John Berger & John Christie
I must have been feeling flush when I bought this. It’s a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, impeccably realised. It feels expensive.
Essentially, it’s a dialogue, an exchange of correspondence, between two exemplary artists on the subject of colour: John Berger, the novelist, critic, painter, poet; and John Christie, the filmmaker and artist.
Berger I’d heard of. His Ways of Seeing was a key text in my studies, first as a student of Media and Communication, then later as a student of English literature and linguistics. The university course that most shaped my learning, that best trained my mind, that forever changed the way I looked at the world, was called Ways of Reading, after Berger. I have a few of his books of essays on my shelves, and as much as I love his voice I do find him a difficult read.
I send you this Cadmium Red… is a book that requires no prior knowledge, no specialist learning, no fancy vocab. Just a bit of time to call your own for a while. Big thoughts like the ones contained in here need space to land. I think about this book from time to time for lots of reasons: as an example of the best in mass print reproduction; as a text that sings the virtues of a fine editor; as a paragon of the kind of connection I tend to seek out in friendships; and as an inspiration for the kinds of places quiet, mindful contemplation can take you when artfully applied.
In a series of letters, Berger and Christie discuss colour in all its complexity and variety: where colour comes from (crushed beetles, rust, chlorophyll); its qualities (“slippery” gold, “luminous” blue, “liquid, undulating, mobile, pushy” green); and its application by various painters (a Caravaggio red, a Joseph Beuys brown, an Yves Klein blue), alongside anecdotes, life stories, quotations, allusions, associations. It’s a quirky history of 20th Century western art written up as an epistolary chinwag. It so happens that the chinwags in question are learned, erudite, insightful, candid and make for joyful company. You just want to hang out with them all the time. You want to be part of their gang. As well as the letters they exchange, sometimes, they send poems, or pictures, or – best of all – unique, hand-made artists’ books.
I bought Cadmium Red… when I was getting into making my own books. I think perhaps because I was getting into making my own books. And I got into making books around the same time I was thinking about getting into writing more seriously. As such, making books and the writing that goes into them have always been inextricably entwined for me. I feel happier when the two things come together.
In 2001, at the suggestion of a close friend, A-, we both went up to Aberdeen for the weekend to attend a crash course in book-binding at Peacock Visual Arts in Aberdeen. A- had studied fine art photography at the Glasgow School of Art and already knew a wee bit about making books. I was a total newbie.
Marking. Measuring. Cutting. Scoring. Folding. Stitching. Gluing. Pressing. The tutor took us through all the basic bookbinding techniques. I learned that paper has a grain, which you can use (or choose to work against) when folding. I learned how to stitch stacks of sheets laid flat, how to stitch pamphlets. I learned what a folio is and how to stitch several of them together to make a hard-back book block. I learned the astonishing versatility of the bone folder: a genius piece of technology and, of the many tools in the bookbinder’s arsenal, weapon of first resort.
I came away from that weekend with the feeling, for the first time in my life, that I was capable of making art. That art was something I could do. Imagine that.
A- I and I embarked on a project soon after our Peacock weekend called Praties is Tatties, a series of six hand-stitched books incorporating A-‘s photography and my text on the subject of, well, potatoes. We sold a few at the Glasgow Art Fair and returned to Peacock a year later with another project called Inventories, where I interviewed various people about an object and A- photographed it.
I’ve made countless books since. When I studied for my Masters in creative writing, my submissions were always presented as hand-made books. I continue to make books when the situation seems to require one and I think the intended recipient might enjoy it. I’ve made books for many of my friends. I made many for a difficult girl I once loved. I made one earlier this year for my dad’s 70th birthday celebration – a collection of postcards from guests at his birthday lunch last year, recalling a memorable event with him, accompanied by three words to describe him. Recently, a dear friend from the old country whom I hadn’t heard from for over 20 years sent me a letter. I was surprised and touched and delighted. It seemed fitting – inevitable, really – to respond with a book.
And, looking back, I realise that the act of making books as a way of connecting in a very personal way with people I hold dear comes from the correspondence collected in I send you this Cadmium Red.
Ideas take shape in infinite ways. And sometimes the best way is with a book.