British critic and writer John Berger passed away today. He was 90. 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.
A prolific writer, Berger was also an accomplished poet and playwright. 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.
He was born in Stoke Newington, north London. His father was a Hungarian émigré who was very much affected by the First World War, in which he served as an infantry officer and was awarded the Military Cross. His mother, Miriam, was once a suffragette and hailed from Bermondsey, south London.
The popularity of Ways of Seeing on BBC had a profound impact on Western culture. Some, like academics Jan Bruck and John Docker, see the series and book as a response to another widely seen BBC series by Kenneth Clark in 1969. They write: “Ways of Seeing was a Marxist reply to another TV series, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which studiously avoided economic, social, and ideological aspects of art, so that art history emerged as a narrative of isolated men of genius.”
Speaking to Kate Kellaway, Berger explained his interest in labor and social issues. “The connection between the human condition and labour is frequently forgotten, and for me was always so important. At 16, I went down a coal mine in Derbyshire and spent a day on the coal face – just watching the miners. It had a profound effect,” he told her. When she asked how it made him feel. He responded quietly. “Respect. Just respect. There are two kinds. Respect to do with ceremony – what happens when you visit the House of Lords. And a completely different respect associated with danger,” he said. “This is not a prescription for others, but when I look back on my life I think it’s very significant I never went to a university. I refused to go. Lots of people were pushing me and I said, ‘No. I don’t want to’, because those years at university form a whole way of thinking.”
Here is a selection of YouTube videos featuring Berger, including Ways of Seeing (1972).
John Berger and Susan Sontag exchange ideas on the “lost art of storytelling” in this 1983 video:
A visual essay on time by John Berger (1985):
John Berger draws Tilda Swinton (2015?):
John Berger discusses his life’s work and perception of the world today (2015?):