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.