Meeting John Berger was not a problem; we lived in the same street in Hampstead. So one day I went across the street to show him some drawings of mine. We were exactly the same age, and it was in the year 1954. Nine years earlier the H-bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima: ten years later, Berger initiated the Kitchen Sink Movement.
I found John eager, fervent and enthusiastic about my drawings. He suggested that the Beaux Arts Gallery run by Helen Lassor as a possibility of showing the work. So some days later, clutching my portfolio of drawings under my arm I entered the gallery in Bruton Place, just off Bond Street, prepared for a criticism and nothing else. After all this was my first attempt at venturing into a West End gallery with a view to exhibit. To my joy the drawings pleased Helen and she offered me a show there and then. However a few days later my enthusiasm cooled slightly because she had found other artists with interesting work in drawing: probably better to have a more varied show with a better probability of selling work, so my work was exhibited with other artists of like mind.
Berger had first come into my view when he took over the job of art criticism at the New Statesman in the early 1950’s. Previously, Patrick Heron, the painter from St. Ives, had been in this post. The flat painting of the American School led by the critic Clement Greenberg heavily influenced Patrick’s writings on art. At that time Greenberg pointed out that art of the theatre or that of sculpture is, by their very nature, three-dimensional in form. Painting, however, is applied to a natural two-dimensional surface, and modern artists had begun to embrace that nature rather than trying to defy it. It was in response to this idea of flat painting and Heron’s insistence on the American approach that Berger wrote questioning and fervent letters to the editor of the New Statesman until he was offered the job in place of Patrick Heron. I seem to remember that his letters to the editor were very detailed and attacking in nature, that is, in answer to the waywardness of a critique derived from the current fashion in painting. The content of Berger’s writing was, so it seemed to me at the time, more to the point of art being closer to life’s rawness and cutting through the elitism of Bond Street galleries. Perhaps I felt this because of my experience as an Army conscript and also being a Bevin Boy working in the coalmines of Nottinghamshire, thus quickly, taking me directly away from the art school environment to meet the world outside. This new world felt extremely real as the boots hit the parade ground and the coal dust entered my nostrils. I also drew in the mines and wrote poetry, just as Henry Moore had done. In context Berger later taught drawing at Chelsea school of Art alongside Moore.
On August 6th 1945 the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima killing 240,000 people and maiming thousands more with burns and radiation. I mention this, not only because of the horror and act of terrorism but also because Berger had somehow got hold of massive wall sized drawings of the horrific results of this criminal act, presumably done soon after the attack. Interesting to note that the Americans to this day have almost erased the event of Hiroshima from their history books. What I remember of these large drawings, as does my wife Mary, was their rendering of the horrific results of the bomb and this drew me to Berger and his writings. Berger in his lifetime, to my knowledge, has never mentioned this exhibition that was shown in a non-institutional building. At the time it received little mentioned in the art press or general news, and seemed to escape notice anywhere.
However, Art rears its triumphant head. Thirty years after the Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation sent out a message about remembrance of the Bomb. To their surprise they were inundated with 975 works on paper. They then published a book of 104 of these drawings by Atomic Bomb survivors who by then were 70 years old or more, and although they weren’t professionally trained artists the drawings were extremely vivid, horrific in content and unforgettable, horrifyingly effective as art in documentation that no photographs could ever surpass.
The title: Unforegettable Fire. (spelling intended)
John Hersey the author of the book wrote: “Unforgettable Fire is tremendously moving – more moving than any book of photographs of the horror could be, because what is registered is what has been burned into the minds of the survivors”
In his essay “Hiroshima,” John Berger examines the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. On looking through the pages of the book ‘Unforgettable Fire’. Berger forms his opinion on the tragedy. He concludes that Japan was a victim of terrorism. However, unlike most terrorists who are from small countries, Japan’s attacker was the most powerful nation in the world: America.
www.theguardian.com/world/ 2002/ jun/29/usa.japan A searching article on war by John Berger as it is seen today in relation to the A-Bomb on Hiroshima.
In 1952 Berger organized an exhibition at the South London Art Gallery of realist artists called ‘Looking Forward’. They became known as the Kitchen Sink Painters that included Jack Smith, Ed Middleditch, Derrick Greaves, John Bratby, and Peter De Francia amongst others. Kitchen Sink was most likely derived from Smith’s painting of ‘Mother Bathing Child’, a child being bathed in a kitchen sink, wrought in stark contrasting monographic tones. At that time Mary and I ran a bespoke framing business and were framing Derrick’s kitchen Sink paintings. It was again pure chance that our workshop, in Belsize Lane, Hampstead, was near to where Berger then lived. He was sharing a house with his girl friend and Peter De Francia. When we visited Berger, De Francia used to say jokingly, “Here come the artisans”. We visited a few times and as always the atmosphere was overwhelming in its detailed attention to international politics that at times flew over my head. But Berger also loved down to earth stories about everyday life. One recounting Mary’s grandmother’s rude habits on the street, he found hilarious and then turned quickly to concerns relating politics of the day to the state of contemporary art. In this atmosphere De Francia would call me a mystic, I did appeared a little dreamy at times, but Berger was kinder, particularly about my status as an artist.
The Partisan Coffee House, 1958
The Partisan was a radical venue of the New Left, at 7 Carlisle Street in the Soho district of London. The Partisan was established by historian Raphael Samuel, supported by Stuart Hall in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and closed in 1962. The food was excellent and international in flavour with coffee at 9p a cup. Amongst its clientele were Doris Lessing, Raymond Williams, Quetin Crisp, Christopher Logue, and Lindsay Anderson and many other radical left wing artists and intellectuals. Talks and music were events in the basement area where one could linger all playing chess and meeting friends. Here we came to meet up with John Berger again. His visits coincided with the exhibitions held in the main upstairs area that Mary and I organized, one being centered on Political Satire and another on 12 Painters that included Greaves, De Francia, Herman, Ayrton, Middleditch and myself. Berger was not too pleased with the Universities and Left Review, the magazine that initiated the coffee House with offices above. The exhibitions also came under his scrutiny with his Marxist eye and thought that we could do better. Harold Wilson however, approved whilst offering me a cigarette.
Curiously perhaps, the next encounter or brush with Berger was from a distance. A friend of ours living close by Berger’s house, part of a commune in Mieussy, an Alpine village in Western France, spoke to him about Action Space and Mary and me in the summer of 2016, as being the instigators behind building a new inflatable air house as part of a film by Huw Wahl. This film concerned the 1960’s project of Action Space, and Berger on hearing this news broke into a broad smile. Huw, my son, had been in contact with Berger in 2015 while researching for his film on Herbert Read, and was interested to hear Berger’s views on Read whom he had met in the 1950’s.
Mary and Ken Turner ran Action Space from 1968 to 1978 in central London and Mary then went on to run Action Space Mobile until 2016. Both organizations involved communities and the arts through play and education. Books available through Amazon: ‘Crashing Culture’ by Ken Turner and ‘Action Space Mobile’ by Mary Turner. Huw Wahl has made films on Herbert Read and Action Space amongst many others. His last film entitled ‘Everything Lives’, on the life of an artist. www.hctwahl.comwww.imaginativeeye.co.uk
Volume 31 number 5 May /June 2017 pp 18-20