A Painter of Our Time
By John Berger
Berger’s classic portrait of an artist was first published in 1958 and Verso is to be congratulated for re-issuing it now, along with two other of his books: A Seventh Man and Corker’s Freedom.
This novel is written in the form of a posthumously discovered diary written by the émigré artist, Janos Lavin, with additional commentary by the author himself. Although a purely fictitious portrait it is closely modelled on Berger’s friend, the Hungarian-born artist Peter Peri. Of course socio-cultural novels like this are not unaffected by the passage of time, and Berger’s portrait is very much of the immediate post-war period. Then, hopes of fundamental social change were still very much alive, despite the devastating stories emerging from Stalin’s Soviet Union and the onset of the Cold War.
Janos Lavin is a Communist and painter who was involved in the establishment of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1919, but later forced to flee his homeland. He eventually settles in Britain and marries a middle-class English woman who has sufficient income to keep them from starving. Although not well off, the couple live a relatively comfortable, if very modest, existence. His safe and sheltered life gives Lavin a guilty conscience, as he knows that other comrades stayed behind to continue the struggle. His best friend becomes a government official in the post-war Hungarian Socialist Republic, only to fall foul of the Stalinist clampdown on artists considered dissidents. He struggles to come to terms with what he accepts as a necessary party discipline, but at the same time deplores the bloody sacrifices it seems to demand.
By cleverly reproducing selected entries from his fictitious diary, Berger weaves a clear but complex portrait of a man torn between active political intervention and dedication to his art. By placing a central European Communist in a western capitalist setting, he also draws out the conflict between honest dedication to ‘artistic truth’ and the pressures of the commercial art world and gallery culture, as well as the tug of political activism.
Lavin is a dedicated painter; it is in his blood. That’s what he needs to do and what he does best, but he is also only too aware that painting canvases won’t change the world and could even be considered as a cowardly opting out of the ‘real’ struggle. The novel raises questions and issues that are still valid today, about ‘truth’ in art, about its purpose, about abstraction versus realism and about the artist’s role in society. In that sense, it is as apposite today as it was in the fifties when Berger wrote it.
Everyone recognises that Lavin’s work is supremely competent, if not highly talented, but his paintings are often monumental and figurative, whereas the post-war trend in the West was towards total abstraction. Lavin is thus seen as quaintly old-fashioned. He, his wife and his friends know that he needs to show in the galleries if he is to sell and make a proper living, but he resists this with every sinew in his body. For him it means ‘selling out’, betraying his comrades. Berger’s perceptive descriptions of the gallery scene with its wealthy patrons and obsequious art critics are, however, as accurate today as they were then.
In the end Lavin does is offered an exhibition in an up-market gallery and even sells a number of his paintings to patrons who merely wish to decorate their mansions and, he feels, have no appreciation of what his art is about. He would have preferred commissions from factories, schools or public institutions. It is all too much for him. He leaves the gallery and very soon after disappears. The novel concludes with a letter sent by him to the author, in the form of a goodbye note, informing him that he is ‘going home’ to Hungary. What happens to him there is left to the imagination of the reader, but there is a possibility that he may have been killed by his erstwhile comrades, before the big post-Stalin thaw had begun, as all trace of him is lost.