June 25, 2015

Bento's Sketchbook

The other day I picked up John Berger's short book on drawing. It's one of several titles I've collected over the past year that focus specifically on the practice of drawing, as opposed to other forms of image-making. In the field of image studies, books on photography are as plentiful as they are canonical; in contrast, drawing, or conventional illustration for that matter, rarely receives much critical attention when it comes to discussions of form and practice.

In Bento's Sketchbook Berger reflects on his own attempts to render the world around him, pairing his rough, often charming sketches with quotations from Bento (Baruch or  Benedict de Spinoza), who once kept a sketchbook and drew in it regularly. Spinoza's sketchbook, Berger admits, has never been recovered. But when the British art critic receives an unused sketchbook from a Polish printer, he finds himself imagining a spiritual union with the sixteenth-century philosopher. That union is achieved through the practice of putting pen to paper. "As time goes by," he writes, "the two of us – Bento and I – become less distinct. Within the act of looking, the act of questioning with our eyes, we become somewhat interchangeable. And this happens, I guess, because of a shared awareness about where and to what the practice of drawing can lead."

In an interview for the Paris Review around the time of the book's publication in 2011, Berger describes Bento's Sketchbook as a political book, in line with the interests and urgency that have defined his writing career. 
There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political. For me, Bento’s Sketchbook, though it’s about drawing and flowers and Velasquez, among other things, is actually a political book. It’s an attempt to look at the world today and to try to face up to both the hope and despair that millions of people live with.
But the best takeaway from the interview occurs at its end, where Berger elaborates on one of the book's more intriguing sections. Midway through, Bento's Sketchbook draws on the analogy of riding a motorcycle to explain the way drawing diminishes distance between the artist and her subject. As your pen maintains the line of a contour, the artist is "riding a drawing" the way one rides a bike. "The challenge of drawing is this," Berger writes, paraphrasing Spinoza, "to make visible on the paper or drawing surface not only discrete, recognizable things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance." Berger compares his experience riding a motorcycle to Spinoza's work as a lens grinder; both are about fostering different ways of seeing, different forms of mediation that navigate the gravitation pull of formlessness. When this analogy is raised in the Paris Review, Berger responds (as a cyclist myself, I prefer to substitute "bicycle" for "motorbike"):
There are really two things about riding a motorbike that help to explain my passion for it. One is that the relation between a decision and its consequences is so close. And since you are so vulnerable, it demands a quality of observation that is extremely intense. This observation is not only of what is happening but also of what may happen in the very next instant. Most bikers observe ten times more than those driving four-wheeled vehicles—their actual survival depends on it!

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