British art critic John Berger, RIP

This video says about itself:


19 August 2016

With Tilda Swinton / A film by Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, Bartek Dziadosz and Tilda Swinton / An Icarus Films Release

Another video says about itself:

John Berger or The Art of Looking (2016)

7 November 2016

Art, politics and motorcycles – on the occasion of his 90th birthday John Berger or the Art of Looking is an intimate portrait of the writer and art critic whose ground-breaking work on seeing has shaped our understanding of the concept for over five decades. The film explores how paintings become narratives and stories turn into images, and rarely does anybody demonstrate this as poignantly as Berger.

Berger lived and worked for decades in a small mountain village in the French Alps, where the nearness to nature, the world of the peasants and his motorcycle, which for him deals so much with presence, inspired his drawing and writing.

The film introduces Berger‘s art of looking with theatre wizard Simon McBurney, film-director Michael Dibb, visual artist John Christie, cartoonist Selçuk Demiral, photographer Jean Mohr as well as two of his children, film-critic Katya Berger and the painter Yves Berger.

The prelude and starting point is Berger‘s mind-boggling experience of restored vision following a successful cataract removal surgery. There, in the cusp of his clouding eyesight, Berger re-discovers the irredeemable wonder of seeing.

Realised as a portrait in works and collaborations, this creative documentary takes a different approach to biography, with John Berger leading in his favourite role of the storyteller.

Director: Cherie Dvorák

By Chris Nineham in Britain:

Seeing red: the world view of John Berger

Thursday 5th December 2016

CHRIS NINEHAM reflects on the hugely influential life and work of the radical writer and art critic, who died on Monday at the age of 90

JOHN BERGER played an implausible, almost impossible, role in late 20th-century culture.

Self-exiled from Britain in the early 1960s and living half his time in a French mountain village, his words from afar provided an intimate and engaged commentary on some of the defining injustices and outrages of the era and some of the most important radical art criticism ever produced.

He wrote a series of books about the lives of peasants and migrant workers, including the photo documentary with Jean Mohr called A Seventh Man, which should be required reading in schools around Europe today.

The opening note to the reader prophetically suggests that “to outline the experience of the migrant worker and to relate this to what surrounds him — both physically and historically — is to grasp more [than any survey of] the political reality of the world at this moment.

“The subject is Europe. The meaning is global. Its theme is unfreedom.”

Despite his supreme distance from intellectual fads or fashions, he directed probably the most important experiment in the documentary form ever made for British TV.

The four-part series Ways of Seeing was a mind-blowing assault on the elitist, sexist assumptions of the capitalist cultural establishment.

It managed to be both iconoclastic and deeply insightful at the same time by insisting on locating art and artist both in their historical moment and the relations of artistic production.

Strong stuff for the BBC.

He followed it up with a stream of essays and books on art and culture that have proved, perhaps more than any other body of work in the English language, the enormous importance that creatively handled Marxism has for the appreciation of art and culture. Some of the best of them have recently been published in two excellent Verso volumes, Portraits and Landscapes.

Ever sensitive to individual artists’ dilemmas and achievements and, at the same time enraged by the barriers to self-expression produced by a society based on profit rather than need, Berger was the wise alter ego of every artist struggling to bear witness to a more and more degraded world.

His book The Success and Failure of Picasso and the recently republished essay The Moment of Cubism together constitute one of the most convincing accounts of the potential and the limits of artistic liberation.

Because he perceived culture as the active interplay between human creativity and stubborn, given reality, again and again his essays shed light on both the artists’ work and their world, as exemplified in this comment on the Romantics:

“Romanticism represented and acted out the full predicament of those who created the goddess of Liberty, put a flag in her hands and followed her only to find that she led them into an ambush: the ambush of reality.

“It is this predicament which explains the two faces of romanticism: its exploratory adventurousness and its morbid self-indulgence.”

Berger tended to radicalise with time. Looking back in 1979 to an essay he wrote in 1968 about the importance of a political approach to art, he admitted that in some respects he might have become more tolerant:

“I now believe there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property — unless the state is a plebeian democracy. Property must be destroyed before imagination can develop further.”

His radicalism was wholly reliable and outspoken. Awarded the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel G, on air he denounced the slave-derived wealth of the Booker family and donated half the prize money to the British chapter of the Black Panther Party.

It is said that he was accompanied to the ceremony by a member of the organisation, who urged him to “keep it cool.”

See also here.

John Berger, one of the most prominent left-wing figures in the field of English-language art criticism for over 60 years, died January 2 at the age of 90: here.

5 thoughts on “British art critic John Berger, RIP

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  2. The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (12A)

    Directed by Colin MacCabe, Bartek Dziadosz, Christopher Roth and Tilda Swinton

    THESE four films on the Marxist art critic, novelist, artists and poet John Berger are very much a labour of love by their directors.

    Ways of Listening finds long-time friends Berger and Tilda Swinton in his kitchen in rural Quincy, his French home for 40 years, where they discuss their respective wartime soldier fathers while she peels apples for a Christmas meal.

    The dialogue is compelling, although rather too Swinton-domintated, and Berger’s comment that “silence can be communicative” could, cynically, be taken as a sly comment on her contribution

    Spring, directed by Christopher Roth, shows Berger’s’ fascination with animals and nature — I particularly liked his acid comment that “the pig has delinquent eyes” — while the third A Song For Politics is a commanding television discussion hosted by episode co-director Colin McCabe, which gives Berger free rein to underscore his lifelong dedication to Marxism.

    Berger is much missed in the final flimlet Harvest, which finds Swinton’s teenage son and daughter descending on Quincy and relating with Berger’s son at his farm.

    It’s hard not to see this as yet another way of lauding Swinton — credited variously as screenwriter and executive producer —who directed the attractively filmed but essentially less-than-riveting episode.


  3. Thursday 6th
    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    BERNADETTE HYLAND recommends an exhibition on the importance of arts and education to the work of the Communist Party of Great Britain

    British Communism’s Culture Wars

    People’s History Museum, Manchester


    THIS year is the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution which spawned the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1920 and in this well-written and presented exhibition the story of culture in the party is explored.

    From the 1920s to its demise in 1991 the CPGB played an important role in many aspects of culture and education in British society and its influence was at its height in 1945.

    Then, it had 40,000 members, two MPs, over 200 councillors, a national newspaper the Daily Worker and many members in the trade union movement.

    Unlike many political parties, even today, the CPGB put a strong emphasis on political education, offering working-class people an opportunity to better themselves and become politically aware through taking part in everything from socialist choirs to summer educational schools.

    Out of this came a whole tier of working-class intellectuals like Eddie Frow — curiously not mentioned in this exhibition — who went on to become key players in communist and trade union politics.

    Today, as we witness the rise of young people getting involved in left politics, the exhibition reminds us of how seriously the CPGB took young people and the new post-war pop culture, with the Young Communist League’s newspaper Challenge carrying an exclusive interview with the Beatles in December 1963.

    I loved the photo from the 1960s of Eddie Marsden, communist candidate in Openshaw, east Manchester, and his youth brigade who campaigned for representation on the local television station.

    Who were these trendy young people? It would have energised the exhibition to have had more information about them.

    Political events such as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 led to many people leaving the party and the demise of much of its progressive image.

    By the 1980s society was changing, particularly with the rise of the feminist, gay liberation and anti-racist movements and the influence of the CPGB waned. The party dissolved in 1991.

    While British Communism’s Cultural Wars gives you a taste of why people did join the CPGB, perhaps too much emphasis is put on the party’s intelligentsia and not enough on explaining why so many people were attracted to a message of worldwide revolution — and why some of them are still politically active today.

    Runs until August 28, suggested donation £3, details:


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