I collect novels about artists, many of which are awful. The exceptions stand out in my memory like shining beacons for their relatively true-to-life evocations of what it is actually like to make art or to write truthfully about making it. I can clearly recall, for instance, the first time I read John Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, which purports to be the diary of Janos Lavin-- a Hungarian refugee/ émigré painter living in London in the 1950s, as a revolution against the Soviet-imposed government unfolds in his native land.
I can remember holding the frayed paperback in my hands (a 1976 edition of the book with a vivid red cover, first published in 1958, that I had borrowed from my brother; he had bought it used), sitting at the kitchen table in the so-called living space of the warehouse studio where I spent most of the ‘80s. I could hardly put the book down, despite some lengthy passages of philosophizing. (A lazy reader, I probably skipped some of those.) It was one of the first novels I had encountered that was obviously written by someone who was more than just an observer of studio life—of the disappointment of trying to make something work, something that was good in a way that only you, the artist could define, and-- despite the effort-- falling miserably short. There were observations of color and light; obsessive thoughts about composition. It all felt real.
John Berger was an artist, though mostly he is remembered as a writer—of criticism, fiction, lovely volumes of essays about all kinds of things—And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos is my favorite—poetry, plays, movie scripts and more. He was both author and narrator of a famously instructive BBC TV series about how to look at art called Ways of Seeing that later became a text-and-image book.
Berger wrote about art with clarity, assurance and an almost perfect absence of jargon. He lived as he wished (mostly in rural France), did what he wanted to do with his life, and never stopped drawing, or thinking and writing, often about political and social issues. A Painter of Our Time demonstrates his dual preoccupations with art and politics in two interwoven narratives: one, the diary--a series of entries in a notebook discovered in the artist’s studio by his friend John, an art critic (!),after Lavin has disappeared; the other, John’s explanations of and comments about what Lavin wrote. The intermittent entries span a period of over four years, ending in October of 1956.
Soon after publication, the book was actually withdrawn (at least for a while) due to pressure by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-Communist organization founded in 1950 and active in thirty-five countries that turns out to have been run behind the scenes by the CIA. (Apparently, someone thought Berger’s book wasn’t fiction, but rather an actual Socialist’s diary.) Although McCarthyism was on the wane at home by ’58, the US continued its anti-Red campaign worldwide for decades longer.
A couple of days ago, after news of Berger’s death broke, I found the book, never having returned it to my brother, on my shelf of some fifty Novels About Artists. As I spent some time rereading it (skipping, again, some of the longer soliloquies), I began to think about its relevance to the present: about the number of times I have heard artists ask, “What can I do? Is it right for me to be making work about what I want to make it about and not trying to protest through my work, fight for what’s right through my work, use my voice for the people?”
Through both of the voices in his book, artist and writer, Berger asks these same questions, but offers no easy answers to the uncertainties he poses. Lavin fled Hungary as a young man, spent years in Berlin, fled again because of war, and in England, ekes out a living teaching, supplemented by his wife’s salary from working in a library and her small ‘private income.’ (Regretfully, since the book is about a painter of the 1950s, not a single woman is present in the story in any other role than wife, model, or Artist’s Helper… At one point, Lavin reflects that “perhaps the one thing the art schools do well here is to train painter’s wives”--meaning, the female students. “It is a vocation.”) In the end, just as his work is suddenly achieving recognition: sales, critical acclaim, placement in public collections, literally only days after a triumphal gallery opening-- he departs for Budapest. There, the worst days are about to come, as the rising is brutally suppressed. In a postscript, the critic speculates about which side Lavin supported. Nothing is clear. Why did he go? Did he feel guilty for making work that did nothing to promote the political causes of his youth? Was there really anything at all that he could have done?
I recall being infuriated with this ending. I still find it unsatisfactory—but largely in the way that life itself is, failing to provide the neat resolutions delivered by movies and most books. There is no easy answer for those questions about what we should be doing to fight for what is right, or even which ‘side’ we should be on. I would like to think that the best course of action is to be like John Berger and do what we can, when we can. Yes—there may be a day when we will all have to shift from writing letters to marching in the streets and then to manning (or womaning) the barricades. On the other days, we will wake up and we think about how to make what we imagine, write what we must, and be good to the people we meet.
from the title page of Painter of Our Time:
Life will always be bad enough
For the desire for something better
Not to be extinguished in men.