On the second day of 2017 came the sad news that the British writer and artist, John Berger, had died at the age of 90. Berger was one of a kind, ‘peerless’ as Susan Sontag described him. He was an intellectual who had never wanted to go to university. Ironically, Berger’s prolific work has ended up on university reading lists all over the world and across the arts, humanities, medicine and the social sciences.
Born in north London on November 5, 1926, Berger was sent to a private boarding school in Oxford. He ran away from school at 16 and returned to London, where he studied at the Central School of Art and Design. After two years of military service in 1946, he would continue his education at the Chelsea College of Art. During this time, he read the work of Karl Marx and became more politically involved through his friendships with Jewish refugee artists and intellectuals.
In 1962, Berger migrated to Europe, eventually making his home near the French Alps, where he lived in a small hamlet among agricultural workers. While Berger was an active member of his rural community, he continued to write essays, novels, plays and poetry.
Probably best known for his searching and wide-ranging analyses of art, Berger’s forensic eye took in the work of Titian, Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock. It was the 1972 four-part BBC TV series Ways of Seeing (made with Mike Dibb), and the accompanying book of the same name, that brought him more directly into the public eye.
This was a new approach to European art, a departure from the usual didactic style of art-world luminaries. Berger spoke to the viewer as an equal, taking us with him on a journey of captivating stories that made art theory come alive. Along the way, he encouraged us to see differently because how we see is how we know. To see beyond the veneer of appearances is to understand the workings of power. “It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” Berger argued. “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
The edgy, energetic style of Ways of Seeing has stood the test of time. Thanks to YouTube, since 2012, over 500,000 people have watched the series. New generations are just as enthralled by Berger’s passion and democratising impulses. He could have left his critique of the status quo there, but Berger’s commitment to social justice extended far beyond the page and television screen.
Throughout his life, Berger lent his support to struggles for democracy and dignity. He met with the Zapatistas in Mexico and spoke out against the occupation of the Palestinian territories by Israel. It was Berger who read a ‘A letter from Gaza’ by the writer Ghassan Khanafani at the inaugural meeting of the Palestinian Literary Festival in 2008.
Along the way and out of sight, Berger encouraged and helped artists and writers, maintaining a huge correspondence, by letter and more recently SMS, brimming with encouragement, wit and generosity. Arundhati Roy says that it was Berger who gave her the impetus to finish her second novel, after he had demanded that she read him what she had been writing. “You just go back to Delhi and you finish that book,” he told her.
There are so many stories like this about Berger. He touched and changed lives. The world feels diminished without him.
Yasmin Gunaratnam teaches in the sociology department at Goldsmiths. She has edited two recent collections of essays and poetry in celebration of John Berger: A Jar of Wild Flowers with Amarjit Chandan and A long white thread of words with Amarjit Chandan and Gareth Evans.