DECEMBER 12, 2018
THE DOYENS of the 1950s art world, gallerists, critics, and artists alike, often flush with the CIA’s anticommunist cash, kept politics at bay by emphasizing the autonomy and neutrality of art. John Berger disagreed. As an art critic for The New Statesman who refused to keep politics out of art, he found himself at the center of controversy after controversy.
Joshua Sperling’s A Writer of Our Time, the first biography of John Berger to appear since his death, begins in the midst of this exciting period. Still in his 20s, Berger was metamorphosing from student at the Chelsea School of Art into a prominent art critic. Sperling’s biography focuses on Berger’s work, keeping his personal life an embroidery at the edge of the narrative.
“The name of his cause,” writes Sperling, “was realism; opposing it was modernism.” Realism was the official aesthetic of the Communist Party in several countries, but though he was sympathetic to the Party, Berger championed realism for his own aesthetic reasons. When he was an art student, Sperling tells us, Berger was influenced by the Euston Road School, “a short-lived prewar academy that had favoured tradition, naturalism and the ‘poetry in the everyday’.” His own art followed that pattern, with a special focus on paintings of people engaged in ordinary work. Then, as an art critic, he promoted a set of young British realists who exhibited similar tendencies. They came to be called the Kitchen Sink painters.
In Berger’s opinion, art communicated to a viewer what seeing had disclosed to an artist. Seeing was the ever-fruitful source of art, and severing art from that source was a dead end. Berger clung to this axiom for his entire life, and it led him in a surprising variety of directions. In his 20s, it meant he preferred artists who portrayed what they saw in the street to artists who indulged in abstraction.
This aesthetic standard also appealed to postwar Britain. Berger was popular beyond the left. He was even invited to curate a show at the Whitechapel Gallery. It was a chance to demonstrate what he had argued in his articles. It proved “one of the most influential [exhibits] of the decade,” writes Sperling: “Many programmers and gallerists were […] won over. For a few years, thickly rendered paintings, full of impasto and brownish-grey in palette, came into vogue: pictures of northern industry, men at work, football, street and domestic scenes.”
But eventually, Berger’s Kitchen Sink painters began to disappoint him, both politically and aesthetically. The movement produced no one of particular note, and its members were not as committed to the left as he had hoped.
In the late 1950s, it became difficult to be a communist-adjacent polemicist. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” had revealed Stalin’s crimes, and then Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, bringing a new era of doubt and ambiguity to the global left. Berger left his berth at The New Statesman to explore those doubts and ambiguities in fiction.
He also left England. From the 1960s onward, his life became more European and his work exploded with variety. He wrote novels. First, A Painter of Our Time, in which an artist grapples with his relationship to leftist politics, and eventually the Booker-winning G., an experimental narrative in which a Don Juan–like protagonist comes to political consciousness through his sexual escapades across Europe. He also collaborated with the photographer Jean Mohr to create three documentary photo-essays about, respectively, “rural medicine, migrant labour and mountain peasants.” He collaborated on screenplays with the filmmaker Alain Tanner. He wrote profiles of European leftist intellectuals. Eventually, he returned to writing about art.
Berger’s new interest, however, was art history. Once an avowed anti-modernist, he shocked his readers by announcing that Cubism was the most important and genuinely revolutionary recent development in art. Not because the Cubists themselves were politically radical, but because their aesthetic revolution was the appropriate correlate to political revolution. Cubism, he wrote, was “the only example of dialectical materialism in painting.” This revisionist announcement met with an explosion of disagreement from the left. Some people assumed his position meant he had become an anticommunist. Sperling explains why his view was so shocking:
The traditional narrative of nineteenth-century modernism follows the rise of the avant-garde away from mimesis towards an aesthetic of subjectivity, abstraction and pure sensation. Both liberals and Marxists shared this view; what they disagreed over was whether it was good or bad.
The Marxists thought it was bad, and now Berger was telling them it was good. His about-face stems from his deeper, unchanged commitment to seeing:
The point of departure for Berger was the work of [Juan] Gris who, he says, was ‘as near to a scientist as any modern painter’. Disciple rather than innovator, the Spanish artist worked from a formula derived from the discoveries of [Pablo] Picasso and [Georges] Braque, and so became, in Berger’s words, ‘the purest and most apt of all the Cubists’. From his canvases more general principles can be gleaned. ‘The real subject of a cubist painting is not a bottle or a violin’, Berger hypothesized, ‘the real subject is the functioning of sight itself.’ The transposition had profound philosophical implications. The static empiricism of fixed appearances had given way to a new union: the Cartesian categories of mind (self-consciousness) and matter (extension in space) were brought together by the painters in their work. As in phenomenology, sensory experience was both in and of the world. As in post-classical physics, measurement and nature were now entangled in a kind of quantum dance. Looking at cubist painting was, for Berger, like looking at a star. ‘The star exists objectively, as does the subject of the painting. But its shape is the result of our looking at it.’
Seeing, more than anything, was the substance of Berger’s career. It extends backward to his first creative aspirations as an artist. He never gave up sketching, often including his drawings in later books. Seeing also formed the method for his essays, where he often describes an act of seeing and the thoughts that arose from it.
While Berger’s range as a writer was broadening and his thinking as a critic deepening, he also transformed his life. It is here that I wish Sperling had been more detailed, and explored the influences on and specifics of Berger’s personal life, but he does give us a glimpse:
At the start of the [1960s], it had been as if Berger was shifting his weight from one foot to the other, testing the balance of a new, more Mediterranean bearing — further from the chattering classes but closer to the land and to history — before making the final jump. As the sixties swung towards its apogee he made the jump: he committed to it. He passed weeks in a stone hovel in the shade of the Luberon mountains, among fig trees, fruit orchards, chickens, dogs, cicadas and owls, working the land in the morning and reading philosophy in the afternoon. It was a new life of continental thought and feeling — the feeling of thought — he had found (and curated) for himself, a life of lavender and onions, terra cotta and shared meals. He took philosophical modernism outdoors, letting it bronze his skin. In the process, he tried to live out what [Martin] Heidegger had called for but may never have personally achieved: the return of philosophy to life. The revolution had to be lived all the way down.
It’s odd that Sperling cites the Nazi philosopher Heidegger here when the thinker whose vision of life is called up and even echoed in Sperling’s sentences is Karl Marx. Marx described the communist vision of the good life this way: “[I]t [becomes] possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind.” Berger seems to have sought out a way of life that prefigured this utopia. Later, he would fully commit to it, settling down in the rural village of Quincy, outside Geneva.
As he got older, Berger’s stories grew shorter and his essays more observant — humbler. His texts became filled with descriptions of nature and animals, preoccupied with time and love. His comments late in life about the war on terror, about poverty, colonialism, nationalism, environmental degradation, and bigotry, attained a new gravity.
There is one major exception to the trend of Berger’s work after he left England: the famous art historical TV documentary Ways of Seeing. Produced in 1972, it was a throwback to the combative John Berger of The New Statesman’s art pages. It is a blunt takedown of Western art as a cultural expression of classism, racism, and misogyny, and of academic art criticism as a conspiracy of obfuscation. Ways of Seeing became a staple of the classroom, and has, indeed, come to define our predominant ways of seeing. Ideology critique of the kind it models has become one of the major forms of critical discourse about art. Berger’s TV show did more in a few episodes to destroy the cultural assumption that art is autonomous than his decade writing for The New Statesman. One could be forgiven for assuming, on the basis of Ways of Seeing, that Berger believed the art of the past needed only to be unmasked and debunked.
But in fact, since Berger’s reappraisal of Cubism, he had begun a quest, as Sperling puts it, to find “what was lost but revolutionary in the art of the past.” It’s too bad that the thousands exposed to the still-ubiquitous Ways of Seeing likely won’t also encounter Berger’s decades of writing in search of this lost ordnance. (A good place to start would be the recent collection of his essays on painters, Portraits, which has been arranged by Tom Overton into a kind of history.) Berger believed that art was not just an expression of and apology for oppression — though it certainly can be, and often is — but a smuggler through time of visions of human dignity and hopes of liberation.
Across the 90 years of John Berger’s life, he was by turns, and sometimes at the same time, an art critic and novelist, documentarian and screenwriter, farm laborer and historian, poet and polemicist. He invited controversy and also modeled the writer in seclusion. He wrote about struggles for liberation around the globe and also spent the last 40 years of his life in an obscure village. In the 1950s he scandalized his colleagues by dragging politics into aesthetics, attacking modernism; and in the 1960s he scandalized his comrades by dragging aesthetics into politics, defending modernism. He wrote one of the most avant-garde novels ever to win a Booker Prize, and then he devoted the better part of his career to the anecdote, sketch, and folk tale. He made a documentary about art history which defined art criticism as the unmasking of ideologies concealed in visual culture, and he wrote dozens of essays about how great works of art transcend their context. Does this mass of apparent contradictions add up to anything? The trick for any would-be biographer of John Berger is to find the unity in variety.
Joshua Sperling is up to the task. At the beginning of A Writer of Our Time, he sums up the unity of Berger’s career like this: “He is the only postwar writer I know of to have so powerfully and obstinately refused to separate a loyalty to both the general and the particular, to what was happening politically and morally in the world and what was happening physically just outside his window.”