John Berger © Jean Mohr
John Berger, whose most famous book Ways of Seeing sold more than a million copies, has died aged 90. An art critic who hated the label, Berger wrote Ways of Seeing in 1972, basing it on a BBC television series of the same title. As well as high art, Berger analysed the visual language of the mass media. Partly conceived as a riposte to Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, a far more lavish television series turned book, Ways of Seeing is still in print and on student reading lists.
A number of books were published to celebrate Berger’s 90th birthday last year, including two compilations—Portraits and Landscapes—a collaboration with John Christie, and a volume of new essays, which Andrew Lambirth reviewed in The Art Newspaper.
"Portraits is a vast and nourishing compendium of Berger’s essays that begins with a new preface by the master in which the first line is unequivocal: 'I have always hated being called an art critic.' He admits, however, that he operated as such for a decade (mostly for the New Statesman magazine), though in the milieu in which he grew up 'to call somebody an art critic was an insult. An art critic… wasn’t as bad as an art dealer, but he was a pain in the arse'. Presumably that is why Berger prefers to be known as a storyteller or novelist, or, at a pinch, an essayist. But he has never stopped writing about art (he trained as a painter), and he is inevitably critical (in the sense of reviewing and assessing the art he is discussing). Why quibble over terms? Berger is a brilliant writer and explicator, internationally influential in a way that few art critics usually are. To read him is to engage in a dialogue that invariably stimulates and enriches. Life has more light and colour after an encounter with Berger.
In the 2016 film The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, the actress Tilda Swinton visits the critic and painter in his Alpine village home. Photo: Sandro Kopp
His approach is to think himself into the artist’s studio, 'and there I wait in the hope of learning something of the story of [the work’s] making'. This empathetic convergence yields dividends, even if Berger himself is always doubtful of the value of the outcome. Although he stopped painting at the age of 30 in order to write, he never stopped drawing, and it is perhaps this continued practice that gives him such direct insights into the activity and meaning of art. This awareness, when coupled with his consummate skills as a storyteller and an awareness of political urgencies, enabled him to develop a 'sense of living connection' in the art of his time.
Berger began by lauding figurative painting and sculpture built on the discoveries of Modernist Abstraction, and stressed the importance of the artist’s receptivity or openness. His ideal method is to return again and again to the same artist, or the same work, for an extended process of consideration and reconsideration, finding something different each time."