Berger’s Ways of Being

John Berger, circa 1966; photograph by Jean Mohr
Jean Mohr
John Berger, circa 1966; photograph by Jean Mohr

When Joshua Sperling’s biography of John Berger arrived at my door, I approached it with trepidation. I’d known Berger for more than forty years, and biographers, having amassed reams of information about a life, may render it in ways that make it unrecognizable to friends or family. Upon his death in January 2017, many of Berger’s British obituarists, on both the right and the left, engaged in settling decades-old political or art world scores. Berger had not only escaped the confines of his British island but he had had the audacity to rise to fame before doing so. From his French mountainside he denounced injustices that were everywhere visible, even in his native land. He was read in a multiplicity of languages. None of this could altogether be forgiven.

Berger was already famous, even notorious, when I met him in the mid-1970s. In 1972, at the age of forty-five, he had won the Booker Prize for his novel G., in which Don Giovanni and Garibaldi, sexual and political emancipation, coincide. Taking aim at the then funders of the Booker—Caribbean sugar plantation grandees for over a century—Berger gave half his prize money to Britain’s Black Panthers. The other half he used to write his prescient book on migrant labor, A Seventh Man (1975), an investigation—combining documentary, imaginative witnessing, statistics, poetry, philosophy, and photography—into the lives of the millions displaced by global forces over which they have no control.

Berger was also well known as the trenchant and controversial art critic of the New Statesman and New Society. Through his groundbreaking 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing, he had become a television star. With his flowery open-necked shirt, his cigarettes and direct gaze, Berger provided British society with a counterweight to the aristocratic connoisseur Kenneth Clark and his BBC series Civilisation. Ways of Seeing altered how many people think of images in everyday life and explained to the public the way in which oil painting became a means of transforming the visible world (including women) into property. As Berger wrote in the accompanying best-selling book:

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. The soul, thanks to the Cartesian system, was saved in a category apart. A painting could speak to the soul—by way of what it referred to, but never by the way it envisaged. Oil painting conveyed a vision of total exteriority….

We are arguing that if one studies the culture of the European oil painting as a whole, and if one leaves aside its own claims for itself, its model is not so much a framed window open on to the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.