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Celebrating John Berger, the Storyteller Who Taught Us to See

The artist, critic, and author died on Monday at the age of 90.

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Jan 15, 2016 at 5:28pm PST

English artist, critic, and author John Berger died Monday at the age of 90. Berger is best known for Ways of Seeing, an art theory staple since 1972, when it was published in conjunction with a four-part television series on the BBC. For many, the book and series were an introduction to the often-mystifying concepts behind an elitist art world. Berger’s clear examples and straightforward language made the visual arts accessible for a new audience to appreciate.


Throughout the Ways of Seeing television series, which opens with Berger taking a razor blade to a painting hung on a museum wall, he makes powerful statements about the way art is viewed in the second half of the 20th century. “The meaning of a painting no longer resides in its unique painted surface, which it is only possible to see in one place at a time.” Using simple language, Berger describes concepts from Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and explains how the invention of photography has changed the meaning of a painting. “The camera, by making the work of art transmittable, has multiplied its possible meanings and destroyed its unique original meaning.” Berger goes on to illustrate how painting can be manipulated by other media, like television, and points out that even as he is describing it, he is also part of the manipulation. “I hope you will consider what I arrange, but be skeptical of it,” warns Berger.

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Jan 3, 2017 at 5:46am PST

The son of an infantry officer in the First World War, Berger also served in the British Army before going on to study art and beginning his career as a painter. While working as an art teacher, Berger began writing essays and reviews about art for British political and cultural magazine the New Statesman.

In an effort to escape the alienation of modern English life, Berger moved to France in the early 1960s, where he continued to work on various creative projects and took up farming in the French countryside. These projects included numerous novels, screenplays, and poetry collections, which often addressed serious social issues, like the AIDS crisis, as well as art and politics.


A self-proclaimed Marxist, Berger’s strongly held anti-capitalist beliefs often came out in his actions as well as his works. When he won the Booker Prize for G, an experimental narrative novel that chronicles the exploits and political enlightenment of a roguish hero, he donated half the prize money to the British Black Panthers in protest of the award’s sponsor.

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Jan 2, 2017 at 2:36pm PST

While acting the 1989 film Play Me Something, Berger befriended Tilda Swinton, who has referred to their close friendship as a “twinship.” Berger and Swinton, who happen to share the same birthday, remained close throughout his life and Swinton even made a series of short films in collaboration with Colin McCabe about Berger’s life and work.

Despite the vast technological changes that have occurred since Ways of Seeing debuted to a television audience, Berger continues to influence generations of young artists. In 2014, Lorna Mills gave Berger’s seminal work a digital update with Ways of Something. Consisting of one-minute videos made by 113 new media artists, Mills’ project demonstrates Berger’s continued relevance and popularity.

As news of his death spread, current and former art students all over the world pulled out their own copies of Ways of Seeing to share nostalgic memories of learning to think critically about art. English musician and former art student Jarvis Cocker  is among those who paid their respects with in an Instagram post and was recently quoted as saying, “There are a few authors that can change the way you look at the world through their writing, and John Berger is one of them.”


But perhaps, Berger sums up his contributions best in a BBC interview about his 2011 work Bento’s Sketchbook. “I feel that I’m a storyteller. That’s all, that’s all. A storyteller.”


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