Gathering 74 essays on as many artists—presented chronologically from Aurignacian Man, circa 30,000 BC, to Randa Mdah, born in 1983—and written over some fifty years, Portraits (Verso, $44.95) is a dazzling retrospective of John Berger’s criticism—garnished with samples of his poetry, fiction, correspondence, and other writings. For Berger, writing about art is the same thing as telling a story, and the story he tells so vibrantly is about artists’ abiding faith “that the visible contained hidden secrets”; indeed, the word “mystery” comes up repeatedly. Berger himself has an especially keen eye, able to discern that Cézanne’s black is like Rembrandt’s, but more “tangible,” and that in Francis Bacon’s work, unlike Goya’s, “there are no witnesses and there is no grief. Nobody painted by“ Bacon notices the pain of others “painted by him.” In virtually every piece, Berger distills reams of history, biography, and theory into succinct and memorable readings. He observes that Rembrandt’s great theme was isolation and the embrace his “iconic act,” a combination that made him the first modern painter, and that “Frida Kahlo lay cheek to cheek with everything she depicted.” When he cites Caravaggio as the painter he feels closest to, it’s because he admires the artist’s heresy in turning “religious themes into popular tragedies.” Agree or disagree, joining Berger as he assesses these oeuvres is an exhilarating experience.
Politics and Prose Bookstore 202-364-1919 Hours and Locations