The Shape of a Pocket

ISBN: 0375718885
ISBN 13: 9780375718885
By: John Berger

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About this book

This volume collects more recent essays that first appeared in a variety of languages in publications in Zurich, Madrid, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Helsinki and London. The 24 essays include impressions of artists such as Rembrandt, Degas, Michelangelo, Kahlo and Brancusi. 9 illustrations.

Reader's Thoughts


I'm sure I'll say this again somewhere in my reviews, but read any John Berger you can. He's fantastic. (Seminal work: Ways Of Seeing)NOTE- This collections is amazing. If you don't want to read Ways Of Seeing, read this. Compendium-esque.

Wilma Rebstock

I agree with what I understand of this book, but the truth is it is way over my head. I did fairly well with the impressionists and Rembrandt, but overall I got more out of the summary than I was able to understand on my own. As I read I felt like I was in a college course where I was woefully unprepared: I knew I was hearing something important but I wasn't able to appreciate it for what it was.


john berger scrive di pittura e pittori, di arte, di libertà. racconta con umanità e compassione della sacca di resistenza che "si forma quando due o più persone si trovano d'accordo fra loro. la resistenza si esercita contro la disumanità del nuovo ordine mondiale". i miei saggi preferiti, in ordine sparso: brancusi, frida kahlo, i ritratti di fayum, un letto, disegno, un uomo dai capelli arruffati. scrittura simile a una carezza.


"Painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find. More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existent, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown." (14)"What any true painting touches is an absence - an absence of which, without the painting, we might be unaware. And that would be our loss." (32)"The stakes were high, the margins narrow. And in art these are conditions which make for energy." (56)"Why do original works of art often strike us, at first, as being coarse, awkward and difficult to place?" (150)

John O'shea

This is about my favorite author. I do not agree with all of his ideas. He is an old communist, for instance. I have no opinion on Palestine/Israel. Too many people have those already. But the important thing about this book is the careful and beautiful way he treats art, artists, and humans in general.To say he is thought-provoking is a big undersatement. He thinks differently than most of us, and is clear as a writer. He is known as The art critic, but I don't really read about art much, and I like all his other books. He has written a trilogy or two.


Che emozione questo libro!Se ami l'arte e in particolare la pittura, se sei cresciuta con un padre che dipingeva in una casa piena di libri d'arte. Se ogni tuo viaggio, ogni tua gita insieme ai tuoi figli è stata sempre finalizzata alla visita di mostre o musei, fino al punto che tua figlia ha finito per laurearsi in Beni Culturali, non puoi non goderti fino allo spasimo queste letture. Berger ti apre gli occhi e da significato e storia alle emozioni che hai provato davanti ad ogni quadro che hai visto. E non ti vergogni più di dire che quando agli Uffizi ti sei trovata davanti al Tondo Doni di Michelangelo ti sei bloccata e non avevi il coraggio di avvicinarti, o che hai pianto come una scema davanti allo sguardo della Madonna della seggiola di Raffaello. Perchè Berger ti spiega che tutto questo è normale, perchè l'arte, quella vera, è un atto d'amore e l'amore ti commuove e poi ti soggioga, ti esalta e ti fa paura e ti fa soffrire e ti fa provare tutte le emozioni del mondo! E pochi scrittori al mondo sanno trasfondere "amore" nelle loro opere come Berger.


My friend Val got me this as a gift. It took me a while to get around to reading it. The "pocket" is a pocket of resistance against the predominant forces in one's culture. Enjoyed the read.


I had to read this for college and I thought that it was interesting. It is kind of an analitical way to look at art and what brings about art in the world.

Laurie Neighbors

This is a wonderful little book that needs to be read all the way through to the very odd and beautiful end. It's about dogs, photography, Zapatistas, Michelangelo, prisons, cave paintings, faces, and flesh -- and all the topics that reside between those markers.


Smart, emotional art crit, plus letters exchanged with the Zapatistas' Commandante Marcos. The pocket in the title is a pocket of resistance; the book a way to maintain hope and fight back.

Dianne Oliver

Way out of my box, there were some essays I did not care to read, but there was some interesting thought... "What is a likeness? When a person dies, they leave behind, for those who knew them, and emptiness, a space: the space has contours and is different for each person mourned. This space with its contours is the person's likeness and is what the artist searches for when making a living portrait. A likeness is something left behind invisibly." I enjoyed the explanation of Degas and his art. However, this was not what I expected.


Classified as Art History/ Literary Essays, John Berger's The Shape of a Pocket is deceptive. Smooth prose makes it easy to read and variety of subject holds our attention, but the ideas are complex and merit at least a second read. Berger speaks of the artist as a receiver, one who goes beyond what he sees. As illustrations of this quality, he refers to the cave paintings in the Chuvet Cavein the French Ardeche, the Fayum portraits( Egyptian mummypaintings), Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo among others. Berger hopes that the openess of the artist or the writer will lead to new understanding in the viewer or reader. His book succeeds in just that.


When I started reading this book, I didn’t expect to think about Richard Dawkins. It’s Berger’s fault. About midway through the book, there's an essay on a portrait of an unknown man by Gericault. Commenting on the painting, Berger states that “[c:]ompassion has no place in the natural order of the world, which operates on the basis of necessity.”When I was in college, I wrote a paper about the role of altruism in natural selection. Richard Dawkins is the champion of the idea of the “selfish gene.” His theory suggests that altruism exists only to ensure the future of one’s genetic material. This is why bees will sacrifice themselves to protect the hive. They’re all related. By killing themselves, they give the future of their genetic material a better chance at survival. I disagree with Dawkins. The idea of the “selfish gene,” at least in the case of altruism, seems to lose steam when applied to humans.The theory of group selection makes a lot more sense to me. This idea suggests that individuals will commit acts of altruism for the good of the group, not exclusively for their genetic material. Adoption, for example, is an altruistic act that benefits someone else’s genes without any selective benefit to the adopter.What does all of this have to do with a painting? Perhaps I’m romanticizing things too much, bringing natural selection in and all, but the relevance seems to be there. Gericault, Berger claims, painted a compassionate portrait. Compassion is the BFF of altruism. The viewer of this portrait, in this case Berger, feels compassion when looking at it. Berger doesn’t know who the man in the portrait is, but if he can be moved to feel compassion for another person simply by looking at a painting, what potential does art really hold? Is art actually furthering our species, contributing in some way to our relationships with each other? I have a hunch it is.While Berger’s line of thought is essentially at odds with everything I’ve expounded upon here, I can’t help but attribute my thought process to him. Each of these essays was clearly a labor of love. He speaks of these artists and their work in such a way that makes it painfully obvious that their contributions are something far more than nice things to look at. My only real complaint about this experience was that, other than Kahlo and Degas, I wasn’t really familiar with the artists or pieces Berger was talking about. I hope to remedy that one day.


art criticism without the cynical dribble.


I just happened on to this book at the library, I picked it up because of it's size and title.This was my 1st introduction to John Burger. I loved it~

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