A label is half the battle

A Painter of Our Time, by John Berger

I’ve recently had to abandon two great books shortly after starting them. Long hours at work have killed my concentration and led to too little time to really get stuck in to serious (or even unserious) fiction.

Usually when I’m being killed at work I read pulp or sf. When you’re tired there’s a lot to be said for the security of a solid plot. This time though I had a craving for something different. Something challenging.

A little while back Verso Books kindly sent me two early John Berger’s for review. I don’t normally accept review books, but for John Berger I make an exception. I wasn’t sure I’d be up to the Berger any more than I’d been up to the Proust or the Farrell that I’d abandoned, but I’d had them a while and thought I’d try.

I wanted something to really engage with. I wanted to be forced to think (and not about work). I wanted to be made uncomfortable. I got all that. A Painter of Our Times is not an easy book. It’s not difficult to read. The language is lucid and skilful. The style is naturalistic. The challenge isn’t in how the book is written. The challenge is in its ideas.

Janos Lavin is a Hungarian artist living in London. It’s the early 1950s. Hungary is in turmoil. Janos is a dedicated communist, but has left Hungary behind to pursue his art. He is talented, but largely unrecognised and his work is out of fashion. The book opens with his friend John going to his studio. Lavin has vanished and John wants to find out why. He finds a journal filled with Lavin’s thoughts, and the book is that journal interspersed with John’s own comments and reflections on its contents.

Between Lavin’s own journal entries and John’s (usually longer) comments on Lavin’s life and the context of the entries a picture starts to form. Berger writes a portrait of Lavin: his work; his loves; his circle; and his struggle to reconcile his politics and his art.

Before he left Hungary Levin was a revolutionary. He fled, while others stayed and fought – in some cases sacrificing their own artistic ambitions in order to become servants of the new socialist state. Lavin believes in the socialist struggle. He is a committed communist. What though is he doing for communism while living in London making paintings that nobody wants to see?

That question runs right through this book. It is Lavin’s central dilemma. He is not troubled by his work not being popular. He’s comfortable with his own lack of success. His art though is not socialist art and he’s painfully aware that many in Hungary might even see it as bourgois.

The question Lavin faces then is what is the point of his art? For Lavin that question arises due to his politics, but for the reader it’s part of a larger question that this book asks. What is the point of art at all?

I’m at risk of making this sound dry and academic. It’s true that there are lengthy passages where Lavin writes about issues of Communist theory. To a modern reader much of this is as abstruse and as relevant as medieval theology. For all that though Berger isn’t a theoretician. Lavin convinces as a character. His problems with his wife, his varied relationships with his friends, all of this feels real.

At one point Lavin talks about how cubism lets the artist see from more than one perspective at once. How it allows an artist to show the hollow of a knee and the kneecap in the same painting. Berger does something similar here with Lavin. Through Lavin’s journal we see one perspective. Through his friend John’s comments we see another. A Painter of Our Time is in that sense a cubist novel.

Painter is also full of just plain good writing (unlike this sentence). I loved lines like these from a visit to a major collector’s country house:

We stood by the fireplace and made the usual kindling remarks.

It was a little like being shown round a rare garden: Sir Gerald standing in his pale grey suit beside each plant and knowing everything about it according to the catalogues;

Berger shines too in the actual depiction of painting as a craft. Here painting is not some act of inspiration. It’s work. Lavin’s journal entries show him grappling for months with his paintings. He encounters problems with his compositions. He finds that a choice of colour or line puts a painting out of balance. He discovers that one element seems untrue when next to others. Lavin pounds away month after month trying different approaches and combinations until he gets slowly to something he is actually happy with.

It is, quite simply, the finest depiction of the act of painting that I have ever read.

Lavin is aware that he isn’t a genius, though he doesn’t doubt that he’s good. He’s not the only painter in the book. He has two students: one a local butcher who paints in his spare time and the other a working class man he teaches at a local art school who shows genuine talent and soon starts to outsell Lavin himself. That student is categorised by critics as being one of the “New Young Realists”, and having a label to hang on his work helps sell it. Other more fashionable and successful artists also make their appearances.

None of them are geniuses. None of them are terrible either. The world Berger is showing here is one of talented artists working to do the best work they can according to their own visions. Perhaps the best reason to read this novel is the insight it shows into an artist’s life and work. Here Lavin writes in his journal about the importance of sketches:

A blank page of a sketch-book is a blank, white page. Make one mark on it, and and the edges of the pages are no longer simply where the paper was cut, they have become the borders of a microcosm. Make two marks on it of uneven pressure and the whiteness ceases to be whiteness and becomes opaque three-dimensional space that must be made less opaque and more and more lucid by every succeeding mark. That microcosm is filled with the potentiality of every proportion you have ever perceived or sensed. That space is filled with the potentiality of every form, sliding plane, hollow, point of contact, passage of separation you have ever set hand or eye on. And it does not stop even there, For, after a few more marks, there is air, there is pressure and therefore there is bulk and weight. And this scale is then filled with the potentiality of every degree of hardness, yieldingness, force of movement, activeness and passiveness that you have ever buried your head in or knocked it against.

The problem Lavin faces is one that he believes all artists of his time face. The world is being transformed by political struggles in which people are dying. In Africa and Asia people are starving. In Eastern Europe they are trying to create a new society and a new model of humanity. In London he paints landscapes and portraits rather than factories and workers’ collectives. How can he justify the luxury of painting what he wants? How can he justify the indulgence of art which expresses only his vision and which does nothing to advance the revolution?

Here he reflects shortly after finishing a major work:

I fill in the time. Only very seldom can we be sure what any one of our works communicates. So much lies behind each one. It is impossible for me to know exactly what The Games will mean for others. Anyway this will change. What is most striking about it today may seem irrelevant in twenty years’ time. This abundance of the artist’s intentions is what makes the problem of propaganda so complicated. Nevertheless, it is the problem of art of our time. There is one thing about myself of which I am sure: I am a modern painter, and I am so because I have lived all my life with the problem of propaganda – the problem of facing other men as a man. I would like to write about this some time. I know about it. But now we are going to the cinema.

I love that last line. Politics and art are all very well, but daily life doesn’t care much about either.

This is a novel which made me think. My wife asked me which side Lavin was on in the 1956 invasion. I don’t know. Berger here doesn’t provide much by way of answers. What’s the point of Art? Lavin has answers, but I’m not sure they satisfy him even though he says they do. At one point Lavin reflects:

The point from which politics starts for me is hunger. Nothing less.

I feel the same, and yet I consider art more important than politics. Does that mean I consider a Degas more important than a hungry child? Put like that, of course not. But would I take funding from the arts and transfer it to overseas aid? Probably not. What then are my real priorities? How can I justify them?

That’s what makes Berger so interesting. That’s what makes this challenging. I found myself thinking about my own political history and the choices I’ve made. I found myself thinking about what I consider important and whether what I value has value.

Lots of authors raise questions and explore answers. Berger does something more interesting. He raises questions and leaves the reader to explore answers. That’s about as challenging as it gets.

A Painter of Our Time


Filed under Berger, John

29 responses to “A label is half the battle

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  2. leroyhunter

    Interesting stuff Max. You seem to have quite taken to Berger, and your review certainly makes this sound like something worth reading. I’m much more taken with it then the previous one you covered (Pig Earth I think?).

    I’m also reminded that Kevin recommended a Berger to me when he did his “book oracle” thread a while back, which I’ve neglected to follow up on.

    Books can offer all kinds of challenges, I guess, and this is of a very specific type. Re-reading what you’ve written I’m beginning to see Berger in a lineage that includes Orwell & Koestler. Did you come away from the experience feeling unsettled or reinforced by the challenge?

  3. Interesting but I’m not sure I’d be able to read such a book. I probably lack education in arts and philosophy to grasp all the issues.
    Though I’m not really into group reading for planning reasons, I think this one would be worth a group reading to enrich the discussion.

  4. Leroy,

    I am taken by him I admit. Kevin made a nice point on his blog suggesting that Berger in many ways is more of a European than a British writer, in terms of tradition and style. It was Kevin that put me on to Berger as he thought my fondness for Central European writers might also translate into a fondness for Berger.

    Unsettled rather than reassured. Part of that is my personal history. I started out politically as a communist as a teenager in the 1980s. Today I’m still left of centre, but I work as a City lawyer so I’m about as far from the revolutionary vanguard as I could be. That makes Levin’s dilemmas have a greater resonance for me than they might have for some.

    Equally there’s the merit of art issue. Berger raises a real question about the value of art. He clearly thinks it has value, as do I and as does Levin (who after all isn’t Berger but simply a character in a book by Berger). What value is that though when people are starving? It’s a reductionist question, but still a real one.

    Somerset Council recently voted through a 100% cut in its arts budget. When challenged they responded saying “would you rather we cut services to the vulnerable elderly?” That’s an ugly thing to say, and politically very cheap, but it’s also hard to answer (which is why it gets said). The answer is that we can’t live by bread alone, a society in which we’re all cared for but have no culture isn’t a worthwhile society, but if I were struggling to keep warm in winter I might find that response less persuasive than I do sitting today in comfort.

    I did some exhaustive biographical research on Berger (I read Wikipedia) and he was an artist before becoming a writer. That I suspect is why the depiction of the life and work of an artist is so persuasive here. If that’s of interest, that strand of the book is very rewarding.

    Bookaround, I’m not sure I do either. I’m sure I missed tons. I can see though that a book group might find a lot there with each person picking out different elements. That said, the communist dilemmas might leave many people a bit cold.

    One thing I didn’t mention in the review is that it would be worth reading a page on wikipedia on the 1956 Hungarian invasion. This was written in 1959 and assumes a certain level of knowledge of what’s going on in Hungary. At the time this was major current affairs so pretty much every reader would have known about this stuff. I hesitate to recommend what is essentially homework, but it would make some parts easier to follow.

  5. Though I don’t know you, I understand why this resonates in you considering the gap between your former political engagement, your opinions and your job. Believe me, I know what it is to have left centre opinions and spend all day long among right wing people and be obliged to listen to stuff you disagree with but can’t contradict because the appropriate reaction is to nod and smile. That’s the price to pay when you climb the social ladder thanks to school and don’t forget where you come from.
    The situation you describe in Somerset Council is typical from nowadays political speech. Our president is a big fan of that kind of rethoric. He says something bad. Someone has an argument against it. He gives an example about something else that you can’t disagree with but is not directly linked. And then he concludes that since you can’t disagree on the example, you agree with him on the first matter. Communication and manipulation.

    Maybe I should try Berger. He’s almost a neighbour. I’ve seen an article about him in a regional web site.

    By the way, Romain Gary (yes, I know, again) was a diplomat in Sofia just after WWII and he was there when communists took the power. There are interesting pages about this in Promise at Dawn. He felt horrible as a Western diplomat.

  6. It’s an age old political trick that one, but no less effective for it. Dirty though.

    Romain Gary, I really should read him.

    I forgot to ask Leroy, what Koestler have you read? I only know him well from my teenage interest in paraspychology which of course was a major activity of his.

  7. Excellent review — I particularly like the way that you captured the similarities between cubism and Berger’s writing (which I would say extends beyond this novel). He loves to use different voices, narrators, time and formats to create the pieces of his work, but then doesn’t “paste” them together in a conventional fashion. Like a piece of cubist work, you get to see aspects from a number of realistic perspectives — but putting them together is the reader’s task, not the authors. Which does lead to the kind of personal introspection that you describe so well here.

    I haven’t read any Berger for a few years. I am thinking it may be time for a revisit.

  8. Actually Max, you made this sound quite wonderful. The review made me think of Zola’s The Masterpiece for its depiction of the artistic life.

    On the question: what use is Art? It’s a sanctuary from the madness & drudgery of day-to-day existence.

  9. Just so Kevin, that’s what I was trying to get across and it’s nice to see you have the same view. I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts if you do return to him.

    Guy, a comparison with the Zola would be fascinating. I agree with you on art, but then of course I would.

  10. leroyhunter

    I read Darkness at Noon earlier this year, in which the protagonist has fallen foul of the Stalinist regime and is forced (in prison, awaiting likely execution) to revisit situations he was in, decisions he made, actions he took (or neglected to) in the light of where he has ended up. The clash between personal and Party principles is couched differently (more purely morally or politically) but it resonated with the dilemma you describe Levin facing.

    I think it’s the idea of the challenge that’s thrown out to the reader, the clash between the political and personal, that made me align them, I wouldn’t want to force the comparison. I’ve never read any of Koestler’s other stuff, but I have The Scum of the Earth on the shelf which looks excellent.

    Your personal trajectory reminds me of a few schoolmates, one in particular who was a fervent Zapatista back in the day and is now a corporate media lawyer. Am absolutely not saying this applies to you, but a few of us always suspected it was mostly a pose (it sure wound the Jesuits up something terrible) and we felt vindicated in that ungenerous view when the “radical” rolled up to our graduation ceremony in the brand new Saab his father had bought him for getting into law.

    I’d probably tag myself with your “left of centre” phrase but the world has changed so much in the last 20 years it’s hard to know what that means sometimes. It’s damn hard to be consistent.

  11. Leroy: One of the reasons I like Max’s reviews so much is that I was a 1960s radical who ended up editing and publishing a capitalist daily newspaper in my working life. Good Canadian that I am, I’ve always felt that moving towards the centre (but not yet having got there) was part of normal maturing.

  12. Great review Max. It’s clear that I must read some Berger fiction. I’ve only read his Ways of seeing book. The combination of politics and art in this novel – and the questions it poses, particularly in relation to propaganda and art – suggests that it is well worth a read. I do like books that don’t provide pat answers – perhaps that suggests I’m a modern reader?!

  13. I know nothing about Hungary but have read several books by former Czech president Vaclav Havel. As a writer I find it interesting that I believe Havel says somewhere that the artists in his homeland found the idea of being considered enemies of the state no less frightening than the American situation where artists simply didn’t matter.

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  15. I’ll take a look at those Leroy, I should read some Koestler, I’d probably really like him. Kafka too come to think of it (I’ve read some, but not for centuries).

    I did believe, but my political path is hardly a rare one. Where one starts out is rarely a good guide to where one ends up. What’s disturbing to me though is what I’d have done in the 1950s. Would I have supported Stalin? Well, that’s a good question. Now the answer’s an obvious no as he was a monster. But my teenage self if alive back then? I wonder if I’d have rationalised somehow.

    That’s the thing about Berger, he makes you question yourself.

    Left/right isn’t as clear cut as it used to be is it? The labels are out of date for the reality we now have. They lasted over a century though, which is a fair time for any political categorisation (where now the Guelphs and Ghibellines?).

  16. Kevin, possibly it is, though earlier me would just have seen it as selling out…

    Shelley, I think being ignored is a worse fate for art than being opressed. If I were an artist though I’d probably prefer being ignored to being imprisoned.

    WG, clearly you’re a reader of our time!

  17. leroyhunter

    I think you would Max, I was a bit surprised to be honest at how much I enjoyed Darkness at Noon but it’s really excellent. In return, I think I should look into some Berger (and read up a bit on the man himself).

    Speaking of Kafka, I’ve just received a very smart hardback edition of Metamorphosis and other stories, which I’ve started dipping into. Like you, it’s been donkey’s years since I read him and am finding it stranger and nastier then I expected (that’s good). Michael Hofmann’s translation may be contributing to that.

    Looking forward to your review of Ann Quin, have often debated reading her without committing.

  18. Hm, on the one hand I don’t like hardbacks, on the other hand Michael Hofman!

    I’ve met him as it happens. I found him very likeable. He likes Schnitzler (not all Schnitzler, but definitely some) which is always a plus in my book.

    Less keen on Zweig as I recall, though we didn’t discuss that.

    I’m really enjoying the Ann Quin. Well, enjoying’s an odd word for it, but it is good.

  19. leroyhunter

    I never buy contemporary fiction in hardback (have got a few as gifts though) but I am a sucker for fine editions of classics or personal favourites. This is the Metamorphosis edition:

    I remember your blog about meeting Hofmann alright, a great opportunity. Probably wise not to bring up Zweig…

    It was a Lee Rourke blog on the Guardian Books site that first made me aware of Quin (to give Rourke his due). I’ve read good stuff about her elsewhere, sounds very odd.

  20. It was Lee Rourke introduced me to Quin too, he tweeted (I think) that Berg was the novel most influential on his work (or something like that, I’m probably utterly distorting what he said since I don’t remember it clearly).

    That Metamorphosis edition is I have to admit a thing of beauty.

  21. Fascinating to read this review Max; my knowledge of Berger is limited beyond a few TV docs and his Ways Of Seeing book), though I have been keen to explore further since I discovered Geoff Dyer who cites Berger as his mentor. Indeed, Dyer’s life, his tendency to blur genres in his own writing so it’s neither fiction nor non-fiction is a direct response to Berger’s insistence to look again at how an artist approaches things. It’s this spirit of curiosity that I think places Berger in the European tradition, even if his pragmatism evokes the great British engineers.

    > I’ve recently had to abandon two great books shortly after starting them. Long hours at work have killed my concentration and led to too little time to really get stuck in to serious (or even un-serious) fiction.

    Funnily enough my own concentration has been severely limited of late and I find it excruciating. I always feel time is precious, and vegetating isn’t an option, simply because so much time is already given over to work. Then to find work is even invading non-work hours by leaving one too ravaged to embrace them, that I find to be really disturbing.

    > Left/right isn’t as clear cut as it used to be is it? The labels are out of date for the reality we now have.

    I agree, though the Left would argue that this is simply Capitalist Realism and symptomatic of Capitalism’s capacity to resist all criticism. Personally, I believe many on the Left relish the outsider status it affords them and find comfort in the succinct black and white narratives it provides them with; yet someone has to govern, someone has to make decisions to the best of their abilities – a road that can only lead to compromise. Hence the era we’re in now, which by its very nature is defined by compromise and fluidity. This of course opens the door to charges of betrayal and hypocrisy, none of which gets anyone any closer to engaging in modern politics in a progressive way.

    Similarly, as I think I mentioned previously, Class divisions now make little sense as Cultural identifiers, given there’s so much interaction between the classes now, so much class tourism, so much social mobility. The Class War has no clear battle lines anymore.

  22. I also received those two Berger books from Verso but read Corker’s Freedom rather than The PAinter which remains on my TBR pile. Corker took me back to the 1960s and London – to a time and place I know well . I was only surprised how dated it all seemed, with so much of the 1950s hanging over as powerful influences still – not least class, as you found above. No doubt I will get to The Painter i.d.c, for which you have provided such a fine review

  23. Sorry for the radio silence, it’ll likely be early December before I’m back online much.

    I saw your comments on Geoff Dyer Richard. I’ve never read him, but I increasingly wonder if that’s an error on my part.

    In ability to concentrate, to read, is something I find disturbing. I’m crawling through Berg which is excellent, but unavoidably impacted by my having so little time to devote to it.

    I suspect radicalism generally comes with the comfort of not having to implement. Purity is only possible in opposition or isolation. As soon as one has to do something, grubby compromise is unavoidable. I agree with you on class war (to a degree anyway, health indicators by social class still imply that even if people don’t recognise them anymore the differences remain very real). There’s a sense in which our political rhetoric hasn’t caught up to the times we inhabit. But then, that’s because the media hasn’t.

    Have you written up the Corker Tom? I didn’t see it at yours but I could have missed it. I don’t know the ’60s personally, so I’d be interested to see your take. I’ve heard Painter is more successful than Corker, but since we’ve each only read one it’s hard to say if that’s true…

    I’ve picked up Aspidistra, that’ll be an interesting comparator when I get to it.

  24. Re Geoff Dyer. Definitely worth a look I’d say. I’ve enjoyed pretty much all his books I’ve read (which is almost all of them) but the ones I’d suggest are ‘Out Of Sheer Rage’, ‘Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It’ and his essay collection ‘Anglo-English Attitudes’. Highly readable, all driven by a curiosity for living life to the full, they blur genres in a way that feels very ‘now’ without succumbing to mere fashion.

    Agree re health and class – my position is specific to culture and art. The game has changed, yet still I hear people alluding to 1970’s and 80’s world views. Which is really quite stubborn.

    Hope the work lets up soon. Maybe some heavy snow can gridlock the UK for a bit and we can all stay in and read? After all, we’ll be broke as a nation either way.

  25. Hate to show my ignorance, but is the picture of the person up top Proust, Poe, or…Pechorin?

  26. It’s Mikhail Lermontov Shelley. He wrote the 19th Century novel A Hero of Our Time which features Pechorin and his journal.

    And with that, I’m back after nearly a month of appalling hours at work which left me not reading anything. Sorry for the long absence and silence.

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  28. Max, Thank you for this. I’ve been thinking a lot about Berger and revisiting this novel I’ve read at two important parts of my life– when I was about 20 and ten years later. It’s time to read it again, as it informs much of what I do in the world. Best, Rachael

  29. Thank you for the comment. It is a fascinating book isn’t it? Looking back at what I wrote I’m reminded quite how good this book is, how interesting and thought provoking.

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