A Painter of Our Time by John Berger

I read A Painter of Our Time in a disjointed way which did the book no favours. However, it is fair to say it’s a hard slog. Beauty and a rather wry humour abound. But it is essential to the story that it contains a lot of Marxist analysis of the place of art in revolution, as well as in the capitalist environs which provide the physical setting. One moment we are following the charmingly amusing story of the butcher who wants Janos to do a nude portrait of his wife. The next we are in this:

Today every painter worthy of the name is his own master, his own pupil and perhaps finally his own debaser, his own mannerist. We each have to decide everything for ourselves. We each have to choose what is inconceivable for us. As artists – and this is the curse that is upon us – we must each visualise our own city, ourself as its centre. It is bitter for me to admit this, I who, as a man, believe in the collective, in the revolutionary class not the revolutionary individual.

But art is the most inconvenient of activities, the least susceptible to will or legislation. It is always forward or backward in its desires, defying the present. It is like a flame. It is governed and fed by the present wind; but it is always trying to flicker under the wind, to lick the wind off from its source. Without the wind, without air, the flame would not exist. But the stronger the wind the firmer the grip of the flame on its object, and the swifter its attempts to undercut the wind. We can take over the means of production; but we cannot altogether take over the means of expression. Thus I remain lonely, holding no brief for loneliness. Thus sometimes I question my own choice. Sometimes, such as tonight, I look at my city, the way of life that my art presupposes, with incredulity. I stare at it like a peasant from the countryside…..

The way in which he discovers, and is eventually overcome by, his guilt at the death of his friend who remained true to the revolution, is almost surreal, couched as it is in this sort of analysis.

And, of course, one can see the incipient beginnings of what became his influential series. But as he developed as a writer, he seemed more able to keep the stiff didactism separate from his fiction, which really did deserve this break.

It’s well worth reading, as long as you know what you are up for.

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