John Berger, author of ‘Ways of Seeing’, dies aged 90

Author of “Ways of Seeing”, considered an influential thinker of 20th century, passes on at the age of 90 in Paris.

John Berger art critic
Berger advocated for the Palestinian cause, among other issues [EPA]

John Berger, the British art critic, intellectual and prodigious author whose pioneering book, Ways of Seeing, redefined the way a generation saw art, died on Monday. He was 90.

Berger died at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. He had been ill for about a year.

The author of criticisms, novels, poetry, screenplays and many books, Berger had considerable influence as a late 20th-century thinker. He consistently, provocatively challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and the connections between the two.

I intend as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean

by Berger after winning the Booker in 1972

When he won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel, G, Berger spoke against the prize’s roots in Caribbean slave labour and pledged to give half his reward to the Black Panthers, a group he said more accurately reflected his own politics.

“I intend as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean,” Berger said at the time.

Berger was also an ardent supporter of the Palestinian cause.

I loved #JohnBerger and so did the people I love most on this earth. He spent his life spinning a web of relationships. He was a wizard.

During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2014, he co-signed a letter, along with a number of British writers, calling for a military embargo on Israel. 

That same year, Berger captivated the British public with Ways of Seeing, a series of four 30-minute films.

In it, he mined imagery for larger cultural discoveries. How women were depicted in art, for example, revealed much about a time period’s attitude towards gender.

“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, which became a common curriculum of universities. “We explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

Born to a middle-class London family on November 5, 1926, Berger never attended university. He was drafted into the British army in 1944 and was dispatched to Northern Ireland.

“I lived among these raw recruits,” he told the Guardian in 2005, “and it was the first time I really met working-class contemporaries. I used to write letters for them, to their parents and occasionally their girlfriends.”

After the army, he joined the Chelsea School of Art. He began as a painter, later taught drawing and eventually began writing criticism for the New Statesman.

His studies later expanded significantly into other realms. He examined the lives of migrant workers in, A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe, published in 1975. In the 1980 book, About Looking, he considered, among other subjects, how animals exist alongside human lives.

“To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia,” Berger wrote.

“Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.”

A documentary on Berger was released in 2016. In, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, Berger and the actor Tilda Swinton, a longtime friend of his, converse in the French Alpine village he lived in for much of his life. Swinton calls him “a radical humanist”.

Source: News Agencies