Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

In Leonardo’s Treatise on Painting (Tratatto) he advises a neophyte artist to ‘quicken the spirit of invention’ by observing walls stained by damp, or the coloration of rocks, and in them to see magnificent landscapes or scenes of battle. Commissioned to paint a mural in S. Maria del Grazie, Leonardo astonished the prior by spending three days contemplating the wall he was to paint.

[…] standing for days on end in front of the wall he was to paint, without touching it with his brush- an incident Croce quotes as evidence of this “inner” process of expression-we may suppose that the thoughts that occupied his mind were of painted surface, were perhaps images of ever-developing articulation of what he was to set down. Thus a work of art was created that was both in an artist’s mind and in a medium. (Art and its Objects – R. Wollheim)

Wollheim writes much of expression in his seminal 1968 book. The etymology of ‘expression’ is early fifteenth century, originally the ‘action of pressing or squeezing out.’ It is a word that came to mind frequently last night at a reading John Berger gave of his remarkable Bento’s Sketchbook. Interviewed by Sally Potter, Berger often struggled to unearth the precise words to respond to Potter’s questions. When, however, he disinterred a satisfactory articulation, Berger expressed himself with remarkable concision and ‘tender attention’.

Asked my a member of the audience to ‘sum up Spinoza in three minutes’, Berger took less time, explaining that Spinoza’s accomplishment was to pull down the Cartesian notion of a duality of body and spirit, yet retain space for the sacred.

Bento’s Sketchbook begins with plums, ‘the quetsch blue is like a vivid but vanishing blue smoke’. It ends with a broadside against economic fascism: ‘ Narrative is another way of making a moment indelible, for stories when heard stop the unilinear flow of time and render the adjective inconsequential meaningless.’ In this beautifully produced Verso edition, Berger juxtaposes Spinoza’s words with his drawings, and his deeply attentive stories.

1 thought on “Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger

  1. Pingback: A Year in Reading: 2011 « Time's Flow Stemmed

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