Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions under the Skin

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions under the Skin

Article excerpt

John Berger: Art and Property Now Inigo Rooms, Somerset House East Wing, Strand, WC2, until 10 November John Berger (born 1926) is one of the most intriguing and richly controversial figures in British arts and letters. Actually, since he lives full-time in France, he can scarcely be considered English in any meaningful way, and is indeed an international figure, widely regarded outside this country as one of Europe's greatest intellectuals and quite often as some sort of cultural guru. Here he is thought of as a Marxist art critic, a dangerously potent broadcaster and a writer or novelist who defies categorisation. One suspects he is a bit of an embarrassment to the arts establishment, so he tends to be ignored.

His residence abroad makes this easier, but Berger has a way of getting under the skin of the imagination, and, like the gritty irritant that results in an oyster, stimulating us - almost against our will - into thinking with independence and originality.

As a writer Berger has never been less than interesting, and the novels of his mature vision (beginning with Pig Earth in 1979) are intensely poetic and compelling. His essays are always worth reading, partly because of the fresh way in which they make us look at art and ourselves, but principally because of the delight in discovery that Berger is so good at provoking and sharing. In 2009, he gave a vast archive of material to the British Library consisting of 60 years' worth of notes and papers. Aware of the potential monetary value of this cache, but typically reacting against such a commodification, Berger simply donated to the BL what other writers might have sold to a wealthy American institution. The material, which had been stored in his stables in the French Alps, was immured in a deep freeze for a couple of months to kill off the bugs, and then gradually sorted and identified. This exhibition - the first to be mounted by the newly inaugurated King's Cultural Institute - presents (in close collaboration with the BL) the first sample of Berger's archive to be offered to the public gaze.

The show is divided among four rooms, part of King's College in the East Wing of Somerset House. The first room is the most interesting, not because it is dedicated to a particularly exciting theme (it's arranged around Berger's first novel, A Painter of our Time, one of his most painfully worthy efforts), but because it is visually realised in a more complete way than the rest of the exhibition. In other words, there are more and better things to look at. Apart from the obligatory archive material - newspaper cuttings and notebooks - there are really good paintings on show. Chief among these is a magisterial early oil by Leon Kossoff, entitled 'St Paul's Building Site' (1954), and hanging on either side, a couple of things by Berger himself (he's still a practising artist) - a painting of scaffolding put up for the Festival of Britain, and an ink drawing of a London suburb.

There are also two portraits by Peter de Francia, a Berger friend and sparring partner, a tough industrial scene by Prunella Clough and a lithograph by Leger from de Francia's own collection. In the better of the two portraits, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm fixes the visitor with a boss-eyed gaze. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.