John Berger, pioneering art critic and author, dies at 90
Prodigious British intellectual, who helped to redefine the way a generation saw art, passes away in France
NEW YORK — John Berger, the British art critic, intellectual and prodigious author whose pioneering 1972 book and the BBC series it spawned, Ways of Seeing, redefined the way a generation saw art, died Monday. He was 90.
Simon McBurney, the British actor and a friend of Berger’s, said that Berger died at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. Berger had been ill for about a year, McBurney said.
“He died at home surrounded by his family,” Berger’s eldest son, Jacob, told AFP news agency. Berger was predeceased in 2013 by his wife Beverly Bancroft by whom he had three children, all devoted to cultural activities — film critic Katya and artist Yves, as well as film director Jacob.
The author of criticism, novels, poetry, screenplays and many less classifiable books, Berger had considerable influence as a late 20th-century thinker. He consistently, provocatively challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and the connections between the two.
He examined the role consumerism played in the rise of Picasso in 1965’s The Success and Failure of Picasso. He claimed that cubism anticipated the Russian revolution in The Moment of Cubism, and Other Essays. When he won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, Berger spoke against the prize’s roots in Caribbean slave labour and pledged to give half his reward to the Black Panthers, a group he said more accurately reflected his own politics.
That same year, Berger — with a head of wavy brown hair, a beige ’70s shirt and a magnetic authority — captivated the British public with Ways of Seeing, a series of four 30-minute films. In it, he mined imagery for larger cultural discoveries. How women were depicted in art, for example, revealed much about a time period’s attitude toward gender.
“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, which became a common curriculum of universities.
“We explain that world with words but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
Born to a middle-class London family on November 5, 1926, Berger never attended university, leaving school after his O levels at the age of 16. He was drafted into the British Army in 1944 and was dispatched to Northern Ireland.
“I lived among these raw recruits,” he told The Guardian in 2005, “and it was the first time I really met working-class contemporaries. I used to write letters for them, to their parents and occasionally their girlfriends.”
After the Army, he joined the Chelsea School of Art. He began as a painter, later taught drawing and eventually began writing criticism for the New Statesman. But his studies later expanded significantly into other realms after leaving England for good in 1960, saying that he no longer felt English or comfortable in his homeland. He examined the lives of migrant workers in 1975’s A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe. In 1980’s About Looking, he considered, among other subjects, how animals exist alongside human lives.
“To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia,” Berger wrote.
“Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.”
His first book was 1958’s A Painter of Our Time.
Berger also wrote several screenplays, among them 1976’s John Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, a drama set amid the 1968 protests in Paris. The artist John Christie, who collaborated with Berger on films and books, remembered Berger as “the most wonderful collaborator and a man generous with his friendship.”
“He loved bringing people together,” said Christie.
Berger’s considerable output ran right up until last year, when he published a collection of essays, Confabulations. A documentary on Berger, produced by Tilda Swinton, was also released in 2016. In The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, Berger and Swinton, a long-time friend of his, converse in the French Alpine village he lived in for much of his life. Swinton calls him “a radical humanist.”
“If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen,” Berger says in the film. “For me, a storyteller, he’s like a passer, that’s to say like somebody who gets contraband across a frontier.”
Berger also had his fan club in Argentina with Graciela Speranza and Matías Serra Bradford (a regular Herald book reviewer a couple of decades ago) translating his work into Spanish. Among River Plate authors, Berger proclaimed his “reverence” for the poet Juan Gelman, whom he read in English — “every page three or four times.”
In an interview here he described why he turned to writing despite his artistic training in Chelsea:
“Drawing probably makes me happier because I totally forget everything else except what is in front of me. It just means getting closer and closer (to the object) and the process is all there — immediately visible. In contrast, writing not only stretches out in time but also space — pages and pages to which I have to return again and again. The concentration involved in drawing, on the contrary, excludes any extension.”
Herald with agencies