26 Fruits

Ways of seeing and writing


On the last day of the old year I went to the British Museum, happy to wave goodbye to a year that had taken so many personal inspirations from the world. There was an exhibition of drawings by Maggi Hambling – beautiful work. I was attracted by one ink portrait in particular that seemed to beckon me across the gallery space, a face full of character and intelligence. I recognised it as John Berger – writer, artist, critic, author of G and Ways of Seeing. I photographed that drawing and no others, and posted the image on social media.

On the second day of the new year I heard that John Berger had died, aged 90. It felt as if I had contributed accidentally to his death. But it made me think of ways in which I had been touched by John Berger’s work since I had read his Booker Prize winning novel G in 1972.

I had been asked at the end of last year to lead a weekend workshop in the Swiss Alps this Spring. The workshop will be at the house of Andreas Zust, an artist/polymath who had assembled an extraordinary extensive archive of books and objects. My task was first to select a single book or author from the archive to act as a stimulus to the workshop. I now knew what to look for, the needle in the haystack, and there in the catalogue I discovered seven books (all in German) by John Berger. I now look forward to the workshop in March with the prospect of snow and Spring light and some words by John Berger.

It reminded me that I had a few years ago read Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time and read an extract from it at the start of a Dark Angels day in Spain, after we had visited the sculptor Alberto German. I later blogged the following about it:

“One morning, when we gathered in the courtyard not long after the sun had risen from behind the chestnut trees, I read out this paragraph from Berger’s novel, describing a visit to a barber:

I watched him in the mirror over the basin as he worked. Every so often he stepped back to squint at my hair, his head on one side, his eyes screwed up. The gesture was exactly the same as a painter’s when he steps back to look at his canvas. He wanted to see what he had done freshly, he wanted to see it in the best possible and most flattering light, but he also wanted to see it truthfully. That’s the conflict of aim that makes us squint. But it is a gesture not only confined to barbers and painters. It is the world-wide gesture of men and women measuring their original work.

The words seemed to resonate with the group. The painter, the barber. The sculptor, the writer. We squinted to see better the words written on the page or in our imagination: the blade of grass, the distant lake, the acorn fallen on the ground.

The musician. Angus had travelled from Prague to be with us. The photographer. Richard from Portland, Oregon. Both made connections with their other crafts. Expertise in two crafts is better than one.”

The combination of Alberto German and John Berger had pointed out similarities in the creative approaches of artists and writers – in particular the use of ‘research’ that could also lead to random discoveries. It’s a way of thinking and I remembered one of my favourite Berger books, a correspondence between him and the film-maker John Christie called I Send You This Cadmium Red. The best way to ‘pay respects’ is to read the writer’s work, so a couple of days ago I reread I Send You…It’s a beautiful, wise, thought-provoking book, with each writer exploring the nature and personalities of individual colours that they send each other.

I remembered that I had once written ‘in blue’ for a chapter of 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry – writing under the influence of the colour blue immediately after watching the film Three Colours: Blue. It had been an interesting experiment for a writer, and now I realised that I had had the idea under the influence of John Berger.

It also made me realise that there is one more current debt to acknowledge. Dark Angels on our new website have begun a new style of blogs that are conversations between two of us. I guess this as an idea also goes back to the year-long email exchange between myself and Jamie Jauncey that became our book Room 121. Here is one of the latest of these conversations between myself and (serendipity strikes again) Richard Pelletier who was mentioned above as the writer/photographer in Spain http://www.dark-angels.org.uk/blog/.

Everything is connected. I’m sure John Berger would agree with that. Here I’ve set out just some of the connections that John Berger has helped me to make in my writing. He enriched my life and he will continue to do so through his work that outlives him.




4 Responses

  1. Faye Sharpe says:

    Happy New Year John!
    I did not know of John Berger until I saw notice of his death on Facebook from BBC Culture. I’ve been watching his 1970s series Ways Of Seeing on YouTube. It’s fascinating and I’m sharing it with my sister in Canada and we discuss his ideas as they relate to our creativity – my sister with paints, me with words.

    Now I discover from you that he was a writer too. So I shall continue to enjoy exploring his ideas and life through the parallel and connected worlds of all the arts which in fact have a single origin – our imaginations.

  2. John Simmons says:

    Neil Baker writes
    Ah, John Berger.

    Photocopies was the “favourite book” I took to my first Dark Angels course. And I remember once sending you a hard copy version, John, to thank you for some favour or inspiration.

    I was so saddened to hear of his death. I’ve been watching old Berger documentaries on YouTube all weekend. A wonderful person and a continuing source of inspiration about how to write and why.


  3. Gorgeous piece of writing John. Ways of Seeing was my companion in the days when I sought out writers and artists to help me think about my photography. I didn’t know his work as well as you, but I did know it. That probably helped when I found We, Me, Them and It. There was a tiny spark of recognition — ‘somehow this sounds and feels pretty familiar.’ Thank you for writing this post… it’s an essential reminder of what’s important in what we all do. And your role in leading the way.

  4. Angus says:

    I remember the Aracena piece well, John. I’d read ‘A Painter of Our Time’ years ago, but ‘G’ has sat obstinately on my shelf for so long I almost convinced myself I’d read it and forgotten it. But, no. I’ve just never got around to it. So it’s shot up my list of ‘what to read next’.

    I guess music and painting share a lot of metaphors, too. From ‘impressionist’, ‘romantic’ or ‘abstract’ labels to the idea of varying ‘colour’ in piano voicings, whether in the jazz sense (the notes of the chord chosen) or classical (how each of the written notes is treated dynamically). A nice reminder of how the arts can cross-pollinate in the mind.

    Andreas Zust sounds like a fascinating character, too. Maybe after your Swiss sojourn, he’ll find a way into your next novel in some form…

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