tableaux teach is that ‘Only what you haven’t yet got is worth having.’ How Lavin must hate bourgeois, mercantile London, but how he must cherish the discontent it fills him with.

For all Lavin’s efforts to keep the ethical demands of life and art in sound balance, and for all Berger’s commitment to the human drama of the critical, activist mindset, A Painter of Our Time has been transformed by history into the art of escapism. It’s clear enough that when Berger wrote the novel, there was something exotic about Lavin’s fusion of aesthetics and political commitment. As an émigré from the soviet bloc, Lavin brings a kind of ideological heft which the British, such as his wife Diana, can only covet or affect.

In 1958, a character like Lavin was a richly romantic figure, but he was a figure you could believe existed. Even taking into account the fact that artists are typically anachronisms, relics or throwbacks, it’s hard to imagine that a figure like Lavin could exist now (after the end of ideology) without recognising that his most earnest commitments will strike most as indulgently quixotic. For this reason, the passage of time has added the dubious pleasures of nostalgia to Berger’s political romance. But dubious or not, the pleasure is real. And even though it falls well short of the kind of art effects Lavin valorises and aspires to, perhaps Lavin was too severe. Perhaps he was no artist anyway and perhaps the quaint, historic portrait Berger’s work has become, with its mild transcendence over complacent liberalism, is worth as much as Lavin’s figuration of the many moods of socialism.

When it was published, at the height of the Cold War, Berger’s debut carried a polemical charge. Lavin’s unflinching negotiations of ethical and artistic demands in pursuit of the good life would have made him an exacting role model. Ironically, those same negotiations have been transformed by the passage of time (for this reader at least) into the kind of salon curiosity or intellectual escapism that Berger has arrived at with Bento’s Sketchbook. Still, history’s judgements may be unimpeachable, but they are also never settled.

- September 2011

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