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Cro-Magnon Envy

John Berger's On Drawing


There is a paragraph, situated appropriately enough very near the center of John Berger's most recently published book, Berger On Drawing (Occasional Press, September 2005), which reveals a lot about the spirit of the man who wrote it. The essay in which it appears is titled "Le Pont D'Arc" and it recounts an pilgrimage the author undertook to the Chauvet Cave. Re-discovered in 1994 for the first time since the last Ice Age, the cave is home to the oldest known rock paintings in the world. Le Pont D'Arc is a natural bridge in southern France with a metaphorical span of some 30,000 years. Crossing it puts one just below the mouth of the Chauvet Cave, and a short walk away from the remaining imaginative life of what paleontologists refer to as the Cro-Magnons. Berger writes:

"The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress which has lasted two or three centuries. Today's culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them."

It was Berger's dissatisfaction with today's culture that drove him into voluntary exile in the early 1960s. Since then, he has lived in a small farming village in the French Alps, where he farms, writes and makes art. However, like any "religious" exile worth his salt, Berger hasn't gone quietly. His most widely read work, Ways of Seeing, is often described and assigned as a primer on art criticism, but is as much a cultural critique as it is a lesson in art criticism. Within modern culture, within its message and its means, Berger finds what might be called a dangerous mannerism, a lack of authenticity, a persuasion and a style that hides injustice, that lies about what we know, and persuades us to ignore the fundamental realities of mortality and the deep mystery of, not just life, but human life. In truly great art, that mannerism is surpassed and the presence of something more authentic is revealed.

As a collection of essays, Berger On Drawing spans almost 50 years of his concern for and interest in drawing. Topically the book's pieces range from the Cro-Magnons to the present day. There is a psychologically astute piece on a body of Picasso's work, an appreciation of Van Gogh, a description of a drawing Berger made of his dead father, and some thought-provoking investigations through dialogue into the nature and purpose of drawing.

Berger's writing has a distinct quality which may be in part due to his "informal" education. He is an intellectual who became so outside of the academy, and the essays in this book feel more like the investigations one has late at night, with friends, after a healthy amount of beer, when everything seems to conspire toward the deep end of the mind, than to the more formal inquiries one might expect from art criticism. These essays are more like drawings than they are finished paintings. They search for ways to say things about things that are hard to say things about. It's as if Berger's motive isn't to solve mysteries, but to simply find another way of representing them. He respects their resistance and only wants to give them the space to appear. They are, in short, like the artworks he is so drawn to, in that they give us, not the chance to solve the mystery of human life but simply to recognize it, to step out of the mannerisms of everyday life and see into the mystery of life. In his essay "Branching Out," he puts it this way:

"All genuine art approaches something which is eloquent but which we cannot altogether understand. Eloquent because it touches something fundamental. How do we know? We do not know. We simply recognize.

"Art cannot be used to explain the mysterious. What art does is to make it easier to notice. Art uncovers the mysterious. And when noticed and uncovered, it becomes more mysterious."

Berger's fascination with drawing gets a lot of its sustenance from its primacy in human history. In the Chauvet Cave, one comes face to face with a very startling reality--before we had agriculture or metallurgy, we had art. What need inspired those cave paintings? What kind of presence were those early artists attempting to reach out and touch? Not much about Cro-Magnon life would probably be considered enviable. Many of them were eaten, and the ones that weren't wore really bad shoes. But Berger has found something to envy them for, mainly, their proximity to mystery. Their lack of mannerism, irony and crass marketing, their powerful sense of having just arrived, put the mystery of life right in front of them, as if they could reach out and lay a paint-stained hand on it.

Berger On Drawing is available through Occasional Press, on the Web at

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