“We learn through this gentle narrative how to really see and how an appreciation for art can enhance our view of the world’s everyday splendor.”
John Berger gently teaches us where the practice of drawing can lead, if only we slow down and permit it to guide the hand. People draw not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.
While the book is about Mr. Berger’s lovely journey through art—borne out of the time and inspiration to create—it is also much more. It is a reflection on the life and work of Baruch Spinoza, known as Bento de Spinoza, born in 1632.
Spinoza was a self-taught philosopher who enjoyed drawing and often carried a sketchbook. While the book was never found after Spinoza’s death, Mr. Berger once received a lovely suede sketchbook, declared it would be Bento’s, and filled with drawing inspired by the philosopher’s vision.
Bento’s Sketchbook feels more like a visit with John Berger than a book about the art of seeing and drawing ought to feel. He melds stories of friends, places, the art world, history, and personal narrative and by doing this, he sketches a world readers will want to absorb.
We understand his eagerness to draw and learn how to keep our gaze on a delicate flower until we comprehend exactly how it is constructed. One of the essays is filled with tension as we observe Mr. Berger attempting to draw from a painting by Antonello da Messini at London’s National Gallery, racing to get the drawing done before security guards escort him from the building.
We learn through this gentle narrative how to really see and how an appreciation for art can enhance our view of the world’s everyday splendor.
As Mr. Berger teaches us by interpreting Spinoza, he demonstrates his own efforts to capture life on paper He reveals his own truths, through the effort corrections and of endurance on paper, including this notion: “We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.”
Bento’s Sketchbook is a literary work that epitomizes the wonderful world of imagination and play, and a reminder of how we can truly see—if only we can slow down.
Clearly, like Spinoza, Mr. Berger understands the essence of man and tells it through stories revealing what he’s thinking while drawing and how drawing changes his thinking. His work may be a sketch as simple as a reading chair or as complex as the lined face of a dear friend, with imperfection and feeling in each drawing
One would not likely learn to draw by reading Bento’s Sketchbook, but you will increase your acuity regarding the perception of art and begin to see the parts that make up the whole of a subject—such as a face with a forehead lined by “incessant passing information.”
Here Mr. Berger writes: “Small, swift eyes which examine everything and contemplate nothing. Ears extensive as a database, but incapable of listening. Lips which seldom tremble, and mouths which take decisions implacably.”
Several of the book’s drawings are expressive views of irises, of which the author writes: “There’s no other flower so commanding. . . . Irises open like books. At the same time, they are the smallest, tectonic quintessence of architecture. . . . Irises are like prophesies: simultaneously astounding and calm.
Bento’s Sketchbook concludes with a brief biography of Spinoza—for surely you’ll want to know more about the philosopher who inspired this lovely work by John Berger.