Last reviewed: June 2018
English critic and novelist
November 5, 1926
January 2, 2017
John Peter Berger’s achievements in the arts and criticism defy simple classification. Even the term “man of letters,” which encompasses the work of literary polymaths, is inadequate, for Berger not only wrote art, social, and literary criticism but also helped to produce a television series, made films, and published photographic essays. Perhaps he is best described as one of the European Left’s most distinguished “men of culture and politics.” John Berger.
In fact, opposition to the increased specialization and division of labor that characterized the twentieth century is one of the principal themes that run through Berger’s varied works. With this, he combines a commitment to humane art and to the political liberation and cultural recognition of those who suffer from prejudice, oppression, and powerlessness. From his youth, Berger was a Marxist, but his political stance and practice were shaped by an artistic sensibility and a sense of values that have their roots in nineteenth-century art and anarcho-socialist theory.
Berger’s childhood was a lonely one. His parents (his father was a director of an accounting firm) sent him to a boarding school at the age of six, and he had little to do with them thereafter. His experiences at school were not happy ones, and eventually he fled to London, where he studied painting at two art schools, before and after two years in the army during World War II. After the war, he was drawn to politics, working closely with, but not joining, the Communist Party. He became interested in writing criticism and was much influenced by the historical art criticism of the Marxist Frederick Antal. For ten years, he wrote criticism of contemporary art for The New Statesman, opposing abstract expressionism and calling for a realism that would express the range and depth of human hopes. His best criticism from this period is collected in Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing. In politics, he considered himself a communist and supported the policies of the Soviet Union until 1956, when it crushed reform movements in Eastern Europe.
In the late 1950s, Berger turned from critical to creative writing, but his interests remained the same. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, explores the problems of a Hungarian artist and socialist living in exile in England. The book is typical of Berger’s work in its focus on the contradictions of artists, their struggle to reconcile their desires to create serious art and to work for social transformation in their homeland. His next two novels, generally considered less successful than his first, are The Foot of Clive, which examines the lives of several socially typical men in a hospital ward, and Corker’s Freedom, which describes an important day in the lives of a man who runs an employment agency and the people who come to his office. Both novels examine society and its problems, and both are influenced technically (but in different ways) by Joycean modernist experiments and by naturalism.
Berger left England permanently in 1960, and thereafter exile and alienation became increasingly important themes in his work. Ironically, between 1965 and 1972, he produced both the art criticism and the fiction that established his fame in the English-speaking world. The Success and Failure of Picasso and “The Moment of Cubism,” related studies, place the individual artist and the movement he helped to forge in the context of the economic, political, and social history of monopolistic capitalism. Berger’s Pablo Picasso is a contradictory being whose successes and failures are, given his historical situation, inevitable. These studies also contain some of Berger’s best practical criticism of individual paintings. In his later study of the relatively unknown Soviet artist Ernst Neizvestny, Art and Revolution, Berger describes an artist living within the historical contradictions of socialism who produced an affirmative, humanistic, and yet modernist art.
Finally, in Ways of Seeing, Berger and several collaborators produced, in response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (1969), a revisionist analysis of art history that became perhaps the most popular and influential television series and book about art in the decade, if not the century. In the same year, 1972, Berger’s novel G. was awarded several literary awards, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize. G., an example of difficult historical fiction, describes the life of an upper-class “Don Juan” as he grows to adulthood and pursues women amid the political and technological revolutions in Europe between 1880 and World War I. Berger adopts many of the experimental devices of avant-garde fiction, creating a collage of plot, social and political history, and authorial asides on writing and his feelings—all in a prose that is both precise and alive to the sensual world.
At the height of his success, Berger began to collaborate with the photographer Jean Mohr on books of nonfiction. One of these, A Fortunate Man, describes the life of a doctor in a small English town, a man whose life is fortunate because he performs hard but meaningful work for his society. Another, A Seventh Man, is a documentary that portrays the life of the migrant workers in Europe. During his work on this book, Berger decided to move to a village in France, to live and work among peasants. He subsequently published three volumes of short fiction and poetry—Pig Earth, Once in Europa, Lilac and Flag—a trilogy about a dying peasant culture which, he believed, embodies a way of life better adapted to the problems of the future than the previous authoritarian socialist or dominant capitalist systems.
In his short but powerful novel To the Wedding, a young Frenchwoman discovers that she has the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) but eventually agrees with her lover’s demands that they marry anyway. Berger makes much greater use of symbolism in To the Wedding than was the case in his earlier work. King: A Street Story tells about a day in the life of a homeless couple and King, their German Shepard.
Berger wrote and published his final novel, From A to X, in 2008. Structured as a series of letters, the story focuses on A'ida and her love for Xavier, who has been imprisoned, and how their relationship and lives change over time. The novel was long-listed for the 2008 Booker Prize. For the next several years, despite his advancing age, Berger continued to write nonfiction, largely essays about art. Some of these works included Bento's Sketchbook (2011), Portraits (2015), and Landscapes (2016). He died at his home in the Parisian suburb of Antony, France, on January 2, 2017, at the age of ninety.