A Berger sampler: the esteemed art critic offers up personal portraits of a wide array of well-known and lesser-known artists and art works.
The prolific Berger (Understanding a Photograph, 2013, etc.) has written books in many genres (including his Booker-winning novel G.), but he's best known as a discerning art critic, and this collection of 74 essays, some only a couple pages long, will enhance that reputation. Editor Overton, who sees Berger as a storyteller critic, has gathered them together with Berger's blessing. The pieces are arranged chronologically, from the ancient paintings on France's Chauvet Cave and the Egyptian Fayum Portraits found in necropolises to contemporary artists like the Palestinian sculptor Randa Mdah, whose installation piece, Puppet Theater, Berger writes, possesses "a power…such as I have seen in no other [work]." His comments and insights constantly surprise. For Berger, Michelangelo's subject was always the human body, and its "sublimity lay revealed in the male organ." Fellow Brit J.M.W. Turner "represents most fully the character of the British nineteenth century." Mark Rothko's greatest canvasses are "very close to blindness." They "take off the blindfolds of colour." Francis Bacon painted "human flesh as if it were a rasher of bacon." Cy Twombly is the "painterly master of verbal silence!" As a Marxist, Berger's inquiries are often situated in a distinctly political or social context, and they vary greatly in their modes of telling. His piece on Goya, the "first artist to paint the nude as a stranger," is partly written in the form of a play. His piece on Titian consists of letters written between him and his daughter. His favorite? Caravaggio, whose chiaroscuro could "banish daylight."
Although some of the more mannered pieces don't work as well as others, it's always Berger's unique, captivating mind on display in these unabashedly personal essays—and that never disappoints.