The enduring mystery and relevance of art; the lived experience, both of the free and the oppressed; by combining these interests, Berger’s art criticism transcends its genre to become a very rare thing—literature.
Portaits could have easily been a stolid monument, mere evidence of a lifetime lost to contemplation of the image. Instead, its essays and extracts—ably edited by Tom Overton—are surprisingly flighty, Berger’s style varying from one entry to the next. Read in sequence, they offer a surprisingly vital and uncommonly engaging proof of concept for ideas that Berger has long espoused.
In his own brusque, vehement way, Berger is a formidable stylist, and it’s easy to see how much his successors, such as Robert Hughes, owe him. To compare this book with other critics’ collections, however, suggests a giant absence: contemporary art.