John Berger: uncompromising visionary

John BergerI was saddened to hear of the death (at 90) of Marxist art historian John Berger.

I vividly recall reading Ways of Seeing as an undergraduate and, later, his sociological writings A Fortunate Man and A Seventh Man about migrant workers in Europe, years before the current crisis hit. His essays in the collection Portraits covers 74 artists who worked from 30,000 BC (the Chauvet Cave Painters) to the 20th century.

I was impressed by his collaboration with the Swiss director Alain Tanner. Indeed, the 1976 film Jonah who will be 25 in the year 2000 is the only movie I’ve ever watched six times in all. It formulated a good part of my world view as a young man.

Even more influential was his 1972 prizewinning novel simply titled ‘G‘. I read it the year it came out, in my second year at University. It’s a novel of sexual adventure and political awakening, heady stuff for any undergraduate. The closing paragraph, describing the sunlight on the ocean waves is a beautiful, trippy way of seeing:

The sun is low in the sky and the sea is calm. Like a mirror as they say. Only it is not like a mirror. The waves which are scarcely waves, for they come and go in many different directions and their rising and falling is barely perceptible, are made up of innumerable tiny surfaces at variegating angles to one another–of these surfaces those which reflect the sunlight straight into one’s eyes, sparkle with a white light during the instant before their angle, relative to oneself and the sun, shifts and they merge again into the blackish blue of the rest of the sea. Each time the light lasts for no longer than a spark stays bright when shot out from a fire. But as the sea recedes towards the sun, the number of sparkling surfaces multiples until the sea indeed looks somewhat like a silver mirror. But unlike a mirror it is not still. Its granular surface is in continual agitation. The further away the ricocheting grains, of which the mass becomes silver and the visibly distinct minority a dark leaden colour, the greater is their apparent speed. Uninterruptedly receding towards the sun, the transmission of its reflections becoming ever faster, the sea neither requires nor recognizes any limit. The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered upon a performance.

His BBC series Ways of Seeing on which the book was based is available in multiple parts on YouTube. Here’s the first episode

Berger was an uncompromising visionary who was a major influence on my life.

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I’d not noticed before, but Berger bears an uncanny resemblance to both Leonard Cohen and Tom Baker. Separated at birth?

John Berger-Tom Baker
John Berger-Leonard Cohen



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