Tuesday, January 3, 2017

John Berger obituary - by Michael McNay

The art critic, essayist and novelist John Berger threw down his challenge early in his television series Ways of Seeing. This came in 1972, the year when Berger, who has died aged 90, broke through to real fame from his niche celebrity on the arts pages of the New Statesman. Ways of Seeing, made on the cheap for the BBC as four half-hour programmes, was the first series of its kind since Civilisation (1969), 13 one-hour episodes for which Kenneth Clark, its writer and presenter, and a BBC production team had travelled 80,000 miles through 13 countries exploring 2,000 years of the visual culture of the western world. Berger travelled as far as the hut in Ealing, west London where his programmes were filmed, and no farther. What he said in his characteristic tone of sweet reasonableness was:

“In his book on the nude, Kenneth Clark says that being naked is simply being without clothes. The nude, according to him, is a form of art. I would put it differently: to be naked is to be oneself; to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude.”

In other words, art is a commodity and a woman in art is an object. No approach to art could have been more different from Clark’s gentlemanly urbanity. These demotic programmes turned Berger into the hero of a generation studying the burgeoning new university courses on European visual culture. The spin-off book was never out of print. Clark, meanwhile, found himself derided as Lord Clark of Civilisation.

Ways of Seeing was Berger’s apotheosis as a populariser, but in this year too he won the Booker prize, the James Tait Black Memorial prize and the Guardian Fiction prize with his novel G, and also published, with his frequent collaborator the photographer Jean Mohr, A Fortunate Man, a sensitive documentary account of a country doctor on his daily round in Gloucestershire. These three books began to sketch out the areas of Berger’s lifetime enterprise.

They were preceded by the publication of The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965) and Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the USSR (1969); in one, he made a hopeless mess of Picasso’s later career, though he was not alone in this; in the other, he elevated a brave dissident artist beyond his talents… read more: