Visual Arts Editor
John Berger first entered my life as a simple little book in a large collection of my artist mother’s, observed but not seen for many years. From the outside, it was nothing more than any other coffee book you may come across. But inside this little book lay the basis for a generation’s cultural understanding.
This year on January 2nd John Berger passed away, a man who will be remembered for his profound impact on the art world.
John Berger’s insight into the world around him paralleled, if not exceeded, those in history who we often romanticise; Kafka, Austen, Warhol, & Bacon to name a few. Instead of hoarding this talent, Berger spent his career spreading the gospel, lending his glasses to the new generations he saw around him. Berger’s work concerns itself with the visual world and its representations because it was the human presentation of the human condition that fascinated him.
Artifice, materiality, exploitation, appropriation, these are themes Berger saw as the undercurrent of our age. In protest, his life’s work told of the beauty of truth; the reality of the world around us, however grotesque it may at first appear. For Berger, artists are no more than actors, not a far cry from the words of Shakespeare; “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” An age-old idea was given new life in Berger’s hands.
In his essays on Rembrandt, Berger instructs his audience to leave the museum and visit an emergency hospital. He explains that it is only then that we can truly understand the beauty and intelligence of Rembrandt’s depiction of the fragility of existence. This is just one example of how Berger’s work contextualises Art. Not just making the practice and observation of art more accessible but also reminding the (often) elitist art world that Art lives in and is inescapable from the every day.
Publishing his last book, ‘Landscapes: John Berger on Art’, in 2016, the publication fittingly gives the reader an insight into how Berger came to attain the way of seeing that made him such a visionary. He explores and exposes the creativity in all walks of life and throughout history. Using landscapes as a metaphor, Berger brings to the forefront that which is so often considered nothing but mere background.
Earlier the same year Berger brought out ‘Confabulations’, a collection of essays focusing on language and the way in which language is inextricably weaved into society. Like much of Berger’s writing, it considers its subject from a holistically contextualised standpoint, a unique feature of his way of seeing.
Berger, though so entrenched in the subjects of his writing, needed distance for true observation. He spent the end of his life in self-imposed exile in the Alps, leaving his Hackney birthplace synonymously with his surge in popularity in the 1970s. This is where the genius of his perception lay; the ability to be both in and outside his subject matter.
There are a number of strong ideological influences key to Berger’s interpretation of art, often it is difficult to know whether art is merely the chosen vehicle for his philosophies. Often appealing to great thinkers that had proceeded him, Spinoza seemed time and time again to be of particular interest to him. Perhaps the irony of Spinoza’s lens-grinding side occupation is what attracted him. Undoubtedly Berger’s Marxism underpins much of his work and has often been a source of great media cynicism for him.
In his later years the strength of this commitment did not alter, but with the popularisation of the term, Berger began to specify his position. Stating that if he was asked whether he was a Marxist by someone well-versed in Karl Marx’s publication then he would agree, on any other occasion he preferred to keep a sceptical distance from the term. This may seem to crack Berger’s anti-elitist-bureaucratic veneer, but for me, it only serves to show the rigour of Berger’s desire for truth and understanding.
It is hard to cover the scope Berger covered in a lifetime, in a single article. It is also hard to convey the power and significance of Berger’s writing. Art lover or not, Berger has a way of speaking to a multitude of interests under the guise of a single topic, and I implore you to seek him out.
During an interview with BBC reporter, Jeremy Isaacs, Berger stated,“I feel that I’m a story-teller, that is all”. In doing so he was doing himself a disservice; he modestly underestimated the power of his authorship. Berger told the story of past generations through his artist accounts and he exposed the story of the present to a generation unaware of itself. It is the revelations of Berger’s storytelling that will enable the future to be its own author.
Berger gave cultural contact lenses to a generation and for this, 2017, and every year after is indebted to him.