Tuesday, July 27, 2010

John Berger on Pirosmani

This is an extract from the essay On the Banks of the Sava by an acclaimed art critic John Berger written in 1972. The essay appears in the collection entitled The Sense of Sight.

In Russian cities the food displayed in shop windows often consists of painted wooden models, wooden chops, chickens, eggs. From a distance they sometimes look more convincing than real food because their colours are unusually vivid and distinct. The wooden meat is either lean (red) or fat (cream-coloured). There was a painter from Georgia towards the end of the last century called Pirosmanishvili who spent most of his life going from one tavern in Tiflis to another, painting inn signs. Many of them were of food. I have never seen paintings more expressive of hunger - or rather, of the dream provoked by hunger. Tabletops like the earth and on the cheeses and joints of meat like huge buildings. Even the women he painted look edible, like Easter cakes. In Pirosmanishvili's work the Russian tradition of painting wooden models of food for shop windows found its only genius and master. Why is it that the real lamb hanging at the back of the butcher's in Obrenovac unexpectedly, without premeditations, reminds me of his painting?

Friday, July 23, 2010

One Night in Strasbourg - an essay by John Berger

I find this piece of writing simple and at the same time extraordinary. It is very visual and emotional, as almost everything John Berger writes. Fantastic thoughts about passion from his book The Sense of Sight. I hope he will not be angry if I post it here.

The Kiss by Edvard Munch

I had gone to the cinema. When I came out it was cold and wet. You could just make out the cathedral spire against the sky.

Between the cathedral and the station there are many cheap brasseries and cafés. I went into one where there was a crow in a cage, hung beside the bottles behind the counter. At that time I was thinking about a scenario for a film and this had led me to try to analyse the nature of passion. I had written some notes in a school exercise book which had squares instead of lines on its pages. I had bought the book in a village shop. Now with my back to the stove in the café in Strasbourg and a glass of tea and rum on the table in front of me, I began to read what I had written.

The beloved represents the self's potential. The self's potential for action is to be loved by the beloved again and again. Active and passive become reversibele. Love creates the space for love. The love of the beloved 'completes' - as thought one were talking of a single action instead of two - the love of the lover.

The waitress as sat down to eat her supper. She has long straw-coloured hair.

With all those with whom we are not in love we have too much in common to be in love. Passion is only for the opposite. There is no companionship in passion. But passion can confer the same freedom on both lovers. And their shared experience of this freedom - a freedom which is itself is astral and cold - may give rise between them to an incomparable tenderness. Each time, the reawakening of desire is the reconstituting of the opposite.

A man comes in who clearly comes in every night. About sixty. A state office employee. He goes up to talk to the crow in the cage. He speaks a bird language to it.

The modalities of the opposition cannot easily be seen by a third person. What is more, they are continually being transformed within the lovers' subjective relationship. Each new experience, each fresh aspect revealed of the other's character, makes it necessary to redefine the lines of opposition. This is a continual imaginative process. When it ceases, there is no more passion. To conceive of the loved one as all that the self is no means that together the lovers form a totality. Together they can be anything and everything. This is the promise which passion makes to the imagination. And because of this promise the imagination works tirelessly drawing and re-drawing the lines of the opposition.

I pay the waitress with straw-coloured hair, nod to the habitué who talked to the crow and start to walk to the station. No stars. there is twenty minutes to wait for the train. I look around the large closed booking hall. Three men are sheltering in it. A man is tanding up asleep against the ticket counter, his head resting against a poster of a Loire chateau. Another man, head in his knees, is sitting asleep on the footplate of a weighing machine. Its rubber covering is warmer than the floor. Because a weight has been registered but no money put in and the wight not printed on a card, two lights on the face of the machine flick on and off, ceaselessly demanding a fifty-centime coin. The most fortunate of the three is on the floor with his back pressed against the only radiator. On his head is a bright red knitted hat. The soles of his shoes have holes in them the size of eggcups. In his sleep he scratches his stomach.

Lovers incorporate the whole world into their totality. All the classic images of love poetry bear this out. The poet's love is 'demonstrated' by the river, the forest, the sky, the minerals in the earth, the silk worm, the stars, the frog, the owl, the moon.

The man on the floor pulls up his knees to his stomach.

The aspiration towards such 'correspondence' is expressed by poetry, but it is created by passion. Passion aspires to include the world in the act of love. To want to make love in the sea, flying through the sky, in this city, in that field, on sand, with leaves, with salt, with oil, with fruit, in the snow, etc., is not to need new stimuli but to express a truth which is inseparable from the passion.

The man with red cap has sat up and clambered to his feet. The man from the Chateau takes his place by the radiator without a word. As he walks to the exit, the man with the red cap stops to adjust his trousers, which are halfway down his hips. He unclasps his belt and pulls up several shirts and a vest. His stomach and torso are tattooed. He beckons to me to come over. He is fat, his skin unexpectedly soft-looking. The tattoos show couples making love in many different ways: their outlines are in black, their sexual organs in red. Across his stomach and flanks the figures are as crowded as those in Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment'. The man shivers. 'What can you expect?' he says; he doesn't bother to put the coin in his pocket but holds it in his fist until he reaches the café opposite.

The lovers' totality extends, in a different manner, to include the social world. Every action, when it is voluntary, is undertaken in the name of the beloved. What the lover then changes in the world is an expression of his passion.

The man in the red cap is going into the café opposite.

Yet passion is a privilege. An economic and cultural one.

The train comes in. I get into a compartment where two men are sitting either side of the window. One is young with a round face and dark eyes; the second is about my age. We say good evening. Outside the rain is turning to snow. I find a pencil in my pocket: I want to write a few more lines.

Some attitudes are incompatible with passion. This is not a question of temperament. A cautious man, a mean man, a dishonest woman, a lethargic woman, a cantankerous couple may all be capable of passion. What makes a person refuse passion - or be incapable of pursuing a passion which has already been born, thus transforming it into a mere obsession - is his or her refusal to totality. Within the lover's totality - as within any - there is the unknown: the unknown which is also conjured up by death, chaos, extremity. Those who are conditioned to treat the unknown as something exterior to themselves against which they must continually take measures and be on guard, may refuse passion. This is not a question of fearing the unknown. Everyone fears it. It is a question of where the unknown is located. Our culture encourages us to locate it outside ourselves. Always. Even disease is thought as coming from outside. To locate the unknown as being out there is incompatible with passion.

The young man, who is a Spaniard, suggests that I take his seat by the window where there is a small folding table on which it will be easier to write. They are going to Mulhouse where they work in the same factory. The older one had been there for seven years. His family are in Bilbao.

The totality of passion overlays 9or undermines) the world. Lovers have one another with this world. )As one might say with their hears or with caresses.) The world is the form of their passion and all the events which they experience or imagine are the imagery of their passion. This is why passion is ready to risk life. Life appears to be only its form.

The older Spaniard, who is my age, is working on a piece fo paper torn from the still cover of a magazine. With his large thumbs and nicotine-stained fingers he is carefully tearing small pieces out of it. The younger man watches him with the pride of an impresario: he has seen him do this before. But there is no audience for this act. It is gratuitous, in the small hours of the morning. As the older man tears at the paper, he makes the silhouetter of a figure . . . head, shoulders, bottom, feet. He folds the figure lengthways and sideways. Then very delicately he tears a pice out of its center and folds the whole again. It has become a man, four inches hight. When he pulls the folds open a penis tands up erect. When closes them, the penis goes down. Because I am looking, he shows it to me. Otherwise hw wouldn't have done so. The three of us smile. He says he can make it better than that. Almost gently he crumples the figure up in his hand. Under the folding table is an ashtray. He throws the figure into the ashtray, letting the lid close with a sharp clack. Then, with folded arms, he stares out of the window into the night.