Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible Review

Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible

Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible by John Berger
A selection first published in 1997, of John Bergers non fiction writing from throughout his career. It might act as a neat gateway through to other works by Berger. But its also a bittersweet look at how art can change us.


Steps starts with a bang. The first essay in this anthology is actually the speech he gave while recieving the Booker Prize in 1972 and then giving half the money to The Black Panthers live on stage, topping a year in which Ways of Seeing came out on T.V. and thus exploding the pompous art world twice over. That what we call these social justice issues are still very much in the news today give me pause for thought. Women, minorities and their position within industries are all things Berger is very much aware of. Here his voice sets a pattern for the rest of the book it is clear, passionate and honest.

From an explosive start we retread some of the work from Ways of Seeing in the second essay called Past Seen From A Possible Future He is quite withering in his assessment of painting styles and as he talked about them I very much found myself thinking a similar thing about Architecture;

The banality of nineteenth-century official portraits is, of course, more complete than that of eighteenth-century landscapes or that of seventeenth-century religious pieces. But perhaps not to a degree that matters. European art is idealized by exaggerating the historical differences within its development and by never seeing it as a whole.

Elsewhere Turner and the Barber’s Shop, The Production of the World and The Eyes of Claude Monet are lovely vignettes about three great artists, Turner, Van Gogh, and Monet and how they changed art and have the capacity to show you something new even now. Turners themes of Death and redemption and Van Goghs an answer to anguish not a reproduction of physical form.

They say: reality is art. They hope to extract an artistic profit from reality. Of no one is this less true than Van Gogh.

Monets Rouen Cathedral pictures are proffered as the time;

Impressionism changed painting forever it uncovered a truth about painting that was no longer possible to unsee. That the painting can’t capture a thing or experience outside that moment it was painted

More than this the essays gave me an appreciation of the men and what they tried to do with their art.

West Façade, Sunlight

_Le portail, soleil matinal; harmonie bleue_

_Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil; harmonie bleue_

Over thirty Images by Monet of the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day.

In The Suit and The Photograph we understand in the photographs he talks about that through the clothes, the inequalities of the system are laid bare even as they are covered up. While the The Eaters and the Eaten takes a look at the consumer society of late capitalism that we live in now through our relationship with food.

Steps Towards a Small Theory of the Visible looks at the spectacle of consumer society, its relationship to art and how it might still save us.

We live within a spectacle of empty clothes and unworn masks

How every painting is a collaboration with the subject how the seen and the seeing are interdependant.

Bergers Steps is a collection that covers the arts and his preoccupations with them, and its well chosen, perhaps adding up to more than the sum of it’s parts even if a little inconsistent. Anyone familiar with his viewpoint, a Marxist and Deconstructivist flavour he could fit on a bookshelf beside Derrida, Foucault and Baudrillard. You may not like the books take but its hard to deny its passion and loving core.

The last essay I Would softy Tell My Love starts out like a letter to his friend Nazim Hikmet the Turkish poet about the early death of a great friend Juan Muñoz. Then we learn more about Nazim and about what poetry means to Berger. Its bittersweet and touching taking about love and loss, and Nazim’s poem that Berger quotes near the end has stayed with me in it’s sublime beauty;

The most beautiful sea hasn’t been crossed yet.
The most beautiful child hasn’t grown up yet.
Our most beautiful days we haven’t seen yet.
And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you
I haven’t said yet.

  • Nazim Hikmet

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August 29, 2021