Tilda Swinton Gets a Portrait Drawn by Art Critic John Berger

In the win­ter of 2012, just before Christ­mas, a car­ful of Britons made their way through the snow to a house in rur­al France. The roads would soon close, but no mat­ter; they’d planned to make some apple crum­bles, do some draw­ing, and enjoy some con­ver­sa­tion. This may all sound nor­mal enough, but the car did­n’t con­tain your aver­age cot­tage-stay­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers: the crit­ic and film­mak­er Col­in Mac­Cabe rode in it, as did Til­da Swin­ton, the actress as famed for her per­for­mances as for her range of artis­tic and intel­lec­tu­al inter­ests. They’d come to shoot a doc­u­men­tary on the occu­pant of the house at which they’d arrived: artist, crit­ic, writer, and self-described “sto­ry­teller” John Berg­er.

The nov­el G. won Berg­er the Book­er prize in 1972 (half of the prize mon­ey from which he famous­ly donat­ed to Britain’s Black Pan­ther Par­ty), but most of his read­ers encounter him through that same year’s Ways of See­ing, a text on the ide­ol­o­gy of images that ranks among the twen­ty most influ­en­tial aca­d­e­m­ic books of all time.

He and Swin­ton first became friends in the late 1980s, when she played a small part in a film based on one of his short sto­ries, in which he him­self also appeared. “The old intel­lec­tu­al and the young actress imme­di­ate­ly formed a close bond,” writes The Inde­pen­dent’s Geof­frey McNab.

“Both were born in Lon­don, on 5 Novem­ber — Berg­er in 1926, Swin­ton in 1960 — and their shared birth­day has, as Swin­ton puts it, ‘formed a bedrock to our com­plic­i­ty, the prac­ti­cal fan­ta­sy of twin­ship.’ ” This they dis­cuss in the McCabe-direct­ed “Ways of Lis­ten­ing,” the first of a quar­tet of seg­ments that con­sti­tute the new doc­u­men­tary The Sea­sons In Quin­cy: Four Por­traits of John Berg­er, a co-pro­duc­tion of Birk­beck, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don’s Derek Jar­man Lab. “Some­times I think it’s as though, in anoth­er life, we met or did some­thing,” says Berg­er as he draws Swin­ton’s por­trait. “We are aware of it in some depart­ment which isn’t mem­o­ry, although it’s quite close to mem­o­ry. Maybe, in anoth­er life, we… touched togeth­er.”

“Ways of Lis­ten­ing” cap­tures an extend­ed con­ver­sa­tion between Berg­er and Swin­ton, though it also fea­tures their nar­ra­tion. In this scene, Berg­er reads from his recent med­i­ta­tion on the prac­tice of draw­ing for his book Ben­to’s Sketch­book: “We who draw do so not only to make some­thing vis­i­ble to oth­ers, but also to accom­pa­ny some­thing invis­i­ble to its incal­cu­la­ble des­ti­na­tion.” (Swin­ton, for her part, reads from Spin­oza.) But the talk returns to what brought them togeth­er in the first place. “Maybe we made an appoint­ment to see each oth­er again, in this life,” Berg­er pro­pos­es. “The fifth of Novem­ber. But it was­n’t the same year. That did­n’t mat­ter. We weren’t in that kind of time.”

“We got off at the same sta­tion.”


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Til­da Swin­ton Recites Poem by Rumi While Reek­ing of Vetiv­er, Heliotrope & Musk

Wittgen­stein: Watch Derek Jarman’s Trib­ute to the Philoso­pher, Fea­tur­ing Til­da Swin­ton (1993)

Watch David Bowie’s New Video for ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ With Til­da Swin­ton

The Moby Dick Big Read: Til­da Swin­ton & Oth­ers Read a Chap­ter a Day from the Great Amer­i­can Nov­el

The 20 Most Influ­en­tial Aca­d­e­m­ic Books of All Time: No Spoil­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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