The Booker prize-winning author and art critic, political radical, philosopher, poet, storyteller and one of the most influential intellectuals of our time John Berger has died at the age of 90.
The Marxist intellectual, whose pioneering 1972 book and subsequent four part BBC series, Ways of Seeing, brought a political perspective to art criticism, died at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony on Monday. He had been ill for about a year.
In one of his final interviews with the Observer’s Kate Kellaway, giving his view, among other things, on the bigger picture around the Brexit vote.“It seems to me that we have to return, to recapitulate what globalisation meant, because it meant that capitalism, the world financial organisations, became speculative and ceased to be first and foremost productive, and politicians lost nearly all their power to take political decisions – I mean politicians in the traditional sense. Nations ceased to be what they were before.”Born in Hackney, London, England, Berger served in the British Army from 1944 to 1946; he then enrolled in the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art in London.He began his career as a painter and exhibited work at a number of London galleries in the late 1940s and continued to paint throughout his career.
While teaching drawing (from 1948 to 1955), Berger became an art critic, publishing many essays and reviews in the New Statesman. His Marxist humanism and his strongly stated opinions on modern art made him a controversial figure early in his career. He titled an early collection of essays Permanent Red, in part as a statement of political commitment, and later wrote that before the Soviet Union achieved nuclear parity with the United States he had felt constrained not to criticize the former's policies; afterwards his attitude toward the Soviet state became considerably more critical.Throughout his long life, a vehement critic of capitalism, he kept challenging the way we see the world and how we think about it.
Berger was he author of art criticism, novels, poetry, screenplays and many other books He won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, and pledged to give half the prize money to the revolutionary American group the Black Panthers who were he said at the time “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country”..Berger did not just speak of the oppressed, but stood with them, talked with them, and documented their stories.. I've personally been reading recently his collaboration with photographer Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man which originally came out in 1975, that he produced with he rest of the money he was awarded at the Booker prize, in in which he explored he story of migrant workers who far from being on he margins of modern experience are central to it.
He consistently challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and connections between the two. Berger was not political in a reductionist or dogmatic way. For him, all great art, and all noble politics, is created as a response to life. The great masters don’t interest him simply because they are great. (Art collectors, even the most discriminating ones, he noted, have a “manic obsession to prove that everything he has bought is incomparably great and that anybody who in any way questions this is an ignorant scoundrel.”) Berger studied their visions to learn something about survival, not just his own, but the also the survival of a world where people can live free and meaningful lives.Berger retained a revolutionary urge to stand against authority. Forbidden by a private security guard to draw a sketch of one of the Christs in the National Gallery, he swore and was asked to leave the building, " I take it you know the way out, Sir” said the guard. Berger knows the way out and has plotted the route for all of us.
Goodbye to a beautiful mind.
Here is link to some films about him that came out last year :-
The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger:
Obituary in the Guardian
The following is what John Berger had to say about poetry :-
"Poems, even when narrative, do not resemble stories. All stories are about battles, of one kind or another, which end in victory or defeat. Everything moves towards the end, when the outcome will be known.
Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anaesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.
Poems are nearer to prayers than stories, but in poetry there is no one behind the language being prayed to. It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge. For the religious poet, the Word is the first attribute of God. In all poetry, words are a presence before they are a means of communication."
― John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
John Berger - The Art of Looking (2016)
Released on the occasion of his 90th birthday John Berger or the Art of Looking is an intimate portrait of the writer and art critic whose ground-breaking work on seeing has shaped our understanding of the concept for over five decades. The film explores how paintings become narratives and stories turn into images, and rarely does anybody demonstrate this as poignantly as Berger.This creative documentary takes a different approach to biography, with John Berger leading in his favourite role of the storyteller.