'If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier: messages which come from the back of the visible. And this, not because all painters are Platonists, but because they look so hard.' Throughout this very varied book, and especially when writing on art, John Berger invites us to acknowledge the absolutes and universals which, he insists, lie behind the surfaces of things. He doesn't have a great deal to say about those absolutes, and asks us to be content with terms like the essential, the invisible, the sacred or the real, as if the words themselves, floating free of any discernible theology or metaphysics, can answer the questions they raise by the simple urgency with which they are uttered. For me they can't: and yet I found myself hurrying through these essays, eating them up, as if I really believed they could feed the hunger they created. The greater my disbelief, the more often it was suspended. For at his very best Berger can describe a painting, can evoke the aura emanating from the objects it represents, with such eloquence that he can inspire us, or me at least, with universal longings.
LRB 9 April 1992 | PDF Download