The story of John Berger is the survival and triumph of a shape-shifter. A painter who turned to writing, he became the single most influential commentator on art of our times. A novelist who rejected mainstream fictional forms, he won the Booker Prize in 1972 and used the award to fund Black Panther revolutionaries. A passionate Marxist, he has remained popular throughout the waning of Marxism. An upper-middle-class Englishman, soldier and Londoner, he turned his back on the fizzing metropolis to live in rural France, and so became an authentic internationalist.
This month he turned 90, but he is still possessed of the wolfish mental and physical energy, the bodily charisma, he has always enjoyed. And, happily, a clutch of new books, by and about him, takes us closer to the mystery that is John Berger.
Reading them, a plain truth emerges: Berger’s success is, above all things, the success of great writing. He thinks long and intensely about complex matters and, by a kind of mental grinding and wrestling, which you can see reflected in the muscles of his face, eventually brings them into sharp focus. He describes art and culture with a lucidity that brings to mind only George Orwell, another New Statesman writer, whom he met.
For the young Orwell, the world as it was made no sense. His upbringing at Eton and work in the Imperial Burmese Police jarred so horribly with what he saw, and felt, that he spent the rest of his life in the gaps, trying to explain them. This led inexorably to a political philosophy. But, as an abnormally acute looker, he found he had to change his whole way of life to see what mattered and in order to write honestly about it.
Decades later, John Berger went through the same kind of transformation. A keen young painter, he came to wonder what the point of art was, in an age facing nuclear annihilation. Growing up in the crucible of modern British patriotism, his father a war hero, learning his craft during the London Blitz, gifted and lettered, he found he had to change his life, to live with other kinds of people – Haute-Savoie peasants above all – in order to make sense of the world.
The best measure of his success is, for me, not his best-known book, Ways of Seeing (1972), nor even his novels, but A Seventh Man. Produced with the Swiss photographer John Mohr in 1975, this is an angry account of the lives and working conditions of migrant labourers, wrenched from home by the demands of big money. More than four decades dusty, it nevertheless feels like a front-line despatch from 2016.
But another way of measuring that success is by picking up A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger, an almost preposterously internationalist Festschrift. This is a man admired in Palestine, in Greece, across Africa and throughout Asia and the Americas. Though the essays include reflections on Picasso and Cro-Magnon art, more of them deal with political violence and oppression: communal killings in India, Isis terrorism, murder in Gaza. Berger has developed a form of thinking and writing which might start with art, but reaches out in almost every direction.
How has he done this? The biggest difference between Orwell and Berger isn’t generational or political, but a difference of practice. Berger is a lifelong, instinctive collaborator. His writing emerges from conversations. His thinking bounces off other people’s thinking and work – he is at his best struggling to understand a surprising piece of drawing, or reacting to photographs or poetry or sculpture, or letters or a conversational gambit. He is, as it were, a writer with his gates always open. This is particularly impressive because he is also such an intense and serious thinker. Intensity and wide-openness don’t often go easily together, nor do brooding reflection and conversational collaboration.
Among the new books for his 91st year, therefore, Berger lovers will especially enjoy Lapwing and Fox, a beautifully produced volume of conversations between Berger and his friend John Christie, the visual artist and film-maker. Christie types a letter, with handwritten additions, illustrations and so forth, which might cover his own boyhood, his recent thoughts about Modigliani and an anecdote about deer appearing at the sound of a flute. Berger then responds in handwriting. What are they interested in? Basically, being alive.
Here is Berger responding to a film that Christie made with the multimedia artist Ian Breakwell:
I remember that when I was a small kid – around four to six – I had a strong sense of Nature. I suspect most or all kids do. And then it’s dismantled and taken to pieces by reason, competitiveness and other priorities. Nature had the shape of an egg which surrounded you, everybody you knew and everything which happened to you . . . The egg of nature was immense and contained everything that existed. I thought of it as an egg because it was a container without corners. Outside it there was nothing. Nothing.
This leads me to Berger’s Marxism. He has not veered from his revolutionary views and passion for the dispossessed; yet the vast bulk of his writing has not been directly political; he seems to have little interest in the deep structures of power or in parties; and he is clearly the kind of Marxist who would be instantly dismissed from any Marxist organisation he joined.
Further, the bent of his imagination is towards granular sensitivity, the finest details, the lines and smallest shadows, of experience. In his criticism, he can command the bravura big sweep of synthesis and theory, covering the period from the late Renaissance to early modernism in a brisk paragraph. But, more than this, he is a fine writer on art because he has this ability to home in on a tiny detail and niggle away at it until it shows a truth we had never noticed before.
Berger has been loved around the planet because he is the least theoretical Marxist on Earth. He is a writer for whom the clagginess of soil, the folds in an old jacket, the sharp smell of sorrel soup, or a German drawing of a hedgehog, matter first – the crammed meat inside the egg of nature. His hatred of capitalism, I take it, signals not only an anger on behalf of the dispossessed but also a revulsion against the ugliness of the modern world and our divorce from nature: a much wider dispossession.
And this is where that original question which has haunted him all his life – what is the point of art? – returns. In his debut novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958), his protagonist, an exiled Hungarian artist, attacks the formalism of modern painting. This is a type of “art which gets over its problems without a glance at anything outside itself. The formalist work is self-sufficient. It is a commodity. The market for such commodities is made up of those who believe that they are also self-sufficient – members of the mincing cosmopolitan art world.”
It’s vigorous and he makes an important point. But I have been back to look at the argument between Berger and Patrick Heron in the 1950s (also in these pages) about the social obligations of the artist, and I don’t find myself coming down on Berger’s side. As a fellow painter, but one struggling to make images that still “worked” in the modern world, Heron had a more sensitive and nuanced understanding of the importance of fresh freshness – simply, how difficult it is to make a good picture – than did Berger at his most urgent and polemical.
Berger was right about paintings becoming mere handy tokens for the very wealthy to pass between one another and he was right to ask artists to think about this. However, artists also have to make art new, and to believe that the results will somehow matter. Heron pointed out that safe, easy and popular art in the capitalist countries and official socialist realist art-propaganda were equally awful.
Berger gave up painting as a mainstream activity in the late 1940s but he has always been a drawer. There is nobody else alive I know of who can bring together so effectively the sensitivity of an artist’s eye and a broad, muscular understanding of human history. That being so, the essential book in this crop is Verso’s innocuously titled Landscapes: John Berger on Art. It contains his essay on cubism, an argument everyone needs to read in order to understand that “moment”, as well as some interestingly ferocious writing on the intellectual paucity of American abstract expressionism, and the modern gallery culture.
Yet there is something else one must highlight that is essential to understanding Berger. This book includes an extraordinary and revelatory autobiographical essay, entitled “Kraków”, a kind of love letter to an early teacher, which only reveals its meaning slowly. I think it is as profound as anything he has done. It reminds us that all good writing comes only from good (that is, patient, attentive, loving) looking.
Another short essay, “The White Bird”, seems to me to unlock any apparent doors between Berger’s angry politics and his aesthetic tenderness. He writes that we live after the Fall:
. . . in a world of suffering in which evil is rampant, a world whose events do not confirm our Being, a world that has to be resisted. It is in this situation that the aesthetic moment offers hope. That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe . . . For an instant, the energy of one’s perception becomes inseparable from the energy of the creation.
That may seem a curiously transcendental thought from a Marxist, but it is the key, surely, to this lovable and much-loved man. Because of him, we also feel more deeply inserted into existence – less alone.
Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)
“A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger”, edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Amarjit Chandan, is published by Zed Books (416pp, £10.99)
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile