The News Source You've Been Waiting For

Arts Entertainments

On the 50th anniversary of “Ways of Seeing” and “G.”

It is 50 years this month since the first airing of John Berger’s documentary series “Ways of Seeing”, which scrutinised the political meanings of art. Fifty years, too, since Berger published his Booker-prizewinning novel “G.”—a portrait of Europe just before the first world war, following the exploits of a modern Don Juan.

“Ways of Seeing” was a response to Kenneth Clark’s landmark television series of 1969, “Civilisation”, which, in Berger’s view, contributed to the “mystification” of art. He proposed an altogether more direct and personal approach. In the opening sequence of the first episode, Berger took a knife to Sandro Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars”—or to what seemed to be that famous painting in the National Gallery in London. Having removed Venus’s head from the canvas, he blithely wandered off. It was a moment of pure showmanship, but announced his resolve to cut through the obfuscatory reverence of the scholar and the connoisseur.

In four half-hour instalments, and later as a slim book, “Ways of Seeing” reframed the conversation about how art is interpreted, focusing on the nature of ownership and the language of appreciation as well as the ways in which advertising appropriates the motifs of painting. It met with enthusiasm in schools and universities, where it popularised the ideas of Walter Benjamin, who in the 1930s had foreseen the implications of artworks being turned, by reproduction, into commodities.

Berger was an established broadcaster before “Ways of Seeing”, but the series confirmed that he was the most pugnacious type of critic, itching to overthrow prevailing assumptions about taste, status and genius. The word “maybe” was alien to him. Instead he sought to stimulate his audience with unnerving generalisations: “Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion” and “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

When Berger died in 2017, aged 90, the obituaries dwelled on “Ways of Seeing”. But his writing about art could be far more delicate. Take this from an early review: “The light in a Constable masterpiece is like water dripping off the gunwale of a boat as it drives through the sea. It suggests the way the whole scene is surging through the day, dipping through sun and cloud.” Much of his best critical prose appears in the chunky volume “Portraits” (2015), which, as it ranges from the cave painters of 30,000 years ago to children of the 1960s such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, amounts to a highly idiosyncratic history of art.

Berger had other guises—as a poet, playwright, screenwriter, sociologist and polemical humanitarian, vaulting the boundaries between conventional literary forms. Among the richest of his essays is an intimate meditation on looking at a field. His most remarkable book is “A Seventh Man” (1975), an eloquent representation of the lives of Europe’s migrant workers, on which he collaborated with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr. This, too, is nearly half a century old yet feels more pertinent than ever.

Then there is the less familiar figure of Berger the novelist, whom the 50th anniversary of “G.” provides an opportunity to revisit. One of the characteristics of his fiction is a liking for epigram—sometimes piercing, sometimes intrusively didactic. The novels also share an intense seriousness about their subject matter: in his first, “A Painter of Our Time”, that is the exhausting and occasionally thrilling routines of creative endeavour; in his trilogy “Into Their Labours”, it is the smells, grime and decay of a peasant community in the French Alps (where Berger lived for 40 years); and in “G.” it’s the shape and texture of desire. Not all of this has aged well, but there’s no denying the vivid particularity of his prose.

When “G.” won the Booker prize, the award was still sponsored by the company that had once controlled the Guyanese sugar industry. True to form, Berger gave half the money to the British Black Panthers, a revolutionary group, on the grounds that the Booker family had made their fortune off the backs of slaves. Yet rather than striking a note of insolence, he sounded invigorated. “It is possible,” he said, “for the descendants of the slave and the slave-master to approach each other again with the amazed hope of potential equals.” Here, as so often, he was militant and at the same time empathetic—an agitator, but of an unusually hospitable and attentive kind.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *