Drawing is Discovery: Landscapes by John Berger

Study for the Head of Leda. Drawing by Da Vinci. 1505-1507.

I’ve spent the week reading the essays in this collection compiled by Tom Overton which were written by John Berger between 1954 and 2015.  The range of topics that Berger thinks and writes about is, to say the least, impressive.  Cubism, Renaissance Art, the Victorian Conscience and Soviet era aesthetics are a few subjects he covers.  My favorite pieces, however, were the two short essays on drawing.  Berger describes, through personal stories and anecdotes three categories of drawing: those done from memory, those that study and question the visible and those that record and communicate ideas.

There is a more personal and intimate quality to drawing then, say, painting, Berger argues:

“…the lines on the paper are traces left behind by the artist’s gaze which is ceaselessly leaving, going out, interrogating the strangeness, the enigma, of what is before his eyes—however ordinary and everyday this may be. The sum total of the lines on the paper narrates an optical emigration by which the artist, following his own gaze, settles on the person or tree or animal or mountain being drawn. And if the drawing succeeds he stays there forever.”

“For the artist, drawing is discovery,” is how Berger begins his essay “The Basis of all Painting and Sculpture is Drawing.”  He uses a personal story of drawing a nude in one of his very early art classes to, once again, demonstrate the intimacy involved in the act of drawing:

Then, quite soon, the drawing reached its point of crisis.  Which is to say that what I had drawn began to interest me as much as what I could still discover.  There is a stage in every drawing when this happens.  And I call it a point of crisis because at that moment the success or failure of the drawing has really been decided.  One now begins to draw according to the demands, the needs, of the drawing.  If the drawing is already in some small way true, then tese demands will probably correspond to what one might still discover by actual searching.  If the drawing is basically false, they will accentuate its wrongness.”

My first experience with Berger was Bento’s Sketchbook, which includes several of the author’s drawings and sketches.  I am due for a reread and will, no doubt, have a deeper appreciation for his writings and drawings after my experiences with the essays in Landscapes.


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6 responses to “Drawing is Discovery: Landscapes by John Berger

  1. Lovely quotes, Melissa. I’ve read Bento’s Sketchbook, which I loved, and I have a ridiculous amount of Berger on the TBR, including this. Really must pull them off soon!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Last year, Five Books (who I follow on Twitter) recommended some art books for students of art history, and I bought Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It was a disappointment because the paperback is basically a transcript of a TV series which he did – and without the paintings that he was talking about it was useless. But I found on You Tube, the original series, which is wonderful to watch, if you have time: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Liz

    I have often thought to read Berger but his work seems to elicit such mixed responses. I am greatly encouraged by your review!


  4. Pingback: Communication in the Midst of Solitude: My Year in Reading—2019 |

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