John Berger, 1926 - 2017
The critic, novelist, painter, poet and screenwriter was 90.
Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic: "Best known in the art community for Ways of Seeing (1972), Berger helped bring 20th-century theories of visual culture and art—including the work of Walter Benjamin—to a wider audience. Ways of Seeing was also a BBC four-part television series that introduced his ideas and writing to a wider public. The book is still taught in schools around the world…. He won the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G and donated half of his cash prize to the Black Panther Party in the UK; he spent the rest on his study of migrant workers that became the 1975 book A Seventh Man."
"I cannot overestimate John Berger’s importance to me," writes Guardian art critic Adrian Searle. "It wasn’t so much his critical opinions or insights I valued, so much as the man himself, whose vitality and receptiveness to the things about him had a force I have rarely encountered. It was his freedom as a writer I admired most. He had both backbone and playfulness, approaching things at tangents but always illuminating his subjects in unexpected and often disconcerting ways. In his groundbreaking 1972 television series, Ways of Seeing, Berger described the purposes of art, and artists’ intentions, in ways that felt flexible, undogmatic and grounded both in experience and in delight. He helped us look for ourselves, which is the best a critic can do."
Also in the Guardian, Michael McNay: "Ways of Seeing, made on the cheap for the BBC as four half-hour programs, was the first series of its kind since Civilisation (1969), 13 one-hour episodes for which Kenneth Clark, its writer and presenter, and a BBC production team had travelled 80,000 miles through 13 countries exploring 2,000 years of the visual culture of the western world. Berger travelled as far as the hut in Ealing, west London where his programs were filmed, and no farther…. These demotic programs turned Berger into the hero of a generation studying the burgeoning new university courses on European visual culture. The spin-off book was never out of print. Clark, meanwhile, found himself derided as Lord Clark of Civilisation."
Profiling Berger for the Guardian back in October, Kate Kellaway noted that he felt "his own way of seeing has changed surprisingly little, although, he points out, technology has changed the way younger generations explore art. He admits, then, to his enthusiasm for texting: 'I’ve been a fan for a long while because it’s like whispers—and with that goes intimacy, secrecy, playfulness…' But there is nothing fixed about the way he sees. He believes one never sees the same picture twice: 'The second time I saw the Grünewald altarpiece was after a terrorist attack—it was the same painting yet I saw it differently.'"
And Sally Potter recalls, back during the making of Orlando (1992), being with Tilda Swinton when "she pulled out her copy of Ways of Seeing in order to read out one particular sentence to me. It was a sentence with which I was familiar but which bore repetition. 'Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.' I was in the process of looking at her, I was already the eyes of the camera in our collaboration. She was looking at herself being looked at by me. We became conspirators in the conceptual field so neatly laid out by John. Except that I was a woman."
Swinton's collaborated with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz on The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, which premiered at the Berlinale last February. In August, Keyframe editor Jonathan Kiefer found the film to be less "any kind of official documentary than a cleverly homespun movie mosaic… The portraits are glancing—and, like Berger’s books, sometimes amazingly unalike—but the best glances linger meaningfully and go a long way."
"Most of the writers currently rushing to canonize him," writes Robert Minto for the Los Angeles Review of Books, "avoid dwelling on the heart of Berger’s point of view—his Marxism. No doubt avoiding this disfavored topic makes eulogy easier, but it reminds me of something Berger wrote about Frederick Antal: 'the importance of his Marxism tends to be underestimated. In a curious way this is probably done out of respect for him: as though to say "He was brilliant despite that—so let’s charitably forget it." Yet, in fact, to do this is to deny all that Antal was.' To make such a denial about Berger should no longer be possible after the publication of Landscapes: John Berger on Art. Landscapes and its companion volume, Portraits: John Berger on Artists, are the best summation to date of Berger’s career as a critic."
For John Douglas Millar, writing for frieze, "it is in the experience of reading Berger’s prose, singularly compelling in its capacity to project presence and intimacy, that one finds the essence of his antinomian Marxist humanism and the true measure of his achievement."
In the New Statesman, where Berger originally established himself as an art critic, Andrew Marr argued in November that "Berger has been loved around the planet because he is the least theoretical Marxist on Earth. He is a writer for whom the clagginess of soil, the folds in an old jacket, the sharp smell of sorrel soup, or a German drawing of a hedgehog, matter first—the crammed meat inside the egg of nature. His hatred of capitalism, I take it, signals not only an anger on behalf of the dispossessed but also a revulsion against the ugliness of the modern world and our divorce from nature: a much wider dispossession."
See, too, Philip Maughan's profile that ran in the New Statesman in 2015: "'He is the lodestar of the contemporary literary experience,' the Irish novelist Colum McCann tells me. ;I cannot imagine my bookshelves without him. The other writers would collapse.' Susan Sontag described him as 'peerless' for his ability to merge 'attentiveness to the sensual world' with 'the imperatives of conscience,' though Berger himself prefers to be described, simply, as 'a storyteller.' Social and political commentary, subjective response and aesthetic theory are the basic elements of much of what he writes—but it all begins with seeing."
In 1976, when Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, directed by Alain Tanner and written by Berger, appeared, Dave Kehr, writing for the Chicago Reader, called it an "affectionate study of a group of 60s radicals trying to make the transition to the 70s. Tanner combines Godard's intellectual responsibility with Renoir's faith in the resiliency of the human spirit, resulting in a film that is both enlightening and encouraging. Funny, moving, and instructive, Jonah is that rare thing: a political film that speaks to the heart as well as the mind." Berger and Tanner also worked together on La Salamandre (1971) and The Middle of the World (1974) and, in 2012, the University of Calgary Press published Jerry White's Revisioning Europe: The Films of John Berger and Alain Tanner.
In 2002, Peter Wollen, best known to cinephiles as the author of Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969), reviewed The Selected Essays of John Berger edited by Geoff Dyer for the London Review of Books: "It is a daunting task to find some way of coming to terms with such a rich and extensive body of work, all of it marked by Berger’s unflagging seriousness, his insistence on somehow merging personal response, social insight, aesthetic theory and political commentary."
Updates, 1/4: "For Berger, every piece, no matter how playful, had high stakes," writes Sarah Cowan:
When he went as far as to connect Hieronymus Bosch with the “economic fascism” of globalization, then, he was not engaging in interpretive theatrics. He saw the horizonless, claustrophobic hell of Bosch’s Millennium Trilogy as a prophesy of our lived reality. “What the painting by Bosch does,” he writes, “is to remind us—if prophecies can be called reminders—that the first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world-picture implanted in our minds.” We must find a horizon, he wrote, and the way to do that is to “refind hope.”
This solution, refinding hope, appears again and again throughout his writing, like a series of sturdy knots connecting the bedsheets by which we might escape from prison or descend from the ivory tower.
The Paris Review has also posted Anderson Tepper's 2011 interview with Berger.
And, writing for the New Republic, Josephine Livingstone hopes "that Berger fans whose minds were opened by Ways of Seeing can remember that it was supposed to be a starting point, not a conclusion. 'Our survey of the European oil painting,' Berger writes, 'has been very brief and therefore very crude. It really amounts to no more than a project for study—to be undertaken perhaps by others.' In 1972, the same year that Ways of Seeing aired, Berger published a piece in New Society magazine called 'Photographs of Agony.' It’s short and excellent—try it…. You might even dip your toe into his weird film work: I recommend 1989’s Play Me Something, featuring the great Timothy Neat."
Updates, 1/6: The Guardian collects remembrances from Ali Smith, Olivia Laing, Simon McBurney—and Geoff Dyer, whose introduction to a recent edition of Berger's Understanding a Photograph has been posted at Bookforum.
"A few months ago," recalls Bruce Robbins, writing for n+1, "while watching the lush and loving [Seasons in Quincy], I found myself thinking what an endless series of portraits this man has given rise to, and will keep giving rise to. The beauty of the film’s montage—much of it of Berger’s Alpine home—is a self-conscious tribute to the beauty Berger teaches us to see in the world, in art and outside it…. No matter what he was looking at, Berger never stopped asking uncomfortable and therefore stimulating questions."
"He spoke quietly, conversationally, with a tendency to poetic metaphors that made surprising, unexpected connections between art and other human activities," writes Mike Gonzalez for Jacobin. "It was the same voice that you heard in his later writings—a seductive invitation to think and look together…. Art, he told us, was not in the frame but in the space between the object and the observer, a contested area where inherited values, prejudices, and expectations, like fragments of glass, refract and divert our gaze."
"Because he had been a painter," writes Yasmin Gunaratnam at The Conversation, "Berger was always a visual thinker and writer. In conversation with the novelist Michael Ondaatje he remarked that the capabilities of cinematographic editing had influenced his writing. He identified cinema’s ability to move from expansive vistas to close-up shots as that to which he most related and aspired."
Have you seen Austin Kleon's mind map of Ways of Seeing?
And the London Review Bookshop has reminded us of two of its podcasts. From November: "Gareth Evans, Tom Overton, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Mike Dibb discuss Berger's art and politics and its continuing relevance" (78'30"). And from May 2014: "Berger came to the Bookshop to celebrate the life and work of Aimé Césaire on the occasion of Archipelago's reissue of Césaire's long poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1936)." (48'54").
Update, 1/8: Ben Lerner for the New Yorker: "All of Berger’s work—which includes poems, novels, drawings, paintings, and screenwriting—is to me a beautiful and bracing argument that political commitment requires maintaining a position of wonder. Sexual desire, the rhythms (or increasing arrhythmia) of the seasons, the mysterious gaze of an animal, the spark of camaraderie released by sharing a meal and story, the way certain art works transform an idiosyncratic way of seeing into a commons—such experiences promise us, albeit briefly, an alternative to a world in which money is the only measure of value."
Updates, 1/10: Ways of Seeing "drew on Walter Benjamin’s theses on how art is changed by the possibility of its reproduction," writes Tom Overton for frieze. "But Benjamin also fueled John’s fascination with the figure of the storyteller: an artist with a particular kind of attitude towards experience that had been lost since the end of the Great War. Benjamin’s storyteller ‘has borrowed his authority from death’, which appears in his stories ‘with the same regularity as the Reaper does in the processions that pass around the cathedral clock at noon.’ For John, storytellers were—are?—‘Death’s Secretaries.’ Handed the files to read, rather than creating out of nothing, they work against the idea that the living and dead are separate."
"He wrote to me out of the blue when I was a film critic," recalls Suzanne Moore in the Guardian. "It was the most brilliant letter of warmth and encouragement that had me floating with joy. He wrote many such letters to many people. It is what he did, that old-fashioned thing: engagement."
Update, 1/14: "He questioned greed, monuments, glib cruelty, and received wisdom," writes Ben Ratliff for the New York Review of Books. "He felt that when we look at an artist’s work we are taking in how they themselves look at everything else, and that doing so 'increases our awareness of our own potentiality.' He seemed not to credit most forms of evaluative criticism. He didn’t write top-ten lists."
Update, 2/18: In a remembrance for the Brooklyn Rail, David Levi Strauss first looks back on a piece he once wrote for the Nation: "Where would any of us be without the example of John Berger?… In a 1970 essay on one of his most influential forbears, Walter Benjamin, Berger wrote, 'Works of art await use. But their real usefulness lies in what they actually are—which may be quite distinct from what they once were—rather than in what it may be convenient to believe they are.' In Berger’s writing, as in Benjamin’s, this radical realism has a political base." And he adds: "This is one of the most important things about Berger’s achievement: this implicit, or, I would say, implicate, relation between aesthetics and politics. Benjamin said it can’t be good criticism if it’s not good writing—it can’t be true politically if it’s not true aesthetically. This changes things."
Update, 4/26: After Berger's passing, Brad Stevens picked up a copy of Ways of Seeing and “was struck by how pertinent Berger’s claims were to cinematic culture.” This passage in particular:
The essential character of oil painting has been obscured by an almost universal misreading of the relationship between its “tradition” and its “masters.” Certain exceptional artists in exceptionable circumstances broke free of the norms of the tradition and produced work that was diametrically opposed to its values; yet these artists are proclaimed as the tradition’s supreme representatives: a claim which is made easier by the fact that after their death, the tradition closed around their work, incorporating minor technical innovations, and continuing as though nothing of principle had been disturbed.
Stevens for Sight & Sound: “One could hardly ask for a better description of the ways in which contemporary accounts of cinema history (and, through a process of homage, American cinema itself) position classical Hollywood.”