Today's guest blog is by writer Tom Overton. He explores the links between Dryden Goodwin's Unseen: Lives of Looking and the work of John Berger.
Dryden Goodwin’s Unseen: The Lives of Looking is a filmed series of three portraits, connected by the idea of drawing as a repetitive act that sharpens our focus on the spaces within us, around us, and beyond us: the portrayed figures are an eye surgeon, a human rights lawyer, and a planetary explorer.
As he began work on it, Goodwin read John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook (2011). In the 1940s, Berger had trained as a painter at the Chelsea and Central Schools of Art, exhibited around London, and got a painting into the Arts Council Collection. But by 1952, he was a writer for the New Statesman, and he’s now perhaps best known as the author of the TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972). He decided that he could best be the kind of political artist he wanted to be through writing, not painting, though he never gave up drawing.
Later, Berger felt that ‘even when I was writing about art, it seems to me that it was really a way of telling stories’, and though his subject-matter includes the exploitation of migrants, AIDS, peasant culture, Charlie Chaplin, and rural medicine, I’m currently editing together two books for the publishers Verso which show how the experience of looking at art has always remained central. The first book, called Portraits because it is structured around responses to individual artists, is out in October. I’m fascinated, then, by the way Goodwin’s work responds to Berger’s.
Berger’s first novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), starts with the discovery of a sketchbook which a painter has used for writing: more simply put, a diary. Bento’s Sketchbook imagines what it would be like to discover the drawings of a man known for his written output, the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher Baruch, or Benedict Spinoza. It does so by mixing Berger’s ink-and-wash drawings with perceptive passages which, besides much else, are often about how we perceive.
Spinoza made his living grinding lenses for exactly the kinds of scientific instruments which would have been used in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and, two years after its foundation in 1675, he died of tuberculosis, probably exacerbated by inhaling powdered glass. His philosophical writing argues against Descartes’ theory that the mind and the body are separate; and in the act of drawing, Bento’s Sketchbook suggests, we see how precisely the two are connected. Like Goodwin’s film, the book is a species of portraiture. It’s easy to see how Goodwin might have felt the same kind of connection to Berger that Berger had felt to Spinoza; that one connection was with someone who had been dead for three centuries, and the other with someone who is still alive seems irrelevant placed on the scales of time with which the planetary explorer works. In fact the line that particularly struck Goodwin is exactly about unforeseen connections:
"we who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination."
Tom Overton will be speaking at Unseen: A day of exploration on 30 May. He'll be joined by artists, poets, an eye surgeon, a planetary explorer and a human rights lawyer to explore the nature and implications of looking.