Art and Property Now: Room 3: To be continued by the reader…

Art and Property Now is an exhibition exploring John Berger’s life as storyteller, artist and critic. Visit the Inigo Rooms, Somerset House, London, until November 10, 2012. This week, to celebrate Berger’s 86th birthday, we invite you to a daily guided tour of some of the exhibition’s contents and themes. Here is Room 3.

In 2009, John Berger donated sixty years’ worth of his papers, accumulated in his stables in the French Alps, to the British Library. The exhibition of that archive, Art and Property Now, begins with pieces from the Forties and Fifties by Berger, Leon Kossoff and others, and runs up to the 2009 collaboration with Alan Kane and Artangel, Life Class. To celebrate John Berger’s 86th birthday, openDemocracy is this week inviting you to a daily guided tour of the exhibition, which is divided into five sections, by room, connected by the photographer Jean Mohr’s sequence of portraits of Berger. November 5 also marks the beginning of a week-long series of free activities, discussions, workshops, screenings and collaborations in the exhibition: redrawingthemaps.org.uk. 

Room 3 looks at some of Berger’s collaborations and how art can be shared.

 

Taking its title from the last line of the book version of Ways of Seeing, this room looks at some examples of Berger’s life-long dedication to creative collaboration. He has said: “The important thing is not to make compromises. All differences of opinion have to be faced, reflected on. It’s like the opposite of committees.”

After 1972, Berger continued to work with Mike Dibb on films including Pig Earth (1979),  Parting Shots from Animals (1980), About Time  (1985) and another Dibb is hoping to develop. Another central collaboration is with the photographer Jean Mohr, whose 40-year sequence of portraits of Berger – on loan from Artevents, and shown for the first time at the Here is Where We Meet season in London in 2005 – run down the central corridor of the exhibition, linking its five rooms in a chronological sequence. Whilst he was living in Geneva, Berger sought out the photographer Jean Mohr for advice on how to take the series of images that became At Remaurian (1962/3), published originally in the magazine Typographica, and featuring the naked form of Anya Bostock, a major intellectual influence, not just on Berger, but on the entire Anglophone Marxist tradition. She translated Ernst Fischer, Benjamin, Lukács, and, in collaboration with Berger, poems by Bertolt Brecht. She also features in Ways of Seeing’s round-table discussion on the politics of the male gaze; this can be heard in its unedited form in Room 2, and a portrait of her by Peter de Francia can be seen in Room 1.

Before he began to concentrate on photography at the age of 30, Jean Mohr had studied Economics, worked with Palestinian refugees for the Red Cross and the UN, and studied painting at the Académie Julian in Paris. His work has, Berger thinks, ‘something strangely casual, off-hand – a caring nonchalance.’ The two men first collaborated on A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (1967), a blend of text and image inspired by the anguished self-awareness of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941). Their next book, A Seventh Man (1975), part-funded by the other half of Berger’s Booker Prize for G. (see Room 2), is a work of témoignage, or witness, in which Berger and Jean Mohr looked at the lives of the immigrant labourers whose exploitation makes European standards of life possible. As Berger says in his essay on Susan Sontag;

“in recognising how photography has come to be used by capitalism, we can define at least some of the principles of an alternative practice. For the photographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world, but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.”

When the photographer Greg Veit bumped into Berger as he was visiting the exhibition, this was the book he recommended as an introduction to his work. Here, it is represented by an arrangement of photographs – some in colour, rather than the exclusive black and white of the book – in the sequence of departure, work in the host country, and return.

Chronologically the next works in this room centre on the works Berger moved to his current home in the French Alps to enable him to write: the Into Their Labours trilogy (1979–91). The overarching narrative – inspired by the Rougon-Macquart series, in which Emile Zola charted the fortunes of several generations of a family – portrays a peasant farming community being gradually destroyed, and its children sucked into a placeless, abstract city called Troy. In imagining it, Berger pinned an image of a shanty town above his desk – we can tell in the exhibition from the drawing-pin hole. Later, Berger hoped to cast the singer Tom Waits in a film version, and gathered a dossier of press photographs on him – this room’s central case features a letter from Waits to Berger, in a shaky, looping handwriting which conjures the sound of his voice rather well.  

In the ‘Historical Afterword’ to the trilogy – one of his most important texts – Berger blames the destruction of the culture he describes on the capitalist pursuit of profit above all else:

“its historic role is to destroy history, to sever every link with the past and to orientate all effort and imagination to that which is about to occur.”

Punctuated by poems, the books are structured as a series of interrelated short stories. The drafts for one of these, ‘The Three Lives of Lucie Cabrol’, show Berger noting down advice from his neighbours on the architectural practicalities of a scene in which the living and the dead build a barn together: a perfect image of the collaborative ‘company of the past’.

Later, the story was adapted by Simon McBurney and the Complicité theatre company, and on the opening night “Lucie” herself sent them a good luck message from the Bergers’ fax machine. This collaboration would bear further fruit; notably in The Vertical Line, a recreation of which fills the fourth room of this exhibition.

Another major collaboration was with John Christie, an artist who first met Berger in a corridor when he was working as a cameraman around the time of Ways of Seeing. After years spent persuading the BBC, Christie made Another Way of Telling, a 1982 Mohr-Berger collaborative book on photography that was turned into a television programme in 1989. 

John Berger, frontispiece letter from John Christie's book Pages of the Wound: Poems Drawings Photographs (1994)

Room 3 also features original drawings and photographs from and editions of Pages of the Wound (1996), a book of Berger’s poems and graphic works that Christie collected together.

In 1997, Christie wrote to Berger asking ‘What could our next project be?’ – ‘Just send a colour…’, Berger replied. Their correspondence was intended as a private exchange of thoughts only, until the writer and curator Eulàlia Bosch saw it and persuaded them to publish it as a book, I Send You This Cadmium Red (2000). It has since been recast as theatre, scored by the composer Gavin Bryars and exhibited in its own right.  Here, it’s represented by a selection of letters and handmade books, as well as a copy of the final publication, and a yellow square, painted high up on the wall. Christie wrote that this was,

“a version of the patch of sunlight that I painted on our living room wall on the 1st August but at the beginning of December the winter sun shone sharp and clear and I made this painting for you directly on the paper, a trace of the light at 10.30 that morning.”

Christie was also the cameraman on Life Class: Today’s Nude, a collaboration with the artist Alan Kane (1961–), whose project with Jeremy Deller, Folk Archive (2000–), records British contemporary culture with the same level of attention and understanding Berger extended to the French peasantry.  Brought into being by Artangel, a company that commissions and produces outstanding projects with contemporary artists in unique spaces, the programme screened here was originally broadcast on Channel 4 as part of a series of lunchtime life-drawing classes taught by Berger and the artists Maggi Hambling, Gary Hume, Humphrey Ocean and Judy Purbeck. Each artist chose their own model; Berger’s was a friend and collaborator, the Spanish dancer María Muñoz.

Life Class with John Berger. Artangel.co.uk.

The classes were followed in homes and offices all around the country, and there has been a similarly enthusiastic take-up in the gallery space; there are a beautiful range of responses to Berger’s guidance on the sketchpads and easels provided.

What lies at the root of this dedication to collaboration is an essential sociability. It was this that struck him also about the artefacts donated in the British Library archive; for him, the most interesting parts were ‘things written by other people in the form of letters or messages to me.’  This seems to be a central part of his creativity: in a 2002 interview with the writer Michael Ondaatje (born 1943), Berger said it was, “cinema, and neither painting, nor writing” that had influenced him most in his books. What he called “cinematographic editing” and “long vistas and close ups” are useful ways of thinking about the structure of his novel G. There are sellotaped joins throughout his manuscripts.

But Berger is also interested in cinema audiences:

“They are together, and yet each is listening and looking alone; people can’t look at paintings like that, they can’t read books like that.

It’s an image of collaboration, the spectator who is part of the telling of the story. That image which comes from the cinema is to me more encouraging than the other two.”

Taking this cue, the activities in Room 5, Redrawing the Maps, will try to explore what he called in 1956 – showing the gendered language of the time – ‘that essential problem of popular participation in the arts – which is a civil servant’s phrase for the electric, mysterious process by which men can help each other grow.’

 

About the author

Tom Overton recently catalogued the John Berger archive at the British Library, and is working on an Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award with the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King's College, London. He curated the exhibition John Berger: Art & Property Now,which ends with a week of free events: Redrawing the Maps, and also just joined Twitter @thomaswoverton