Book Review: A Biography of John Berger — A Seminal Artist and Thinker
By Vincent Czyz
If you have not read John Berger, by the end of this biography you’re likely to feel an urgent need to pick up one of his books.
A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger by Joshua Sperling. Verso, 304 pages.
Jackson Pollock’s Number One (1948), Mark Rothko’s Number 10 (1950), Willem de Kooning’s Woman I (1950-51): paintings enshrined in museums, names now bronzed by art history—and the critics who wrote about them. John Berger, however, writing for New Statesman in 1956, found the work “sickening.” These “slashed, scratched, dribbled-upon canvases,” he insisted, were not “worth taking seriously.” While contemporary critics swooned, “Berger saw only ‘dead subjectivity’ and ‘suicidal despair.’”
Berger’s scathing judgment is recounted in Joshua Sperling’s A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger, a biography of the English-born … what? If I say “author” I’m being reductive. He was, among other things, a painter, an essayist, an art critic, a screenwriter, a documentarist, and a fiction writer who came away with a Booker Prize. He has been summed up as “an incurable Marxist … who went off to live with peasants,” “a theorist of the gaze,” “a critic who wrote movingly about art,” a polemicist who refused to separate art from politics, and an unabashed Realist — characterizations all true and all well short of the mark.
Berger, who died in 2017 at the age of 90, is perhaps best remembered for Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BBC television series (and companion book), which irrevocably altered the way we now look at and understand art. “So much of what has since become central to the humanities curriculum,” writes Sperling, we owe to Berger, including “the feminist critique of the male gaze, the semiotic deconstruction of advertising, the shift from immaterial genius to a material analysis of culture.” Berger’s reevaluation of Western masters posed questions that scholars were forced to answer: “How do images conceal their deeper significance? How are social relations inscribed in the very forms by which a subject is treated? What roles does art … play in the broader transmission of power?”
The arc of Sperling’s narrative is chronological, but the book does not, as the author warns, “veer too far into the private terrain usually reserved for traditional biography.” In fact, there’s almost nothing of Berger’s personal life other than a mention of whom he happens to be married to or to which part of the world he has relocated. Rather, the book documents the evolution of Berger as an artist and thinker—and does a spectacular job of it.
Berger’s distaste for abstract expressionists such as Pollock and abstraction in general make sense once we recall that “The name of [Berger’s] cause was realism; opposing it was modernism. In one corner, art that was accessible, popular, rousing; in the other, art that was difficult, esoteric, often misanthropic.” This, however, was realism’s second coming: “out of the tired dichotomy of the academic versus the avant-garde (or naturalism versus abstraction) came something altogether different: a renewed tradition of social realism. Depicting an environment more often passed over than noticed—‘the back garden, the railway, the wharf, the street, the herring fisheries, the deck chairs on the pier.’” (Sperling is quoting from Berger’s essay “The Necessity of Uncertainty.”) Sperling elaborates: Berger “stressed the importance of the contemporary, the tangible, the commonplace, the drab. He called on artists to project themselves out of the studio and onto the street, into the social commons.”
Rather than art for art’s sake, an aesthetic he railed against, he believed in art for our sake, which was the tentative title of a manifesto he contemplated but never committed to print. Art, Berger believed, had become disconnected from social realities — why should the public appreciate a painting like Pollock’s “Number One,” which, were it turned upside down, would make no difference to anyone but Pollock? Such works, Berger observed, “have nothing to say” to “the majority of people.”
Beginning his decades-long career as a painter and an art critic, Berger made his debut as a novelist in 1958 with A Painter of Our Time. [Arts Fuse review] With this landmark publication, he traded in brush and pigment for typewriter and ink. “If I look back now,” Berger said in an interview, “it seems to me that I was always very closely connected to stories. Even when I talked about painting.”
The protagonist of the novel, Janos Lavin, is a Hungarian painter self-exiled to England. He is also a conduit for Berger’s ideas about painting and art, particularly in terms of what is false, or mere façade, versus what is genuine.
Sperling’s analysis of Berger’s first book is brilliantly observed. On one hand, he points out, A Painter of Our Time is an unparalleled document of “the phenomenology of sustained creative labor.” On the other, it is the arena in which Berger lets antagonistic ideas have at one another — “the divergent logics of art and politics,” world-reference versus self-reference, individual psychology versus social reality, as well as the duty to self (an inner calling) as against the obligation to society (an outer calling).
Understandably, it was a bit of a surprise to fellow Marxists and Realists when Berger became infatuated — perhaps obsessed — with Cubism. They were mistaken, however, in assuming he was cheering the triumph of abstraction over the figurative or the elevation of the rarefied over the concrete. “The real subject of a cubist painting is not a bottle or violin,” said Berger (as quoted by Sperling), “the real subject is the functioning of sight itself.” Since Berger had always insisted that painting is “rooted in the experience of sight … in what is directly in front of you,” there’s no self-betrayal. If nothing else, Berger’s enthusiasm for Cubism shows he was open to discovery, that he was not a close-minded conservative always casting his gaze backwards for inspiration.
Following his instinct to create art based on what he saw around him, on imagery itself, Berger joined forces with photographer Jean Mohr. Sperling spends a good deal of time on how Berger’s words complemented Mohr’s images — or at times failed to. This section is a fascinating exploration of the symbiosis between words and images that spans the three books engendered by the two men. Their first book, A Fortunate Man, is an unsentimental account of the struggles of an English doctor in a remote community in which he is healer, friend, neighbor, and, when death looms, something between a therapist and a spiritual advisor. “The image-text pairings on the page often evoke the audiovisual synchronicity of film,” writes Sperling. “On several occasions they do look like stills of an imaginary documentary, with Berger’s text as the voiceover.”
Evidently not film-like enough for Berger, who also collaborated with Swiss director Alain Tanner on three screenplays and films. Their first effort, La Salamandre, “introduced audiences to the abrasive charm of what soon became known as the Nouveau Cinema Suisse.”
In 1972, a year after La Salamandre appeared in cinemas, Berger won the Booker Prize for his novel G. and set the literary world aflame in controversy. “When he took the stage,” Sperling writes, Berger denounced the prize for “its … obsession with winners and losers” and attacked the award’s patron, the Booker-McConnell corporation, for its ties to the exploitation of migrant workers. Berger famously donated half the prize money to the London branch of the Black Panthers.
“G.,” writes Sperling, “was quite literally a montage project: Berger and the designer Richard Hollis spent several days laying out the manuscript with scissors and tape. Intercut with the fiction are reproduced quotations, newspaper clippings, drawings, poems, a scrap of sheet music. In metafictional asides, Berger discusses his process, his dreams, the nature of language and sex.”
One of the best things about Sperling is that he’s not a Berger groupie; when Berger fails, Sperling is quick to point it out then dissect the underlying causes. His judgment is astute and measured. Perhaps best of all, Sperling is himself a gifted writer. He is among those rare academics whose prose is noteworthy in and of itself — lucid, imagistic, often veering into the lyrical.
Berger left England for good in 1962, but it was not until he settled in Quincy, a mountain village in France, that he seems to have finally found himself — the Ithaca at the end of his artist’s odyssey. Now in his 50s, Berger began his “second education,” learning, among other agrarian practices, “to tap a scythe.” There were accusations of his indulging in escapism, of surrender of one sort or another. Berger parried: “I feel at home here in a way I have felt nowhere else.” Writing about peasants, nature, and the abiding solitude that accompanies an isolated existence, he produced his Into Their Labors trilogy. “From its inception, Into Their Labors was meant to arc from the village to the metropolis, from a way of life that was soon to be lost to the life that was coming to take is place.” Sperling cites author Angela Carter, “who felt the entire spirit of Into Their Labors was permeated with this sense of loss. ‘Soon,’ she wrote, in a pithy summary, ‘nostalgia will be another name for Europe.’”
Berger’s style, perhaps reflecting his new mode of life, became simpler; Zen-like, it made more of less. He continued to pen essays, often meditations on time and love, and far from capitulating or losing his youthful fervor, he remained defiantly anti-capitalist.
If you have not read Berger, by the end of this biography you’re likely to feel an urgent need to pick up one of his books. If you are already a fan, Sperling’s biography is both indispensable and a riveting read. “In an age otherwise characterized by belatedness and alienated repetition,” Sperling writes, Berger’s “whole project was to return art to its origins, to rediscover the aura of shared moments and places, and to reinvest experience with a sacred meaning that the instant culture of capitalism had removed from it.” I have a feeling Sperling’s biography has done something similar for Berger’s oeuvre.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.