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Berger, John

    Image Credit: Wall Street Journal

    Full Name: Berger, John

    Other Names:

    • John Berger

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1926

    Place Born: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Marxism

    Career(s): art critics


    Marxist literary critic and art historian. Berger was born to S. J. D. Berger and Miriam Branson (Berger). He attended Central School of Art and Chelsea School of Art and served in the British army, Oxford and Buckinghamshire Infantry, during and immediately after World War II (1944-1946). Berger initially worked as an artist and teacher, exhibiting his work at galleries in London. He wrote art criticism for the The New Statesman beginning in 1951 under its editor, Kingsley Martin (1897-1969). He championed realist art, in accordance with his Marxist views, a position which aroused the animosity of Herbert Read. This view clearly came to the fore in essays pointed against the critic David Sylvester, beginning with Berger’s critic of Sylvester’s Henry Moore show of 1951. In 1960, Permanent Red, collected articles of criticism between 1954 and 1959 was published, underlining his Marxist stance toward art and the difficulties he faced writing during the Cold War. He also wrote art criticism for the New Society, Punch and the Sunday [London] Times. Berger’s next art book, The Success and Failure of Picasso appeared in 1965. He set about to demythologize the “man of genius” approach taken by many Picasso tomes. Instead, Berger demonstrated a dualism in the phenomenon of Picasso: society appraising him as a genius and all the mystery which that entails, while his art became a bourgeois commodity which the artist realized and took advantage of well in his own lifetime. In the early 1970s Berger moved to a peasant village in France in Giffre River valley. There he devoted himself to writing a literary trilogy, Into Their Labours. Pig Earth, Once in Europa, and Lilac and Flag: An Old Wives’ Tale of a City, focused on the lives of French village people, first their lives in the small town and finally as start new lives in the city. In 1972, Berger wrote a television series on art appreciation. Titled Ways of Seeing it offered a counterview of art presented in another television series (also produced by the BBC) called Civilisation by Kenneth Clark. Ways of Seeing owed much to criticism Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), and particularly to Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” A novel, G, appeared the same year and won Berger the prestigious Booker Prize. Ways of Seeing was rewritten into book form the following year under the same title. The book Ways of Seeing became a popular introduction book for art appreciation classes, countering the formal approach of more standard surveys. In 1976 he wrote the screenplay for the film, Jonah Who Will Be Twenty-five in the Year 2000, for which he won New York Critics award for the Best Scenario. Berger published Une autre facon de raconter, (English: Another Way of Telling) in 1982 with photographs by Jean Mohr and Nicholas Philibert. In it, Berger argued against the linear sequence of art and photography history, accusing that treatment of being dehumanizing political process denying individual privacy, subjectivity, free choice. In 1991 Berger issued Keeping a Rendezvous, essays and poetry on the visual arts. He wrote the screenplay and appeared in the 1993 film Walk Me Home. In 2001 Berger published The Shape of a Pocket and Selected Essays, twenty-four essays about the art from such wide-ranging artists as Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch, Degas and Frieda Kahlo. Berger’s work as a critic and art historian avoids the traditional historical categories of art in favor of an existential view of the artist and the art work. In The Moment of Cubism, and Other Essays, Berger asserted that the cubism anticipated the political and economic revolution in Russia, reflecting the changes in the modern world in their paintings. Berger’s assertion in the Success and Failure of Picasso–that the perennial youthfulness in Picasso’s life and work was as much a failure to develop as a human being–is still controversial. Berger credited the writings of the Hungarian art historian Frederick Antal for teaching him how to write art history. His book on Picasso was dedicated to the art historian Max Raphaël, also another source. As an artist his work has been exhibited at the Wildenstein Galleries in London.

    Selected Bibliography

    “Frederick Antal: A Personal Tribute.” Burlington Magazine 96/617 (1954): 259-260; Renato Guttuso. Dresden: Verlad der Kunst, 1957; Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing. London: Methuen, 1960; Toward Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962; The Success and Failure of Picasso. Baltimore: Penguin, 1965; Ferdinand Léger. Dresden: VEB Verlag der Kunst, 1967; The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1969; Art and Revolution: Ernst Neivvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R.. London: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1969; Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1972; The Sense of Sight: Writings by John Berger. Edited by L. Loyd Spencer. New York: Pantheon, 1986.


    Berger, John. Photocopies. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996; KRG, 139-40; Berger, John. The Sense of Sight: Writings by John Berger. Edited by Lloyd Spencer. New York: Pantheon, 1986, pp. xiii-xix; Hewison, Robert In Anger: British Culture in the Cold War, 1945-60. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981; Lucie-Smith, Edward. The Burnt Child: an Autobiography. London: Gollancz, 1975, pp. 182-184;
    John Berger with Lisa Appignanesi. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1985.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Berger, John." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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