John Berger was a British critic, novelist and screenwriter whose groundbreaking 1972 television series and book, Ways of Seeing, declared war on traditional ways of thinking about art and influenced a generation of artists and teachers. He died at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony, aged 90.
As the host of Ways of Seeing, with his shaggy hair and tieless, loud-patterned shirt, Berger was a public intellectual who became a countercultural celebrity in 1970s Britain, where the BBC kept the four-part series in frequent rotation. The book became an art-school standard on both sides of the Atlantic.
He set the insurrectionary tone in the show's opening sequence, taking a box cutter to a mock-up of Botticelli's Venus and Mars and slicing out the portrait of Venus.
Berger's intention was to upend what he saw as centuries of elitist critical tradition that evaluated artworks mostly formally, ignoring their social and political context, and the series came to be seen as an assault on the historian Kenneth Clark's lofty Civilisation, the landmark 1969 BBC series about the glories of western art.
Among many other subjects, Berger burrowed into the sexism underpinning the tradition of the nude; the place of high art in an image-saturated modern world; the relationship between art and advertising; and, of particular importance to him as a voice of the British New Left, the way traditional oil painting celebrated wealth and materialism.
“Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations,” he wrote. “It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.”
In academic circles the book became, as one art historian described it, the equivalent of Mao's "Little Red Book", and it went on to sell more than a million copies, never going out of print. Berger's methods, influenced by the ideas of Walter Benjamin, tended to attract either ardent admiration or seething criticism, with little in between.
Susan Sontag once wrote that “in contemporary English letters he seems to me peerless.” Stephen Spender, on the other hand, called him “a foghorn in a fog” (a condemnation that Berger wryly spun into a compliment, asking what could be more useful in a fog). The critic Hilton Kramer complained that his brand of Marxism was not about real political problems but about provoking “social guilt among the comfortable, cultivated consumers of high culture”.
John Peter Berger was born in London and raised in only moderate comfort, with little high culture, in what he described as a working-class home. His father, Stanley, a minor public official, and his mother, Miriam, managed to send him to private school, but he hated it and spent most of his time writing poetry and reading an anarchist weekly newspaper. He ran away from school at 16 and began studying art, continuing at Chelsea School of Art, now Chelsea College of Arts, after a stint in the army.
Berger (pronounced BER-jer) wanted to be a painter but found that he was much better at writing. For a decade he was an art critic for the New Statesman, where he made a name for himself by antagonising nearly everyone in the art world in prose that was beautifully spare and precise but heavily moralising and also frequently humourless.
He was a champion of realism during the rise of Abstract Expressionism, and he took on giants such as Jackson Pollock, whom he criticised as a talented failure for being unable to “see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs”.
But his love for favourite artists – among them Rembrandt, Velázquez, van Gogh and Frida Kahlo – was expressed with a fervour and depth of intelligence matched by few critics of his generation.
The year 1972 was Berger's most prolific, with Ways of Seeing and the publication of his most critically acclaimed novel, G., about the political awakening of a Lothario in Europe before the first World War, which was awarded the Booker Prize. (Characteristically, Berger criticised the company that sponsored the prize, saying that it exploited Caribbean workers, and announced that he would split his winnings with the Black Panthers.)
In 1974, when his critical influence was probably at its height in Britain, he left London for Paris and then Geneva. He later decided to leave cities altogether, moving to a remote peasant community, Quincy, in the French Alps, where he lived with his wife, Beverly Bancroft, who died in 2013, and their son, Yves. (Besides his son, he is survived by another son, Jacob, and a daughter, Katya, from a previous marriage.)
In the Alps, where he learned to raise cattle, he wrote a trilogy of unconventional books called Into Their Labours – comminglings of short story, poetry and essay – examining the migration of peasants away from their traditions and into cities.
He also successfully dabbled in screenwriting, collaborating with the director Alain Tanner on three films, including the critically praised Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976) about a group of radical idealists trying to stay true to their principles. His novel From A to X was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2008, and in 2016, Berger was the subject of an anthology documentary, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, directed in part by the actress Tilda Swinton, a friend.
Despite his many forays into hard-to-classify forms of writing, he returned again and again to the essay, the bedrock of his reputation, whose underlying theme was almost always the impossibility of disentangling the aesthetic from the moral: a 1992 piece described the annual task of mucking the pit beneath his outhouse, an odious job but one that offered many of the same lessons that great art had taught him.
“Nothing in the nature around us is evil,” he wrote. “This needs to be repeated since one of the human ways of talking oneself into inhuman acts is to cite the supposed cruelty of nature.”
“The just-hatched cuckoo, still blind and featherless, has a special hollow like a dimple on its back,” he continued, “so that it can hump out of the nest, one by one, its companion fledglings.”