Monday, June 27, 2016

Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness

   Francis Bacon: Three Studies of Figures in Beds (1972)

Here’s the opening paragraph of John Berger’s “Francis Bacon and Walt Disney,” an essay originally published in New Society and recently reprinted, sans title, in the new anthology, Portraits: John Berger on Artists (Verso Books, 2015):
A blood-stained figure on a bed. A carcase with splints on it. A man on a chair smoking. One walks past his paintings as if through some gigantic institution. A man on a chair turning. A man holding a razor. A man shitting.
The essay begins abruptly, describing Bacon’s work—the equivalent of a cold open in tv or film. The six staccato noun phrases, punctuated as sentences, suggest that this is raw, unprocessed data. The sole complete sentence falls precisely in the middle of the paragraph, backing off for a moment from specifics to offer a somewhat hazy generalization.

Berger takes what you might call an inductive approach to art criticism, beginning not with orienting facts—names, dates, era, etc—but with direct/uninterpreted observation, and working towards general conclusions. This approach can be very persuasive. I’ve used it on occasion myself. The idea is that by beginning with details that anyone can see, the writer and reader process the work together. The argument, when it finally arrives, is not so much argued as discovered.

This “processing” continues in the second paragraph, which consists of questions and observations, along with more description (now in complete sentences):
What is the meaning of the events we see? The painted figures are all quite indifferent to one another’s presence or plight. Are we, as we walk past them, the same? A photograph of Bacon with his sleeves rolled up shows that his forearms closely resemble those of many of the men he paints. A woman crawls along a rail like a child. In 1971, according to the magazine Connaissance des Arts, Bacon became the first of the top ten most important living artists. A man sits naked with torn newspaper around his feet. A man stares at a blind cord. A man reclines in a vest on a stained red couch. There are many faces which move, and as they move they give an impression of pain. There has never been painting quite like this. It relates to the world we live in. But how?
But what should we make of this jarring sentence, dropped (again) in the middle of the paragraph? “In 1971, according to the magazine Connaissance des Arts, Bacon became the first of the top ten most important living artists.” This is one of those “orienting facts” we expect at the beginning of a newspaper article, but here, in the middle of Berger’s meditation, it feels out of place, almost random. Perhaps that’s the point: the dislocation adds to the sense that Berger is sorting through disparate details about Bacon and trying to assemble them into a cohesive understanding. That the paragraph begins and ends with a question underscores the fact that he’s still figuring things out (or is striving to appear so).

For the most part, the rest of the essay proceeds in this searching mode. Berger lists five (numbered) facts about Bacon. He goes on to ponder Bacon’s focus on the human figure, his use of distortion in portraying it, and how the figures in the paintings seem isolated from one another. He considers the empty, stunned expression on the figures’ faces, as if “the worst has already happened.”

He continues this way for 23 of the essay’s 26 paragraphs (or so, depending on what you count as a paragraph). Then in paragraph 24—less than a page’s worth of text before the end of the essay—we finally come to Berger’s first mention of what caught our attention in his title: Walt Disney:
It is not with Goya or the early Eisenstein that he should be compared, but with Walt Disney. Both make propositions about the alienated behaviour of our societies; and both, in a different way, persuade the viewer to accept what is. . . . The surprising formal similarities of their work—the way limbs are distorted, the overall shapes of bodies, the relation of figures to background and to one another, the use of neat tailor’s clothes, the gesture of hands, the range of colours used—are the result of both men having complementary attitudes to the same crisis.
The accidental/incidental feel of the placement of this paragraph is, of course, not accidental. As readers, we are simply along for the ride, observing and working with Berger towards an understanding of this challenging work. The Bacon/Disney comparison, we’re supposed to think, is just another casual observation, a natural extension of the particulars with which the essay began, and no more controversial than the opening description: “A blood-stained figure on the bed.”

At one point in the essay, Berger discusses Bacon’s interest in “accident” in painting. He explains that the painter seeks accident and “colludes” with it to create his figures’ expressions. Collusion with accident: I cannot think of a better way of describing Berger’s artfully artless way of structuring this essay.
Ty Clever's essays have been published by the Woodmere Museum, the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery, Littlejohn Contemporary Gallery, Art21 Magazine, and Essay Daily. He blogs about poetics, style, and art at 

No comments:

Post a Comment