John Berger was one of the most influential critics of the last fifty years, extracting radical content from tradition.
ONE — Berger always begun with, or eventually arrived at, love. Once he wrote, remarkably, that seeing the beloved can be recognised as love itself, even more fully realised than through sex: ‘When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness that only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.’
TWO — Berger’s writing is wide and deep, radical and wrought. His famous “Ways of Seeing” (1972) begins ‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak.’ He was interested in compression, in the aphoristic, he used a broad brush. His was a high-pressure style which forced away alternatives.
THREE — The tone of the following remark exemplifies why Berger’s work is so compelling and also effectively without irony or humour: ‘What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told, and that if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told.’
FOUR — Famously a lifelong Marxist, Berger was yet acutely conscious of the individual and the stakes of subjectivity: ‘Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented … and thus by implication how the subject had been seen by other people … the specific vision of the image-maker became part of the record … how X had seen Y.’ Berger never became a Communist: ‘I had reservations about the party line in relation to the arts.’
FIVE — He blew up Sir Kenneth Clark, that is to say, a traditional art view of the female nude. ‘Clark maintains that to be naked is to be without clothes, whereas the nude is a form of art.’ Berger’s revision: ‘To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself.’ More to the point: ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.’
SIX — His gloss on Walter Benjamin’s seminal “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is deceptively succinct: ‘The uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of the reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique.’ Of course, in digitally-based new media art, the reproduction and the “original” are the same.
SEVEN — Berger wrote about artists as a writer who drew and once painted. He often guessed with his eye and hand what writers on art often miss, the sensual triggers for the work. He braided poetry into his writing to sound out what was unsayable in prose, and was particularly good on painters. If Robert Hughes could smartly nail the artist and their oeuvre, Berger opened windows to scope the artist’s furthest shore. He wrote, ‘Rothko turned painting inside out because the colours he so laboriously created are waiting to depict things which do not yet exist.’ Berger was a thoroughgoing materialist but he believed in the ancient project of art.
EIGHT — ‘Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects … As an art-form it derived from the principle that you are what you have.’ Or one might say, painting is property. (In response to an attack he wrote: ‘We are accused of being obsessed by property. The truth is the other way round. It is the society and culture in question that is so obsessed.’)
NINE — He saw himself as a witness to the times. ‘Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories … storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people … This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.’ And what the witness does is raise the alarm, or testify after the fact. John Berger was a star witness.
Berger wrote, ‘Metaphor is needed. Metaphor is temporary. It does not replace theory.’ But perhaps it is theory, or theories, that come and go and metaphor that stands. More than thirty years ago in a poem he was already elegiac. Here are the first and last stanzas:
When I open my wallet
to show my papers
or check the time of a train
I look at your face.
. . .
And our faces, my heart, brief as
In the book which houses that poem he circles at the end back to love. Berger was Marxist by conviction and romantic by instinct; the object of his need to believe was the reality of a person, which is actually to say, his relationship to that person. Here, the metaphor is permanent:
‘What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered together … One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis … With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.’
Notes: Quotes from “Ways of Seeing”, 1972; except for no. 3 from a Guardian essay, 2014; no. 7 from “Portraits”, 2015; no. 9 and secondary quote in no. 4 from an interview with Geoff Dyer in Marxism Today, Dec. 1984, extracts in Addendum from “And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos”, 1984.