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How to Be Both: When Ali Smith Meets John Berger

How to Be Both : Ali Smith rencontre John Berger
Liliane Louvel


Dans How to Be Both, Ali Smith reprend la conception philosophique et politique de l’art, des manières de voir et de connaître le monde, de John Berger. Dans Ways of Seeing le refus de l’autorité, de la hiérarchie articule la notion de dualité à tous les niveaux. Le roman structuré en deux parties toutes deux intitulées ONE, les met à égalité. Les diverses éditions choisissent de mettre l’une ou l’autre en premier. La démultiplication des façons de voir est reflétée par la transgression constante des frontières entre littérature et histoire de l’art, et la question des genres. L’utilisation massive de l’ekphrasis concernant les fresques du merveilleux palais Schifanoia de Ferrare, la mise en avant de la rébellion du peintre F. Del Cossa contre l’autorité du Duc, sont incarnées par la figure de « l’homme en blanc » de la fresque et de sa revenance en page de couverture interne. Défini comme un esclave migrant, il franchit la frontière interne du livre. L’oscillation ekphrastique reflète les doutes des personnages aux genres fluctuants, et ceux concernant les techniques picturales à la charnière de la Renaissance puis ceux du xxe siècle avec ses révolutions technologiques. « What we see and what we know is never settled », pour J. Berger et la question de la connaissance et du regard est primordiale dans How to be Both. La figure de la mère est centrale pour l’orientation du regard à laquelle tente de se soustraire le personnage rebelle de George/ia. Les images migrent des fresques aux livres, de l’appareil photographique aux murs de la chambre de l’adolescente, d’un journal à la couverture du livre pour la photographie de J.-M. Perrier.

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Texte intégral

‘There are two ways to read this book: but you’re stuck with it—
You’ll end up reading one of them’ (
Smith 2014, n. p.)

‘Berger’s work is an invitation to reimagine, to see in different ways’ (Overton xiii)

1Ali Smith once paid homage to Berger’s work: ‘I could say that everything I’ve ever written or aspired to write has been in one way or another an appreciation of the work of John Berger’ (Smith 2016, 329). John Berger’s own writings paved the way for a collaborative use of art history and novel writing. Ali Smith responded to this form of hybrid writing, How to Be Both (2015) being a case in point. Although art is present in most of Smith’s fiction like in Artful, The Accidental or in the Seasonal Quartet, How to Be Both massively integrates artistic images be they covert or overt, either in the form of ekphraseis or visually included in the publication. An intermedial reading of the novel together with its significance in terms of representing private experiences such as mourning, creating, gender choice, or broader issues pertaining to politics, environmental and social concerns will show how it is in keeping with John Berger’s own way of mixing art history together with wider social issues. The book’s unusual format and its choice of intertwining both the strands of art and history while writing with art too, imparts it with a kind of rhythm balanced in-between ways of writing, refusing to choose one at the expense of the other, opting for the rhetoric of ‘both’ in all kinds of ways and means as heralded by its title. In the end, when the story tells about Georgia’s discovery of the sculpture of the double helix figuring the DNA molecule erected in Cambridge, we could surmise that it offers a very concrete image of the double spiralling structure of the book1 and more as we shall see.

2The novel contains two intertwined stories. One story deals with Francesco Del Cossa, one of the early Renaissance painters working at the court of the (future) Duke of Ferrara, under the supervision of Cosimo Tura while the other one is about Georgia/George, a contemporary English girl. Del Cossa is the author of the Eastern wall frescoes in Palazzo Schifanoia, ‘the palace of not being bored,’ i. e., schivar la noia (Smith, 2015 103), which are part of the allegorical, astronomical and philosophical programme devised by Pellegrino Prisciani, the Estes’s historian and librarian, ‘identified in the book as the falcon’ (pellegrino). Del Cossa’s three panels with their three superimposed wall strips describe the months of March, April, May with The Triumph of Minerva and the Arius sign, Venus and the Taurus sign, Apollo and the sign of Gemini. The frescoes also include Borso d’Este’s more mundane activities, hunting, receiving gifts and testimonies of allegiance, riding in the countryside with courtiers.

  • 2 Smith’s latest novel after the Seasonal Quartet bears the title Companion Piece (2022) which zig za (...)

3How to Be Both could look like two companion short stories:2 the well-known shape of the book itself evokes a diptych, as both parts occupy equal space none prevailing over the other one as each part bears ‘ONE’ as its title. According to the editions, the order of the stories is not the same so that the reading of the story changes according to the chronology of events. My own part ONE is dedicated to Francescho’s homodiegetic narrative. The second ONE, to Georgia/George’s heterodiegetic story. Smith endows the historical figure of Francesco Del Cossa with a choice of genders. Born a girl, she chooses to pass off as a boy to be able to work with her father as a stonemason and then as a painter thus becoming Francescho. The «h» migrates to the second part designating Helena, best friend to George, born Georgia and passing off as a boy too. The letter h then means both a supplement—to Francesco Del Cossa’s real name—and a subtraction, as standing for Helen’s name. The reference to sex orientation or gender (H is attracted to George, and George’s mother, briefly, to a woman) tallies with the ideas of fluidity, binarity, ambivalence/ambiguity, as the major thematic, compositional and rhetoric stakes of this curious work. ‘Both’ fuses into ‘One’ while One splits up between Both with no precedence and a random equality of treatment.

4My edition’s part ONE follows the progress of Del Cossa in Ferrara and her/his ghostly presence in the 21st century when sent to spy on the sixteen-year-old English girl, George/ia. He/she thinks himself erring in Purgatory in keeping with the Dantean tradition he was cognisant with—‘this boy I am sent for what reason to shadow’ (Smith 2015, 43). Not being aware of 21st–century technology, Francescho anachronistically interprets the electronic contraptions he/she discovers provoking the reader’s laughter:

 . . . the boy sits up, holds his votive tablet up in both hands as if to heaven, up at the level of his head like a priest raising the bread, cause this place if full of people who have eyes and choose to see nothing, who all talk into their hands as they peripatate and all carry these votives, some the size of a hand, some the size of a face or a whole head . . . stroking them with fingers and staring only at them, signifying they must be heavy in their despairs to be so consistently looking away from their world and so devoted to their icons. (Smith 2015, 43–44)

  • 3  . . . except that at the end they deem it too complicated and seem to have decided to do a mime in (...)
  • 4 ‘In one of her very few interviews, Smith admits that a picture of one of del Cossa’s frescoes in a (...)

5The pages dedicated to Del Cossa’s scarcely known life story may be read as part of H.’s and George’s homework for their school project dedicated to ‘empathy/sympathy.’3 Smith chooses this artist only acknowledged after the discovery of his 1470 letter addressed to Borso d’Este for the gaps in his biography. Thus, his partially invented biography stems from George’s last journey with her mother and her brother to Ferrara. After seeing the reproduction of ‘the man in white’ in a newspaper, George’s mother (already diagnosed with cancer unbeknownst to the children) decides on the spur of the moment to take her children to Italy to go and see it. This is also the way Ali Smith came upon and creatively reacted to the picture.4

  • 5 See Daniel Arasse’s studies of the painting in Histoires de peinture.
  • 6 Bartolomeo Garganelli, Barto in the book, belonged to a rich Ferrara family. He commissioned del Co (...)

6Convinced of his superior talent, Del Cossa asked the Duke for better payment than the other painters’. The Duke’s curt negative answer figures at the bottom of the surviving letter. Irate Del Cossa left for Bologna where he worked and died of the plague in 1477–78. The painter’s talent eventually acknowledged is patent in his Annunciation, kept in Dresden Art Gallery, famous for the daring innovation of the snail painted in trompe-l’œil on the representing level.5 The painter had already used this three-dimensional illusion trick in Portrait of a Young Man with a Ring, perhaps that of his friend Bartolomeo Garganelli, a character in the narrative6 when the portrait is described as well as that of Saint Vincent Ferrier George repeatedly visits in the National Gallery in room 55 (now room 57).

  • 7 V. Woolf’s influence on ‘ways of seeing’ is corroborated by the narrator’s dead academic friend/lov (...)

7Rebellious Del Cossa corresponds to Berger’s taste for unruly figures, for less canonical forms of art, and his dislike of government bodies and formal organisations: he judged the concept of National Cultural Heritage to be ‘an oligarchic and undemocratic culture’ (Berger 23) and its market value as a way ‘[to] exploit[s] the authority of art to glorify the present social system and its priorities’ (Berger 29). This concurs with George’s mother’s takes on social issues too. And Smith cleverly braids together art history and fiction putting to the test ‘how to be both’, a fiction writer and an art critic. Changing ways of writing consequently changes ways of seeing and ways of reading too as Virginia Woolf already perfectly saw it.7

An Alternative Form and Its Consequences

  • 8 Inscribing ambiguity as writing principle then ‘both’ becomes the red thread running not only throu (...)

8The choice of the book’s diptych format entails a different reading effect whether one reads it first more or less chronologically. The first part mostly focuses on Del Cossa and painterly subjects which are subsumed into the contemporaneous second one. This kind of twisting alternate narrative time evokes a puzzling Möbius ribbon8 as time loops weave a never-ending narrative. Words, images, meaning, knowledge and interpretation turn out to be interchangeable. Hierarchy is thwarted and meaning ‘differed.’

9From the start, the palazzo and its wonderful frescoes strike the mother as an ambiguous work of art:

I’ve never seen anything like it, her mother says. It’s so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.
She turns to George.
It’s a bit like you, she says. (Smith 2015, 240; emphasis added)

10The symmetrical figure of the chiasmus perfectly renders the perplexing dual nature of the paintings and of . . . her teenage daughter. The two parts of the book could be superimposed as if they were layers of underpainting brushed onto the walls of the palace:

. . . blue sky the white drift
the blue through it
rising to darker blue
start with green-blue underpaint
add indigo under lazzurite mix in
lead white or ashes glaze with lapis
same old sky? Earth? Again? . . .
(Smith 2015, 4)

  • 9 See Bilmes 193–229 who develops this formal technique called ‘laminating.’

11In the second story, George really appreciates Del Cossa’s frescoes, which she compares to less attractive ones also on the palazzo walls (238–239). The ekphrasis insists on the impression of time layering, the fresco as a kind of palimpsest offering a vision in infinite regress digging into both time and space:9

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connected, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see, in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re all also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both—the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. (Smith 2015, 239; emphasis added)

  • 10 A theme in keeping with Artful in which the narrator sees her partner coming back from the dead and (...)

12Both looking closely and from afar at the picture also gives a key to the reading of the bidimensional book obeying the ‘Both’ principle, its parts purporting to be reversible. The fact that the past may reach out to the present and vice versa triggers painterly and personal comments. Both parts deal with the mourning process. Both Francescho and George have lost their mother and are trying to keep in touch with them: Francescho, by putting on her mother’s clothes when she was a child, George by remembering their last time together in Italy, keeping pictures on her wall and finding shelter in her mother’s study.10 Both parts of the book deal with loss, memory, phantoms, the visible and the invisible, as well as Ferrara’s ghost like past history. If the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice blatantly underlies Artful it is also one of the subtexts in How to Be Both.

13The shape of the book works as a playful trompe-l’œil, replete with the duplicity of optical illusions and chiaroscuros. It is also an anamorphosis, a baroque device which distorts the rules of perspective, making one object recognisable from a point of view, while warped from another. The canonical instance of the skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors allegorically signalling death in the wings. This is in keeping with Berger’s advocating suspension of belief trusting one’s ways of seeing, doubting one’s senses while maintaining a critically active attitude, weighing all sides of an issue before judging and deciding what to do or think about it, thus adopting a very ethical attitude.

14The material presence of images in the book itself has a bearing on our seeing/ways of reading. Numerous visual elements enhance the overall presence of the word/image apparatus, both in terms of material and readerly presence. Right from the start, the reader is alerted by the unusual type-setting of the text (a recurring feature of Smith’s books). The paragraphs are left-aligned which first makes it uneasy to read. Both at the beginning (3–5) and at the end of the two parts, lines zigzag as in a poem (Smith 2015, 184–186) imparting a kind of framing effect to the pages. We can imagine that if the two parts were reversed compared to my edition, the layouts of the two zigzagging texts would neatly mirror one another. Of note, Berger’s own text is also left-aligned refusing typographical constraint as it were.

  • 11 This was then very much debated, see Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir (1977), shortly publishe (...)

15A linear black and white drawing opens each part. A drawing of Saint Lucy’s eyes on a sprig precedes my first part and a surveillance camera does the same for the second one. Both lay emphasis on seeing/watching/gazing, also suggesting the power of surveillance by the powers that be:  religion in the past, and society nowadays. A feature echoing Orwell’s 1984 and Michel Foucault’s ‘societies of discipline,’11 a discussion John Berger was very much aware of.

16Another ‘fluid’ versatile factor concerns one of the major pictures in the book. The cover photograph (Smith 2015, 267–268) varies according to the countries of publications. In the UK, Jean-Marie Perrier’s picture of Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy companionably walking together was chosen. This mirrors H. and George’s friendship when George identifies with the blond girl and H. with the black-haired one. Furthermore, the photograph is given to George by H. and pinned up on her bedroom wall surrounded by pictures of her mother and of film actresses she gave her daughter (like Monica Vitti’s).

I brought you some stars, H says, I printed them up off the net;
George opens it. Inside there’s a photograph on thick paper. It’s summer in the picture. Two women (both young, both between girl and woman) are walking along a road together past some shops in a very sunny-looking place. Is it now or is it in the past? One of them is yellow-haired and one of them is darker. The yellow-haired one, the smaller of the two is looking at something off camera, off to her left. She’s wearing a gold and orange top. The dark-haired taller girl is wearing a short blue dress with a stripe round the edging of it. She is in the middle of turning to look at the other. There’s a breeze, so her hand has gone up to hold her hair back off her face. The yellow-haired one looks preoccupied, intent. The dark one looks as if something that’s been said has struck her and she’s about to say a yes. (Smith 2015, 268)

17The US edition is different as is often the case. This time the cover shows the same puzzling detail of Del Cossa’s picture of Saint Lucy: her pair of eyes on a sprig. In the picture, the saint keeps her eyelids lowered down when her brown eyes are set on a fragile two pronged ekphrasis of this picture. During her martyrdom, Lucy’s eyes were gouged out no wonder then that she is the saint patron of ophthalmologists. (Smith 2015, 159–161).

18As to the inside covers, they both display two figures by Del Cossa standing on opposite ends of the same strip of the fresco, standing out on a dark blue ground: the striking figure of the ‘ragged man’ or ‘the white man’ who sent the mother on her quest (282), and the delicate page in elegant red and pink clothes the mother calls ‘the effeminate boy, the boyish girl, [balancing] the powerful masculine effect of the worker’ (Smith 2015, 297). The ekphrasis and interpretation of ‘the man in white’ are given pride of place. Humour constantly pervades the work

George it’s all right . . . her mother says drawing a diamond shape at her own breastbone, the vaginal shape here on that beautiful worker in the rags in the blue section, the most virile and powerful figure in the whole room, much more so than the Duke, who’s supposed to be the subject and the hero of that room, and which must surely have caused a bit of trouble for the artist, especially since that figure’s a worker or a slave and also clearly black or Semitic. And how the open shape at his chest complements the way the painter makes the rope round his waist a piece of simultaneously dangling and erect phallic symbolism—
(her mother did an art history degree once)
—and as to the constant sexual and gender ambiguities running through the whole workings (and a woman’s studies degree) (296–297)

19Furthermore, the man in white meets Francescho and they have a passionate relationship in the open under a tree. The creature meets its future creator in a stunning creative fusion. Smith and the mother’s interpretation turn the man in white into the figure of an exploited migrant worker: ‘a worker or a slave and also clearly black or semitic’ (Smith 2015, 296), read by the mother as exuding virility gifted with phallic symbols contrary to its ethereal, glossy well-dressed pendant on the same panel.

  • 12 Berger adds in the same passage ‘And since in modern society neither of these [magic or religion]is (...)
  • 13 Stephen Cheeke recalling Berger’s essential passage reminds the reader that actually the painting i (...)

20The character of ‘the man in white’ echoes Berger’s taste for people’s ordinary lives and his political questioning of society as well as the way social, intellectual, artistic hierarchies rule it. For instance, once Del Cossa’s merit was acknowledged and no longer confused with Lorenzo Costa or Cosimo Tura for Vasari in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), he became artistically and financially rated. As Berger developed about Leonardo’s Virgin on the Rocks in the National Gallery, ‘[works of art] are declared art when their line of descent can be certified,’ answering the motto: ‘it is authentic therefore it is beautiful’ (Berger 21). Uniqueness substitutes for meaning,12 which Berger denounces as ‘a process of mystification.’13 In the novel, Carol, George’s mother, is a political activist described as ‘quite a political person’ (Smith 2015, 284–285) and her interpretations are close to Berger’s takes on the subject. She sees the ‘ragged man’ as a social outsider belonging to the down-trodden masses, today’s immigrants. ‘Subvert’ is her motto and she feels she is being spied on by the state, ‘monitored’ (‘minotaured’ as playfully suggested by H.). Hence the presence of the surveillance camera on the chapter/part title page.

“[E]very image embodies a way of seeing” (Berger 10).

21For Berger, ways of seeing are always influenced by who we are, what we know and what we have lived through. They filter our reception: ‘The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. . . .We never look at just one thing: we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves’ (Smith 2015, 7–8, 10). Thus Francescho expresses herself in technical painterly words: colours (‘Naples yellow’ [Smith 2015, 45]), shapes, curves (‘the heart is a matter of curves’ [Smith 2015, 46]) that is her own language: (‘Hello bird: I’m a painter, dead (I think, though I remember no going)’ [Smith 2015, 45]) working and talking about her work, in particular about the trompe-l’œil effects she used:

I like very much a foot, say, or a hand, coming over the edge and over the frame into the world beyond the picture, cause a picture is a real thing in the world and this shift is a marker of this reality : and I like a figure to shift into that realm between the picture and the world just like a body really to be present under painted clothes where something, a breast, a chest, an elbow, a knee, presses up from beneath and brings life to the fabric: I like an angel’s knee particularly, cause holy things are worldly too and it’s not blasphemy to think so, just a further understanding of the realness of holy things. (Smith 2015, 121–122)

22When looking at the photograph of ‘two beautiful girls’ on George’s wall, she remarks: ‘their clothes [which] are mosaic gold and azzurite’ (Smith 2015, 101).

23The moment, dispositions and mood condition our responses to a picture and are of import. George, and Francescho in her turn, react to the choice of photographs on her bedroom wall after her mother’s death. Mourning, melancholy and memory echo Barthes’s ‘that has been’, his punctum and Berger’s ‘people’s walls should replace museums’ (Berger 30).

24Reproduction also changes paintings and works of art (Berger 25): ‘when a painting is put to use, its meaning is either modified or totally changed’ (Berger 24). Reproducing (i. e., the second ontological occurrence of a picture) and ‘detailing’ (Arasse 1992), i. e., fragmenting it, radically alter the picture’s integrity and meaning. The reproduction may insist on a detail, like the US cover illustration. The eyes on the prong extracted from the picture, focus on the organs of seeing. The detail becomes mysterious, enticing and decorative, used to attract readers when the saint, who was the initial revered subject of the picture, disappears. The seer is puzzled: what is it? Why? How? Who? the simultaneous overall impression produced by the picture is exploded into as many details. The picture loses its coherence and what Berger calls ‘its own authority’ (Berger 26).

25For Berger ‘Reproduced paintings, like all other information, have to hold their own against all the other information being continually transmitted’ (Berger 28):

Consequently a reproduction, as well as making its own references to the image of its original, becomes itself the reference point for other images. The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it. Such authority it retains, is distributed over the whole context in which it appears. (Berger 29)

26Images accompanied by words are altered by them too, and we could add images translated into words are altered (and used) by them too. Losing their simultaneity, their very materiality, pictures become images used for incidental purposes. They lose their strength as works of art and become flat media, instruments of communication, their magic gone.

A Lesson in Teaching how to See and to Gaze at a Picture?

  • 14 These dramatic episodes are told in Giorgi’s Le roman de Ferrare, in particular in the story ‘Dans (...)

27While in Italy, Carol tries to teach her children how to look at and interpret pictures together with learning about history. When her mother evoked the Ferrara shootings by the fascists during World War II,14 George recalls her questions to her children: ‘and what comes first? Her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?’, the narrative swiftly flowing from past to present (Smith 2015, 290; emphasis added).

28Looking at pictures, George’s mother delivers interpretation in action, as reported by George not without a touch of humour. Carol interprets the man in white according to what she knows and believes in, which is probably different from what the painter intended:

[see] how the open shape at his chest complements the way the painter makes the rope round his waist a piece of simultaneously dangling and erect phallic symbolism—
(her mother did an art history degree once)
—and as to the constant sexual and gender ambiguities running through the whole work
(and a woman’s studies degree). (Smith 2015, 296)

  • 15 This echoes Francescho’s original choice of gender to be able to work in a man’s world.

29Answering George’s question about the possibility of some of the paintings having been made by any woman artist,15 her mother launches in a lecture on women in the Renaissance:

—at least the part of it that this particular artist seems to have produced, well. Or if we want to be more detailed about it; the way he used that figure of the effeminate boy, the boyish girl, to balance the powerful masculine effect of the worker, and how this figure holds both an arrow and a hoop, male and female symbols one in each hand. On this alone I could make a reasonable witty argument for its originator being female, if I had to. But as to likelihood?
How does she even remember seeing all these things, George thinks; I saw the same room, the exact same room as she did, we were both standing in the very same place, and I didn’t see any of it. (Smith 2015, 297)

30This echoes Woolf’s conundrum in A Room of One’s Own, when testing ‘what one meant by man-womanly, and conversely by woman-manly, by pausing and looking at a book or two’ (Woolf 94). She sums it up as: ‘It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be a woman-manly or man-womanly.’ (Woolf 99). Virginia Woolf’s influence on Smith concerning the fluidity of gender choice of course deeply resonates with Orlando. Claire Daigle rightly sees it as clearly Smith’s model for How to Be Both, recalling

the words of the effusive biographer in [Orlando]: We have done our best to piece out the meagre summary from the charred fragments that remain; but often it has been necessary to speculate, to surmise, and even to make use of the imagination. (Daigle 10)

31Tutoring the eye to see, symbols to be deciphered, cryptic meanings to be decoded, careful watching is necessary. Time is needed to interpret as well as to make use of one’s subjectivity. This is when the question of ‘how to be both’ applies to art history and fiction.

Writing Art in Fiction, Writing for/as Art

32Including passages of art history closely knit into fiction involves crossing boundaries, taking the reader to a liminal experience. Is it possible to write art history without one’s opinion, one’s personality appearing? Does writing art history mean bringing in facts, information about the historical relevance of the work, commissions, techniques, history applying dogmatic scientific appraisal? Or is it also more like historiography or art criticism? Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony developed his personal interpretation of the significance of the works published in the romantic period, or even iconologist Erwin Panovsky writing on how to look at pictures in a scholarly way included personal hints and views on the painting and its time, politics and social problems. Berger also voiced his personal views on women’s representation by men in his analysis of publicity adverts in chapter 7 (Berger 129–154). Is ‘pure’ detached art history without emotion and personal appraisal possible?

33Ali Smith’s novel constantly intertwines discourse resorting to art history with fiction, such as disquisitions on Del Cossa’s life unknown for 400 years and the discovery of the frescoes ‘in the eighteen hundreds’ under whitewashed walls (Smith 2015, 242). ‘Tastes vary in time’ the mother warns the children, and that was the case about the appreciation of Del Cossa’s frescoes:

it might just be that our eyes are more used to finding some parts of the room more beautiful than the others because of what we now expect beauty to be. It might be our standards rather than theirs. But I agree with you. Some of it is really outstandingly beautiful. Some of it is breathtaking. (Smith 2015, 244)

34The body’s reaction is taken into account confirming that reception is not a mere question of taste and intellectual assessment.

35Alberti is repeatedly quoted in both parts of the book: ‘cause the great Alberti, who graced by coincidence the year of my birth with his book for picture makers, notes the usefulness of such study of the human body’s system of weights and levers, balances and counterbalances’ (Smith 2015, 4, 89 and 120). Cennino Cennini and Giotto (Smith 2015, 80–86), as well as other Old Masters pepper the mother’s speech.

36One night, Del Cossa overhears Pisciani acknowledging the great painters of the day’s influence on his own art to the Duke:

Veneziano, yes. Piero, certainly. Castagno, maybe some Flems, certainly a bit of Mantegna, Donatello. But as is, your Grace, the work’s soaked itself deep in them all but then washed itself new and clean and come up with a freshness like nothing I’ve ever. (Smith 2015, 117)

  • 16 Ali Smith resorts to the collage of times or to their fusion in The Seasonal Quartet series and in (...)
  • 17 The Hotel Prisciani and the room with the winged eye and the split-level bedroom where George’s bro (...)
  • 18 Two different medals of Alberti’s portrait and the winged eye are kept in France one in Le Louvre a (...)

37Pellegrino Prisciani (1435–1518) was at the origin of the iconographic programme of the cycle for Borso d’Este. One night, times collapse when history meets present day and echoes the first part of the book when the family sleep in the Prisciani suite at their hotel.16 In their room, a mobile in the shape of a winged eye17 is hanging from the ceiling. A panel description in Italian tells how Leon Battista Alberti gave Leonello d’Este a manuscript in which he described the symbolic meaning of his emblem, the occhio alato combining the divine and intuitive knowledge, the only one susceptible to reach wisdom, contemplation and truth (Smith 2015, 298–299). Informative art history—as well as reality—is directly introduced within the fictional text.18


  • 19 Some of the pictures representing the Muses have been retrieved and kept in various museums but the (...)
  • 20 The colourful DNA cycle path (inaugurated in 2005) celebrates the discovery of the four nucleotides (...)
  • 21 Let it be noted too that a whole chapter is dedicated to ‘form’ in Artful.

38These numerous artistic references urge the reader to become active, to try and find full information about what is suggested in the novel, such as the names of film directors (Antonioni, Pasolini), actresses (Monica Vitti), painters like Ercole de’ Roberti (whom Carol calls the pickpocket), singers (Sylvie Vartan and Françoise Hardy), the Proclaimers, a group of singers described on page 354. Thus, the reader has to resort to his/her computer or phone to find answers, to see pictures such as those of the Schifanoia Palace or of the studiolo de Belfiore in the now-lost Palazzo Belfiore,19 check Del Cossa, Borgo d’Este, or discover the gloomy skeleton of saint Catherine of Bologna in her shrine. In the same way as the character of George (spied on by Del Cossa) does with her phone Del Cossa sees as her ‘votive tablet’ (Smith 2015, 358). George films her own cycling along the DNA cycle path in Cambridge20 the reader can check on Youtube too. Then she downloads her video and sends it off to H. in Denmark. The DNA helix may also be interpreted as a structural item with its two intertwined twisting ribbons.21 It is a reminder of the complex cellular structure of human beings, a hodgepodge of all kinds of ethnic origins far from the model of race purity some would still believe in. How to be more than Both.

39Thus, the reading turns into a polymodal experience, when the reader, pulled out of the hybridised text uses her digital devices to find the books, films, pictures referred to in the novel. The devices supplement the text which serves as an indicator pointing to all sorts of information; l’Avventura for instance is summed up in the text but not named. The book is turned into a cultural compendium including both high and pop culture.

Both Ways of Writing for/on/about Art (history), the Art of Mixing Genres

40The issue of ‘How to be both’ (and more than both) pervades the whole text: its narrative consistently verges on art history discourse. Thus, it allows for ekphraseis, cultural information, interpretation and deciphering of images by Carol both for her young children and the reader. This ‘way of seeing’ through another one’s eyes is often embodied in the way ‘la délégation des regards,’ the gaze transfer, operates: the reader is fictionally looking at Francescho looking at ‘the boy’ (actually George) looking at Del Cossa’s own painting kept in the National Gallery in London. The quality of the writing is characterised by a combination of media since language transmedially translates the painting into words and also as brings in information much in the same way as an art critic might do.

The ‘Subverting’ Function of Art: Art and Politics

41Denouncing the ‘Bogus religiosity of a work of art’ (Berger 21) or the ‘mystification of the past’ (Berger 11), Berger comments:

. . . the issue is not between innocence and knowledge (or between the natural and the cultural) but between a total approach to art which attempts to relate it to every aspect of experience and the esoteric approach of a few specialized experts who are the clerks of the nostalgia of a ruling class in decline. (In decline not before the proletariat, but before the new power of the corporation and the state.) The real question is: to whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong? To those who can apply it to their own lives, or to the cultural hierarchy of relic specialists? (Berger 32)

42Further down, he adds: ‘The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place, there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose.’ (Berger 33). For Berger, freedom depends on a people or a class’s link with its past:

A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and to act as a people or a class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why—and this is the only reason why—the entire art of the past has now become a political issue. (Berger 33)

43When the Duke disagreed to grant Del Cossa a raise, he left for Bologna. Artists were exploited as menial workers submitted to the prince’s whim, like ‘the man in white.’ Still Del Cossa stood his ground and refused to bow down.

Art Criticism and Second-order Ekphrasis22

  • 22 See Louvel 2018, 245–264.
  • 23 Stephen Cheeke sees it as the kind of ‘creative criticism’ championed in Oscar Wilde’s The Critic a (...)

44To conclude I would like to specify the kind of ekphrasis we encounter in this book. ‘First-order’ ekphrasis is an encounter between image and language, or between ekphrasis and narration, or reader and ekphrasis. ‘Second-order ekphrasis’ is an encounter between two disciplines, art history and ‘literature/writing on/about art,’ dealing with an art work—currently once removed from what it (re)presents—but mainly resorting to art history parlance and academic art criticism. Thus, this ekphrasis is twice removed from the work of art. Taking one step back from the narrative as it were, the reader feels its nature has been subtly modified by the heterogeneous fabric of the text. This type of ekphrasis might be called ‘critical’ when used to criticise, recreate, or evaluate an art work. Resorting to ‘ekphrastic criticism’ may verge on the genre of the Manifesto since these texts often contain elements pertaining to an art theory and the reader-as-critic has to identify it. This is what happens when the shadow of John Berger looms large upon the text. We remember what I call the ‘critical ekphraseis’ of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde’s ‘creative criticism’ (Cheeke 186) in The Critic as Artist.23

  • 24 See Tom Overton’s introduction to Landscapes, and Berger’s stories in the same book: like ‘To Take (...)

45We could venture that ekphrasis in fiction might sometimes easily rival ekphrasis in art criticism and art history when used to interpret and write about the visual. The deliberate choice of the connoisseur’s language has a long history (H. James, E. Zola, Théophile Gautier, Karl Joris Huysmans, V. Woolf, J. Banville, Tracy Chevalier.). Truly blurring the limits of the borders between fiction and non-fiction, between creation and academic study, these novels urge us to rethink ekphrastic categories and uses in relation to art theory. So do Berger’s own ‘stories’ in-between ‘the general and the individual.’24 In his introduction Overton writes: ‘the remainder [of the second section of the book] freely explores the limits of how writing can be about art and the way which Berger had been led by his painter’s eye towards story telling.’ (Overton xiii).

46The rivalry between literature and art history or aesthetics dates back to the coining of the term by Baumgarten in 1735, inaugurating the split between the three disciplines. Still Vasari wrote ekphraseis without pretending to be strictly an art historian (there was no such thing then) or a ‘novelist’ (no such thing either yet) but a biographer enjoying the freedom of his art. Ruskin on Turner, or Pater on Leonardo, for instance, wrote about art in a hybrid medium mixing together reflection, evaluation, philosophy, biography and fiction. But ‘writing for art’ means ‘envoicing’ a silent painting, like in ‘l’écrit sur l’art’ (Cheeke 24). Art history also widely relies on ekphrasis. For, on, about art, reveals the plural approach of language on art. This pushes the limits of the representation of representation and shows its points of near-fusion or friction with literature. The writer can borrow from museums and gallery collections which the reader can swiftly and easily check online. This results in a polymodal reading ‘Being Both’ at least, or more indeed.

47The link between art history and ‘writing for art’ on or about art, is a subtle one, for it deals with art, language and the ethical and aesthetic issues at stake. In turn, it reverberates onto current ekphrastic practices and brings in more nuances, what we might call ‘forms of critical knowledge’ (Kennedy 85). This is what How to Be Both demonstrates and what John Berger advocated in his own free way of writing about art, ‘art writing’ from a wide committed perspective. How To Be Both seems to be an exercise in layering an array of cultural references, places and times encompassing all refusing to choose between alternative solutions. In her novel Ali Smith renews her way of writing by never departing from Berger’s ‘ways of seeing’ the world and offering a dazzling lesson both about the beauty of the frescoes of Palazzo Schifanoia and of the difficulties of a mourning adolescent living another kind of medial revolution in between beauty in the past and beauty in the making.

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Arasse, Daniel, ‘Secrets de peintre’, Histoires de peinture, Paris: Denoël, 2004, 75–81.

Arasse Daniel, Le détail, Paris: Flammarion, 1992.

Bassani, Giorgio, Le roman de Ferrare, ‘Dans les murs: une nuit de 43,’ Paris, Gallimard, 2006, 155–162.

Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, London: BBC and Penguin Books, 1972.

Bilmes, Leonid, ‘Commemoration via Intermedial Lamination in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both,’ Ekphrasis, Memory and Narrative after Proust, to be published London: Bloomsbury Press, 2023, 193–229.

Bilge, Fatma Zeynep, ‘Dual Narrative and Multiple Points of View in Ali Smith’s How To Be Both,Gaziantep University Journal of Social Sciences 18 IDEA Special Issue (2019): 111–121, last accessed at last accessed 10/08/2022 on 17 June 2023.

Cheeke, Stephen, Writing for Art, The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2010.

Cheeke, Stephen, Transfiguration, Oxford: OUP, 2016.

Cheong, Adel, ‘The Ways of Seeing and Making in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both,Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, last accessed at accessed 11/05/2022 on 17 June 2023.

Daigle, Claire, ‘“The Place of Green Possibles”’: Ali Smith’s How to be Both,’ Figuring Fiction, Art, Contemporary Fiction August 4 2016, last accessed at accessed 06/07/2022 (blog at world Press) on 17 June 2023.

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir, Paris: NRF, 1975.

Kennedy, David, The Ekphrastic Encounter, London: Routledge, 2012.

Lecomte, Héloïse, ‘The Hapax of Mourning: Ali Smith’s Aesthetics of Exception in Artful (2012),’ Etudes britanniques contemporaines 58 (June 2020), last accessed at on 10 May 2023.

Louvel, Liliane, ‘Types of Ekphrasis. An Attempt at Classification,’ Poetics Today 39.2 (June 2018): 245–264.

Louvel, Liliane, The Pictorial Third, trans. Angeliki Tseti, pref. Julie Leblanc, London: Routledge, 2018.

Masters, Tim, ‘Q&A: Baileys Prize Winner Ali Smith on How to be Both’ 4 June 2015, last accessed at on 29 May 2023.

Mccarthy, Mary Elizabeth, ‘The Architecture of Narrative Reciprocity in Ali Smith’s How to Be both,’ English Master’s Essay 31, University of St Thomas saint Paul Minnesota, August 2020, last accessed at, last accessed 12/06/2022 on 29 May 2023.

Miller, Laura, ‘How to Be Both by Ali Smith review—playful, tender unforgettable,’ The Guardian 13 September 2014, last accessed at, last accessed 11/08/2022 on 29 May 2023.

Overton, Tom, ed. Landscapes, John Berger on Art, London: Verso, 2018.

Praz, Mario, The Romantic Agony, Oxford: OUP, 1951.

Ryan-Sautour, Michelle, ‘Shire and How to Be Both by Ali Smith,’ Études britanniques contemporaines 57 (Dec. 2019), last accessed at on 29 May 2023.

Smith, Ali, Artful, London: Penguin Books, 2013.

Smith, Ali, ‘“There are two ways to read this book: but you’re stuck with it—You’ll end up reading one of them,”’ The Guardian 6 September 2014, last accessed at on 29 May 2023.

Smith, Ali, How to be Both, London: Penguin Books, 2015.

Smith, Ali, ‘Verbs,’ A Jar of Wild Flowers, London: Bloomsbury, 2016, 329–331.

Smith, Ali, Companion Piece, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2022.

Tollance, Pascale, ‘Penser l’être : hôtes et parasites dans la fiction d’Ali Smith,’ L’Atelier 12.2 (2020): 75–91.

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One’s Own, London: Triad Panther Books, 1977.

Woolf, Virginia, Orlando, London: Triad Panther Books, 1977.

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1 See Charles Jencks’s sculpture in Clare College, University of Cambridge and the DNA Cycle Path on Youtube.

2 Smith’s latest novel after the Seasonal Quartet bears the title Companion Piece (2022) which zig zags between times: the twenty-first century and Medieval times.

3  . . . except that at the end they deem it too complicated and seem to have decided to do a mime instead.

4 ‘In one of her very few interviews, Smith admits that a picture of one of del Cossa’s frescoes in an art magazine triggered the main idea of this novel’ (Masters 2015, qtd. in Bilge 2019).

5 See Daniel Arasse’s studies of the painting in Histoires de peinture.

6 Bartolomeo Garganelli, Barto in the book, belonged to a rich Ferrara family. He commissioned del Cossa to build a family chapel in San Pietro, one of Bologna churches, which has been destroyed. The painter died before finishing it and Ercole de Roberti his pupil put a finishing hand to it.

7 V. Woolf’s influence on ‘ways of seeing’ is corroborated by the narrator’s dead academic friend/lover ’s paper, ‘On Edge,’ in Artful (Smith 2013), when quoting Woolf’s famous comment on the Grafton Galleries post-impressionist exhibition: ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed’ she sees as ‘fruitful evidence for the changes in the ways things were seen, in the ways of seeing (Smith 2013, 14; emphasis added). Artful shares more than one trait with Smith’s novel under consideration, in particular grieving and mourning a loved one, and the spectral presence of a departed character. Héloïse Lecomte quotes critical assessments of the book as a ‘literary experiment, unique in Smith’s creative output [. . .] a “transgression of the boundaries of form”’ (Hall 2018), as well as a ‘genre-bending’ creation (Horgan 2016), ‘like no lectures you’ve ever encountered’ (Hager Cohen 2013)’ (Lecomte 2012). All three remarks could be attributed to How to Be Both. Intrusion is also a recurring feature in Smith’s novels. In The Accidental (2006), Amber intrudes into a family’s life eventually causing irreparable loss (see Tollance 2020). In Companion Piece (2022), intrusions also call upon Sandy, the artist. The influence of V. Woolf has also been acknowledged in Michelle Ryan-Sautour’s study of Smith’s collection of stories Shire: ‘Virginia Woolf clearly haunts the pages of Shire’, although she does not do so considering How to Be Both in the second part of her paper (Ryan-Sautour 2019).

8 Inscribing ambiguity as writing principle then ‘both’ becomes the red thread running not only through this book but also in her previous one, Artful, sharing many common points with How to Be Both, starting with its double-edged title: (full of art/crafty) being also the alternative name of the character of ‘the Dodger’ in Dickens’s Oliver Twist as quoted in Artful.

9 See Bilmes 193–229 who develops this formal technique called ‘laminating.’

10 A theme in keeping with Artful in which the narrator sees her partner coming back from the dead and invading her life in a perturbing way.

11 This was then very much debated, see Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir (1977), shortly published after Ways of Seeing 1972.

12 Berger adds in the same passage ‘And since in modern society neither of these [magic or religion]is a living force, the art object, the “work of art”, is enveloped in an atmosphere of entirely bogus religiosity.’ (Berger 21).

13 Stephen Cheeke recalling Berger’s essential passage reminds the reader that actually the painting in the National Gallery is the second version, the primary one being in the Louvre. (Cheeke 2010, 79 n. 5). Cheeke also wrote on the religion of art once actual religions tended to be forsaken (Cheeke 2016).

14 These dramatic episodes are told in Giorgi’s Le roman de Ferrare, in particular in the story ‘Dans les murs: une nuit de 43,’ 155–162.

15 This echoes Francescho’s original choice of gender to be able to work in a man’s world.

16 Ali Smith resorts to the collage of times or to their fusion in The Seasonal Quartet series and in Companion Piece as well.

17 The Hotel Prisciani and the room with the winged eye and the split-level bedroom where George’s brother sleeps can be checked online, together with pictures and its address.

18 Two different medals of Alberti’s portrait and the winged eye are kept in France one in Le Louvre and the other one in the Petit Palais Museum.

19 Some of the pictures representing the Muses have been retrieved and kept in various museums but the Belfiore palace and its studiolo were damaged by the Venetian armies and then destroyed in 1683 during a fire.

20 The colourful DNA cycle path (inaugurated in 2005) celebrates the discovery of the four nucleotides responsible for a form of breast cancer by Prof. Michael Stratton and Dr Richard Stratton in Cambridge in 1995. At each end of the path was erected a sculpture of the magnified DNA double helix.

21 Let it be noted too that a whole chapter is dedicated to ‘form’ in Artful.

22 See Louvel 2018, 245–264.

23 Stephen Cheeke sees it as the kind of ‘creative criticism’ championed in Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist where the critical act is a ‘new creation . . . adding more to the life of the artwork’ (Wilde 1956, 292; Cheeke 2008, 186) then he concludes: ‘Ekphrasis then is an example both of the creative act itself—through the Greek mimesis, imitating, copying—and of the secondary critical act of commentary, description, revelation. Indeed [it] is frequently a moment of significant creation (as Ruskin, Pater on Leonardo, . . .), and therefore potentially subject itself to critical commentary and appreciation, and at the same time it is a moment of criticism, a response to an art object, and thus always open to disagreement or correction’ (Cheeke 2008,186).

24 See Tom Overton’s introduction to Landscapes, and Berger’s stories in the same book: like ‘To Take Paper to Draw’ (20–27), which nicely precedes Jean-Luc Nancy’s Le Plaisir au dessin.

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Liliane Louvel, « How to Be Both: When Ali Smith Meets John Berger »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 65 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2023, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Liliane Louvel

Liliane Louvel is Professor emerita of British literature at the University of Poitiers and specialises in contemporary British literature and word/image relationship. She has written numerous articles on the subject and she has also edited several collections of essays. She has published five books on the relationship between word and image: L’œil du texte (PUM 1998), The Picture of Dorian Gray, Le double miroir de l’art (Ellipses, 2000), Texte/image, images à lire et textes à voir (PUR 2002), Le Tiers pictural (PUR 2010), Poetics of the Iconotext, Tr. Laurence Petit (Ashgate, 2011). Le tiers pictural, tr. A. Tseti as The Pictorial Third (Routledge, 2018). She is currently working on a monograph on Stanley Spencer, for Cohen&Cohen editions. She is the President of IAWIS/AIERTI, the International Association for Word and image Studies.

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