Ways Of Seeing author a countercultural celebrity in 1970s Britain

John Berger.
John Berger.

NEW YORK • John Berger, the British critic, novelist and screenwriter whose groundbreaking 1972 television series and book, Ways Of Seeing, declared war on traditional ways of thinking about art and influenced a generation of artists and teachers, died on Monday at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. He was 90.

Simon McBurney, the British actor and a friend of Berger, confirmed his death to The Associated Press.

As the host of Ways Of Seeing, with his shaggy hair and tieless, loud-patterned shirt, Berger was a public intellectual who became a countercultural celebrity in 1970s Britain, where the BBC kept the four-part series in frequent rotation. The book became an art- school standard on both sides of the Atlantic.

He set the insurrectionary tone in the show's opening sequence, taking a box cutter to a mock-up of Botticelli's Venus And Mars and slicing out the portrait of Venus.

His intention was to upend what he saw as centuries of elitist critical tradition that evaluated artworks mostly formally, ignoring their social and political context, and the series came to be seen as an assault on the historian Kenneth Clark's lofty Civilisation, the landmark 1969 BBC series about the glories of Western art.

Among many other subjects, Berger burrowed into the sexism underpinning the tradition of the nude; the place of high art in an imagesaturated modern world; the relationship between art and advertising; and, of particular importance to him as a voice of the British New Left, the way traditional oil painting celebrated wealth and materialism.

"Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations," he wrote.

"It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity."

In academic circles, the book became, as one art historian described it, the equivalent of Mao's Little Red Book, and it went on to sell more than one million copies, never going out of print.

His methods, influenced by the ideas of philosopher Walter Benjamin, tended to attract either ardent admiration or seething criticism, with little in between.

American writer-film-maker Susan Sontag once wrote that "in contemporary English letters he seems to me peerless".

English poet-novelist Stephen Spender, on the other hand, called him "a foghorn in a fog" (a condemnation that Berger wryly spun into a compliment, asking what could be more useful in a fog).

The critic Hilton Kramer complained that his brand of Marxism was not about real political problems, but about provoking "social guilt among the comfortable, cultivated consumers of high culture".

John Peter Berger was born in London and raised in only moderate comfort, with little high culture, in what he described as a working- class home.

His father, a minor public official, managed to send him to private school, but he hated it and spent most of his time writing poetry and reading an anarchist weekly newspaper. He ran away from school at 16 and began studying art, continuing at Chelsea School of Art, now Chelsea College of Arts, after a stint in the army.

He wanted to be a painter, but found that he was much better at writing. For a decade, he was an art critic for The New Statesman, where he made a name for himself by antagonising nearly everyone in the art world in prose that was beautifully spare and precise, but heavily moralising and also frequently humourless.

He was a champion of realism during the rise of abstract expressionism and he took on giants such as American painter Jackson Pollock, whom he criticised as a talented failure for being unable to "see or think beyond the decadence of the culture to which he belongs".

But his love for his favourite artists - among them Rembrandt, Velazquez, van Gogh and Kahlo - was expressed with a fervour and depth of intelligence matched by few critics of his generation.

The year 1972 was his most prolific, with Ways Of Seeing and the publication of his most critically acclaimed novel, G., about the political awakening of a Lothario in pre- World War I Europe, which was awarded the Booker Prize.

In 1974, when his critical influence was probably at its height in Britain, he left London for Paris and then Geneva.

He later moved to a remote peasant community, Quincy, in the French Alps, where he lived with his wife, who died in 2013, and their son. He is also survived by another son and a daughter from a previous marriage.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2017, with the headline 'Ways Of Seeing author a countercultural celebrity in 1970s Britain'. Print Edition | Subscribe