Literary Homage: John Berger’s Masterpiece, “A Painter of Our Time”

A Painter of Our Time is a gorgeous rumination on art, love, sexuality, revolution, capitalism, exile, propaganda, politics, human nature, and society.

By Vincent Czyz


John Berger, who died January 2 of this year, is best known for his tv miniseries and the companion book, Ways of Seeing, in which he argues that the tradition of European oil painting, taken as a whole rather than viewed solely through the distorting lens of its masterpieces, was primarily about ownership, money, and social class. An unapologetic Marxist, he won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G. and donated half the prize money to the UK Black Panther Party.

Berger (pronounced Ber-jer) produced a total of more than fifty books: short stories, art criticism, novels, poetry, and three screenplays. Unlike the typical name novelist, who lands a cushy post at a university teaching one or two classes a semester in creative writing, Berger sequestered himself in 1974 in Quincy, a village in the French Alps (population 100), where he lived among peasants, a renunciation of urban life that recalls van Gogh’s obsession with painting peasants going about their daily tasks.

A Painter of Our Time, Berger’s debut novel, contains some of the most astonishing descriptions of paintings—and the most astonishing descriptions of the painting process—I’ve read. I wondered if he himself had been a painter, which, indeed, turned out to be the case. Born in 1926, he studied at London’s Chelsea School of Art and later exhibited his paintings and drawings in galleries around London. He gave up painting at the end of the ’40s because of the dire nature of world events, particularly “the threat of nuclear war,” as he explained in an interview in New Republic. “This threat was so pressing, that painting pictures—that somebody would go hang up on the wall—seemed … [dismissive hand gestures]. But to write, urgently, in the press, anywhere, everywhere, seemed so necessary.”

A Painter of Our Time was published in 1958, when Cold War temperatures were well below zero, but no one foresaw the backlash that would ensue. The critics, reacting to the novel’s overt socialism and projecting onto it totalitarian sympathies, were all but unanimous in their condemnation. The most prominent, Stephen Spender, went so far as to compare Berger to a young Goebbels. Reeling from this concerted attack, the publisher withdrew the novel. “After one month’s life,” Berger wrote in 1988, “my first book became a dead letter.” Fortunately, in 1965 Penguin resurrected the novel as a paperback.

The book is an accomplished portrait of Janos Lavin, a Hungarian painter living in London in the early 1950s, when Hungary is undergoing social and political upheaval. The AVO, Hungary’s state police, arrest, imprison, and torture thousands. Many, like Janos’s fellow revolutionary Lazlo, are executed or deported to the hinterlands of the Soviet Union. By 1956, the year the novel ends, Russian tank treads are chewing up the streets of Budapest.

The story opens like a detective novel; the crime scene is Janos’s studio. The artist has vanished, leaving only a cryptic note for his wife, Diana, but his friend, an art critic named John, has a key and lets himself in. “On the draining-board,” John observes, “there was a teapot with tea leaves in it and an unwashed cup: a sign of shock and hurried departure.” In trying to ascertain something about Janos’s whereabouts by studying the studio (“It … seemed rather like going through a man’s wallet in order to identify him.”), John comes across Janos’s journal; the last entry is dated 12 days before Janos’s disappearance. The rest of the novel alternates between passages from the journal and John’s commentary.

The result is a portrait of the aging artist as an émigré: Janos is talented but unknown, his work accomplished but old-fashioned. He is barely able to make a living teaching art classes (“I have got used to [poverty], as a man can get used to a wooden leg”), and though his marriage is ailing, he is unwilling to siphon from his work enough of himself to save it. A dedicated socialist whose eye is drawn south and eastward by events in Hungary, he wonders how can he continue to paint—let alone in the security and calm of England—while his compatriots risk or, like Laszlo, sacrifice their lives for a cause he also fervently believes in. (The book’s title echoes Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, quietly reminding us that the artist of conscience hears a call that, to answer, demands he jilt his muse.)

The portrait is rendered with subtlety and grace, as when Janos’s experiences in Hungary are contrasted with those of Diana, a British activist:

She had never been hungry. She had never been interrogated. She had never been smuggled over a frontier. She had sat in committee-rooms. She had shouted in Trafalgar Square. […] She had never been cut-off. Whereas Janos was entirely cut-off. His voice, that had whispered a warning to a companion as he jumped off a tram before his destination to deceive a suspected pursuer, called her Rosie.

Janos, haunted by his past, begins a portrait of two men in profile, looking up, but doesn’t recognize them. Only weeks later, as he records in his journal, does he realize that the faces belong to him and Laszlo as young revolutionaries who used to ply the streets and cafés of Berlin. The face of his dead friend had pressed against Janos’ unconscious—as though against a dark shop window—until Janos exorcised the image by painting it.

The mystery of Janos’s disappearance creates a certain narrative tension, but it is distant, like the anticipated encounter with Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Much more immediate are John’s untiring efforts to land an exhibition for Janos. “I like the work” one gallery owner admits, “but I’m afraid we just couldn’t sell it.” Another: “He clearly has talent. But it’s work, don’t you know, that very much belongs to the twenties and thirties.” John trudges from gallery to gallery, Janos’ portfolio under his arm, collecting rejections. (“Over fifty and mid-European. That does make it difficult.”)

The late John Berger

The late John Berger — an author whose oeuvre will likely continue be read long after our time. Photo: Verso Books.

This desire to see Janos—earnest, disciplined, honest—recognized, to see our inner chant of “Come on, give the old Hungarian socialist a shot,” satisfied,  while compelling, is not the novel’s strength. The force of Janos’s character and his inner conflicts—his struggle with paint and canvas, with the problems presented by individual paintings, the mental wrestling match (worthy of Gilgamesh and Enkidu) between painting and politics—keep us turning the page. The latter broadens to question the value of art itself: “When the English Hogarth said that he would rather rid London of cruelty than paint the Sistine Chapel, he was making a more than reasonable choice.”

There is also a revealing dialectic between the sections of the novel told in John’s voice, which cover outward events, and those in which we see the inner workings of Janos’ mind as though it were a clock housed in glass. The journal allows John (and the reader) to pierce Janos’s stony exterior, to peer into transcribed dreams, to understand his fears, his fascinations, his sensibility. “The wretchedly wayward heart,” Janos writes. “Why should a newly washed head of hair set it lungeing [SIC] against the bars of its cage …? Why should a newly washed head of hair so preposterously seem like the pure landscape of an early summer morning, when the sky is skin blue—if flesh were ever naturally that colour—and one wakes like Adam with the heavy premonition of Eve filling the whole day?”

This dual structure is a vital element in Berger’s virtuoso performance, as is his inimitable voice. One timeless line describes how John perceives the canvases left behind in Janos’s studio: “In their own way the paintings were as independent as the sky on a day of national tragedy.” Numerous sentences of similarly understated elegance vein the novel, but the book is also filled with poetic observations, such as when Janos characterizes his reaction to a good painting: “When a man stands in front of a painting and realizes that up to now he has forgotten something—that is what is important.” This is the counterpart to Emily Dickinson’s dictum about a good poem taking the top of her head off.

A Painter of Our Time is a gorgeous rumination on art, love, sexuality, revolution, capitalism, exile, propaganda, politics, human nature, and society. Its characters are resoundingly alive—none more than Janos. It ranks with the great novels about art and aesthetics: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, William Gaddis’s monumental masterpiece The Recognitions, and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It is the work of an author whose oeuvre will likely continue to be read long after our time.

Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.


  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on February 11, 2017 at 3:44 pm

    I am happy to post this fine piece on John Berger, a writer whose work I have admired for decades. Our mainstream media’s tepid response to his recent death fell far short of his cultural importance — perhaps his uncompromising allegiance to Marxism continues to make him unpalatable here. (He wasn’t into the empowerment value of entertainment.) He was a major visual arts critic as well as a superb screenwriter, poet, and novelist. His film collaborations with Swiss director Alain Tanner — La Salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974) and Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000 (1976) — hold up well.

    Besides the novels Vince mentions, I would suggest Corker’s Freedom, the Into Their Labours trilogy (a gallant attempt to dramatize a ‘peasant’ mentality confronting modernization), and From A to X.

    Because of teaching and editing commitments I have not had the time to write on Berger, though I have been able to read, with enjoyment, through Permanent Red, his first collection of visual art reviews (originally published in the New Statesman). These pieces were written during the mid-to-late ’50s, when he was writing A Painter of Our Time..

    Here is the young Berger on the purpose of art:

    Why should an artist’s way of looking at the world have any meaning for us? Why does it give us pleasure? Because, I believe, it increases our awareness of our own potentially. Not of course our potentiality as artists ourselves. But a way of looking at the world implies a relationship with the world, and every relationship implies action.

    Not the narcotic of escapism, but the kind of pleasure that leads to an expansion of our sense of life’s potential. And that does not mean that art should embrace the didactic:

    The important point is that a valid work of art promises in some way or another the possibility of an increase, an improvement. Nor need the work be optimistic to achieve this; indeed, its subject may be tragic. For it is not the subject that makes the promise, it is the artist’s way of viewing the subject. Goya’s way of looking at a massacre amounts to the contention that we ought to be able to do without massacres.

    What about those who deny art’s call for transformation?

    It is our century, which is pre-eminently the century of men throughout the world claiming the right of equality, it is our own history that makes it inevitable that we can only make sense of art if we judge it by the criterion of whether or not it helps men to claim their social rights. It has nothing to do with the unchanging nature of art — if such a thing exists. It is the lives lived during the last fifty years that have now turned Michelangelo into a revolutionary artist. The hysteria with which many people today deny the present, inevitable social emphasis of art is simply due to the fact that they are denying their own time. They would like to live in a period when they’d be right.

    Words that have special resonance today — when there are those in and out of the arts who, for the sake of profit or power, want to deny “their own time.”

    • Kathleen Stone on February 16, 2017 at 1:28 pm

      Great review! Thank you for calling attention to the book and for giving us context for Berger’s work.

      • Vincent Czyz on December 16, 2019 at 1:41 pm

        Thanks for weighing in!

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