Detail of Titian’s ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’ (c1570-1575)

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Portraits: John Berger on Artists, by John Berger, edited by Tom Overton, Verso, RRP£25 / RRP$44.95, 544 pages

In Titian’s last masterpiece “The Flaying of Marsyas”, a satyr is strung up and tortured to death for having aspired to the joy of making music. John Berger begins his discussion of this tragic picture standing in a suburban Paris market among young couples in jeans “holding hands, pushing prams, teasing in argot, each one with their thin, crooked-toothed dodge for a happiness”. He wonders how they would react to the story because “everyone lives legends”. Then he closes in on the tormentors with their knives, alert to both the painting’s brutal naturalism — “I have seen peasants skin goats with exactly the same gestures” — and the foreshadowing of modern terror: Berger’s Titian points straight ahead to the violent postwar world of Lucio Fontana’s slashed, wounded canvases.

Berger’s gift was always to make wild, enlightening connections, darting between centuries and genres, anchoring aesthetic response within his own experiences of urban and rural life. In this arresting new volume, the 88-year-old critic reads as presciently and pertinently as ever: he interprets Mark Rothko as a quintessential migrant, “seeking, as only emigrants do, the unfindable place of origin, the moment before everything began”, and he contrasts silently assertive Egyptian necropolis portraits (“identity pictures — like passport photos — for the dead on their journey . . . to the kingdom of Osiris”) with today’s internet overload of faces, which “harangue ceaselessly by provoking envy, new appetites, ambition . . . And people come to depend on this impersonal noise as a proof of being alive!”

Defining himself as “among other things a Marxist”, Berger trained as an artist but became a writer because “for me, there were too many political urgencies to spend my life painting”. With Ways of Seeing (1972), he revolutionised the reading of art by insisting on social context. Nevertheless, he says, “if I am a political propagandist, I am proud of it. But my heart and eye have remained those of a painter.”

Portraits, a far-ranging selection of writings from across six decades, combines those two sensibilities more seamlessly and authoritatively than any of his previous books. It also, remarkably and exhilaratingly, offers a riposte to some currently powerful ways of thinking about art which have evolved from his own influence.

The title itself is a volte-face. “No more portraits”, Berger demanded in a 1967 essay delivering an autopsy on the tradition sustained by the National Portrait Gallery. The portrait genre connoted individualism, social status, celebrity; Berger belongs to the generation of cultural commentators, including Jean Baudrillard and TJ Clark, who collapsed history’s linear narratives chronicling the distinctive achievements of great men — and it almost always was male artists — into more theoretical, thematic approaches. The impact of these thinkers on institutions and curators in the 21st century — beginning with Tate Modern’s controversial non-chronological hang of its permanent collection — is determining.

Cueva de las Manos ("Cave of the Hands") in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina

But “not learning dates is disastrous”, says Berger here. “There is no exemption from history.” Portraits is radical today for its traditional organisation: presented as a strictly chronological art history, it opens with paintings scratched into the Chauvet caves and concludes 30,000 years later with Palestinian Randa Mdah, born in 1983, whose relief installation “Puppet Theatre” “prophesied the Gaza Strip” and in sculptural mastery is comparable, Berger proposes, to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze doors of the Florence baptistery.

Berger’s chief terrain — more than two-thirds of the book — covers the Renaissance to late modernism, unpicked artist by artist, from Piero della Francesca and Antonello da Messina to Cy Twombly and Frank Auerbach. Figures of revolutionary sympathies perhaps emerge as favourites — Caravaggio (“there is no [painter] to whom I feel closer”), Millet, Courbet, Fernand Léger — and the grainy, small-scale black and white illustrations, selected “because glossy colour reproductions in the consumerist world of today tend to reduce what they show to items in a luxury brochure for millionaires”, add a nostalgically leftish touch. But as a straightforward introduction to art’s greats, the formula is essentially, determinedly conventional.

John Berger

Except that, like all good interpretations of the past, Portraits distils history filtered through a temperament — and one whose political unorthodoxies are matched by flamboyant experimentation in form and method. Goya (“no artist has ever achieved greater honesty”) is explored in a fictional extract: a work in the National Gallery is the meeting point for the main characters in Berger’s 1958 novel A Painter of Our Time. Mantegna is the subject of a scripted conversation between Berger and his daughter. A fan letter to Leon Kossoff admiring “the debris and the omnipresent hope” of his troubled, marvellous paintings leads to a raw correspondence between writer and painter, born the same year, about how hard it is in old age to hold things together, “to keep the experiment going”. An elegy on Spanish sculptor Juan Muñoz is addressed to long-dead Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, with Berger “acting as a postman between two dead men”.

At its best, there is a sort of poetry about Berger’s mix of storytelling and critique, and his receptiveness to literature of all stripes, which consistently enriches this account. An outstanding example is essays on Velázquez and the harsh “Spanish landscape of the interior”, which connect to a musing on unpaintable landscapes worldwide (“if we tend to forget this it is the result of a kind of Eurocentrism”) and — verging bravely, provocatively, on fraught orientalist territory — on the “special place” in Arab poetry of the blade, knife, sword, dagger.

“In the Sahara one enters the Koran,” Berger writes. “Islam was born of, and is continually reborn from, a nomadic desert life whose needs it answers, whose anguish it assuages . . . the blade was a reminder of the thinness of life. And this thinness comes, very materially, from the closeness in the desert between sky and land . . . In the thin stratum of the living laid on the sand like a nomad’s carpet, no compromise is possible because there are no hiding places; the directness of the confrontation produces the emotion, the helplessness, the fatalism.”

Berger’s vision of geography shaping history shaping art and life is almost always infused with such imaginative empathy. When, rarely, it is not, the absence is also revealing: the artists with whom Berger struggles are those seeming to him to lack that empathy, their focus on existential alienation excluding them from social constructs and connections. Giacometti’s “extreme proposition” that no reality could ever be shared “reflects the social fragmentation and manic individualism of the late bourgeois intelligentsia”. Francis Bacon “painted in order to shock”; he is accused of complacency, egocentricity, conformity. “It is not with Goya or the early Eisenstein that he should be compared,” writes Berger, “but with Walt Disney.”

Many essays here are composites, skilfully stitched together by editor Tom Overton, and their span over decades allows us to watch Berger reconsider, even mellow. But a 2004 extract still laments Bacon’s “very provincial bohemian circle, within which nobody gave a fuck about what was happening elsewhere”. The compelling fact remains that Berger, a vividly engaged critic at the time, missed the significance of the two greatest artists — painter and sculptor — of the postwar generation. It is tribute to his integrity — or stubbornness? — that these failures are showcased, too, in a volume whose breadth and depth bring it close to a definitive self-portrait of one of Britain’s most original thinkers.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual arts critic

Photographs: Erich Lessing/AKG-Images; Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

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