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Wonderful ways of seeing

Landscapes: John Berger on Art

Edited by Tom Overton

(Verso, £16.99)

JOHN BERGER is Britain’s foremost art critic and a lifelong Marxist and his incisive methodology and insights into art as a creative process, within a social and historical context, have revolutionised the way we look at images and understand the creative process.

In this wonderful book of selected essays from his wide oeuvre, there are graphic vignettes on leading critics like Frederick Antal, Max Raphael, Walter Benjamin and Ernst Fischer, together with reflections on individual artists and movements.

Perhaps his most succinct and clearest explanation of the role of art and of the critic is contained in his 1959 essay The Ideal Critic and the Fighting Critic, first published in Permanent Red.

And there are accounts of village life in the French Alps where Berger lives, discourses on Palestine and a letter to Rosa Luxemburg.

It’s a joy to discover with him the challenges and sensual pleasure of art, together with its role in social development as well as its misappropriation as a profitable investment for the wealthy. As Berger argues: “Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and in its function as a stimulant of sensation. It ceases to have implications beyond itself.”

Berger is not always easy to read and can sometimes be convoluted — he makes you work — but he is never boring, forcing readers to rethink their own concepts.

And he’s a true innovator, taking Marxism beyond Marx. He points out that Marx posed a question that he could not answer: “If art, in the last analysis, is a superstructure of the economic base, why does its power to move us endure long after the base has been transformed?” A profound question, that Berger has grappled with throughout his life.

Marx left only fragmentary and not very illuminating comments on art — he was, after all, very much a product of his era — but Berger uses his methodology of analysis and thinking and applies it to the artistic process with illuminating panache.

He is a painterly writer and, because of his artist’s training, has an acute visual sense. Able to penetrate beneath surface colour and form, no-one is better able to describe or explain what art is all about than Berger.

Landscapes is an enjoyable and intellectually stimulating read and a timely reminder of why Berger’s stature as art critic and social commentator is so great.

John Green

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