The first John Berger novel I read was A Painter of Our Time.
I picked it up as part of a two-for-a-pound offer in a charity shop in 1999. It was the second choice, the filler just because I needed another book to make the offer worthwhile. My first choice? A dirty copy of London Fields by Martin Amis. Anyway, among all the self-help books and the Kathy Lette’s, I spotted the name John Berger, and thought, “That’ll do.”
And then I paid that princely sum of a whole pound, and went home.
I was going to read London Fields straight away but, intrigued by the title A Painter of Our Time, I casually read the opening line. And didn’t stop until I’d finished.
It’s a great book. There are loads of things I love about that edition – a 1982 printing with a no-cover type design – and not long out of art college, the historical old school aspect was warming in a “wish I was there” sort of way. When the main character, artist Janos Lavin, sits with a fellow tutor (who is old and a bit deaf) at an art school they both teach at and the old tutor hands him a note asking if he likes tutoring, Lavin nods that he does, but the old tutor gives him a look that suggests he doesn't believe him.
It made me laugh. Still does.
My only other Berger experience at that time had been the book, Ways of Seeing. It was pretty much law for young art students to buy it when you start your BTEC Foundation course. I suppose I should have read it really…
When you watch someone drawing a flower, sorry, when you watch someone full of wonder and with gleeful enquiry drawing a flower at the age of 90, and you moan about not having enough time to draw anymore… Well, if John Berger can sit and draw a flower, then so can I. Just put the phone down and get the pad out. Not the iPad, the drawing pad.
The activity of drawing anything, a flower, a table or a chair, is not just about having a nice drawing at the end; it’s about much more than that. There’s a lot to think about, like exercise or statement. Or how alive or (depressingly) dead your line is; or compositional arrangement, using the space to add drama or dynamic.
There’s more, of course there is.
But just touching on these areas demonstrates how complex drawing can be, and how it affects your mood, or can exercise the brain – an endeavour unmatched by what seems to so easily to take up so much of our time: social technology.
Even writing this piece makes me feel better than blankly filling time by swipe-skip-shuffle-post-Like-save for later…
And I suppose, for me, that’s part of the Berger legacy – just thinking about his work has inspired a bit of introspection, a bit of assessment.
It’s been 10 years since my last life drawing session, perhaps I’ll Google local classes…