John Berger, the perspicacious and politically engaged art critic, novelist, and essayist whose 1972 BBC television series and book Ways of Seeing remains a cornerstone of venturesome contemporary art criticism, died today at his home in Antony, a suburb of Paris. The cause of death was not immediately available, but the actor Simon McBurney, who was friends with Berger, told the Associated Press that the writer had been ill for about a year. He was 90.
Ways of Seeing—both the book and the television program—stands in a class of its own in the recent art-historical canon for its accessibility, its persuasive, direct argumentation, and its popularity. In the first episode of the four-part program, Berger states that his aim is “to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting,” and proceeds to do so with aplomb, explaining the male gaze in individual works, the effects of photographic reproduction on the public’s understanding of art, and the capitalist structure of the art system.
Berger’s writing in Ways of Seeing is crisp and polemical, and on the remarkable TV show, it is further enlivened by his charismatic presence. In a jazzy collared shirt and with a head of curly hair, he stares intensely at the camera as he imparts lines like, “Most nudes in oil paintings have been lined up by their painters for the pleasure of the male spectator-owner who will assess and judge them as sights. Their nudity is another form of dress. They are condemned to never being naked.”
By the time Ways of Seeing was released, Berger had already published a handful of novels and served as a controversial art critic for the New Statesmen and elsewhere, but 1972 would be his banner year, with his novel G winning the Man Booker prize. At the award ceremony, Berger announced he would donate half of the winnings to the British Black Panthers, one act in a lifelong commitment to radical politics and Marxism.
John Peter Berger was born in London in 1926. He served in the British Army near the end of World War II, and attended the Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art in the British capital, where he studied art. He would skip classes to go see movies, “often seeing three or four films a day. I was crazy about the cinema,” he once told an interviewer. His paintings were exhibited at galleries including Wildenstein, but he would shift his focus to writing during the 1950s while still continuing to make art.
In 1962, he moved to France, seeking a more intellectual milieu than the United Kingdom offered, and he would remain there throughout his life, living for many years in the rural village of Quincy. “Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography,” he wrote in 1987, in one of his most-quoted passages. “Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.” He published prolifically—novels, plays, poetry books, short stories, screenplays, and monographs on individual artists. In 2009 he won the Golden PEN for lifetime achievement as a writer.
Perhaps because of his training as an artist, Berger was a master at elucidating the working methods of artists, but he was also a forceful critic of both art and the systems that surround it, able to roll off lines like, “A love of art has been a useful concept to the European ruling classes for over a century and a half,” and then going on to explain how these elites wielded that purportedly neutral interest to legitimize colonialism and other forms of dominance. (Just today the Los Angeles Review of Books ran a thorough review of Berger’s latest collection of essays, Landscapes, 2015, which includes that line.)
Over the course of his 60-plus-year career, Berger forged a role that is painfully rare in today’s art world, working as a public intellectual, a multifarious writer, and a determined, entertaining educator, intent on reaching a broad audience. In 2015, he was the subject of a multi-part documentary, titled The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, with sections directed by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, and Bartek Dziadosz. “For me, a storyteller, he’s like a passer,” he says in the film. “That’s to say, like somebody who gets contraband across the frontier.”
Berger is survived by two children, Anya and Jacob, according to The Guardian. He was married three times, the final time to Beverly Bancroft, who predeceased him in 2013.
In a 2002 interview with Michael Govan, who is now director of the Los Angeles County Museum, Berger said, “Maybe the two kinds of interiors where I feel most at home, just in general, are in studios, painters’ studios…and in kitchens.” He continued, “In those two places, I feel most at home. In many, many other rooms, I feel a little intimidated.”