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May 16, 2011 6:18 am
Bento’s Sketchbook, by John Berger, Verso RRP£14.99, 176 pages
John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing (1972) sought to change the way we view art; almost 30 years on he has produced a wise, inquisitive and esoteric meditation on art, time, history and self.
Bento’s Sketchbook is inspired by the 17th-century philosopher Baruch “Bento” Spinoza, who is said to have kept a sketchbook – now lost. Berger sets out to emulate him, filling a suede-covered pad given to him by a painter friend. Prompted by things “asking to be drawn”, he explores the world around him through short pieces, quotes from Spinoza and copious sketches of everything from a handful of ripe plums to a sleeping cat.
The process of looking beyond the surface of things, beyond time or history, brings gratifying results. In the Prado he communes with Velasquez’s buffoon Juan the Pumpkin turning the wide corridors, full of living patrons and dead subjects into a teeming Rambla; a passage on Arundhati Roy offers a clear-eyed discussion of protest’s purpose. Inspiring, challenging and rewarding.
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