This weekend John Berger will be celebrating his 90th birthday. For many people of my age, Berger burst into our lives in 1972 with his BBC series, Ways of Seeing, that with flair and imagination challenged accepted wisdom about art and culture. In the decades that have followed, Berger has enlightened and challenged me with more television documentaries, novels,screenplays, drawings, articles and essays. So today’s post celebrates John Berger, who in all the variety of his work has never ceased trying to make sense of the world, searching for a deeper, richer meaning in life and art, a Marxist ‘among other things’ whose words are sometimes those of the angry polemicist, but which invariably celebrate everyday experience and artistic expression with probing insight and subtle tenderness.
I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting. It isn’t so much the paintings themselves I want to consider as the way we now see them. … Because we see these paintings as nobody saw them before. If we discover why this is so, we shall also discover something about ourselves and the situation in which we are living.
Before Ways of Seeing, there had been Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation which cleaved to the view of art as an elite object for worship, a story in which the individual genius of the Old Masters was somehow disconnected from their social context. With the opening words of the TV series, Berger (seen apparently in a gallery cutting a woman’s face from an Old Master canvas) announced the dawn of a new dispensation. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The series – and book that followed – presented a radical challenge to conventional aesthetics by raising questions about the ideologies and societal arrangements that inform visual images. Berger dissolved distinctions between high culture and low, discussing art in the context of consumerism and class.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.
Whether you watched the TV series or read the book (or both), Ways of Seeing was a thrilling and stimulating experience. In both media, Berger burst through conventional formalities: the opening paragraph of the book – ‘Seeing comes before words’ – was printed on the cover as if to state, ‘the argument starts here’.
Ways of Seeing encouraged me to look more closely and think critically about art and its place in the world. For example, Berger was one of the first art critics to speak about the male gaze and the depiction of women in art:
Today the attitudes and values which informed that tradition are expressed through other more widely diffused media – advertising, journalism, television. But the essential way of ‘seeing’ women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed.
Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.
Meanwhile, his discussion of the relationship between oil painting and property – revealed in paintings such as Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews – I found revelatory at the time.
Why did Lord Hardwicke want a picture of his park ? Why did Mr and Mrs Andrews commission a portrait of themselves with a rerecognisableandscape of their own land as background ? They are not a couple in Nature as Rousseau imagined nature. They are landowners and their proprietary attitude towards what surrounds them is visible in their stance and their expressions.
But I think it was his discussion of what makes a truly great painting – as exemplified by one of Rembrandt’s later self portraits – that made me sit up and take notice:
To be an exception a painter whose vision had bean formed by the tradition, and who had probably studied as an apprentice or student from the age of sixteen, needed to recognise his vision for what it was, and then to separate it from the usage for which it had been developed. Single-handed he had to contest the norms of the art that had formed him. He had to see himself as a painter in a way that denied the seeing of a painter. […]
Berger spoke with passion about how, in the later painting, Rembrandt ‘turned the tradition against itself’:
He has wrested its language away from it. He is an old man. All has gone except a sense of the question of existence, of existence as a question. And the painter in him – who is both more and less than the old man – has found the means to express just that, using a medium that had been traditionally developed to exclude any such question.
The TV series was still available on YouTube last time I looked, and the three episodes are still thrilling to watch. Indeed, his concluding words seem to have even more force and relevance today, in an age obsessed with images of all kinds, both in traditional media and especially in social media and across the internet:
In the cities in which we live, all of us see hundreds of publicity images every day of our lives. No other kind of image confronts us so frequently. In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages. […]
Publicity, it is thought, offers a free choice. It is true that in publicity one brand of
manufacture, one firm, competes with another; but it is also true that every publicity image confirms and enhances every other. Publicity is not merely an assembly of competing messages: it is a language in itself which is always being used to make the same general proposal. Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer – even though we will be poorer by having spent our money. Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us peopte who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour.
However, Ways of Seeing was just the start of it since the series represents only a small part of a considerable body of work. Since the 1950s, Berger has been prolific, producing fiction, nonfiction, polemics, art criticism, screenplays, drama, poetry, documentary films and drawings.
In the same year that Ways of Seeing was broadcast by the BBC, he won the Booker Prize for his novel G., creating a stir at the award ceremony by denouncing Booker McConnell’s historic exploitation of indentured labour on the sugar plantations of British Guiana, and announcing that he would donate half of his prize money to the Black Panther Party. The rest he would use to fund a project with photographer Jean Mohr recording the experiences of migrant workers across Europe, eventually published as A Seventh Man in 1975. The focus of that book was on the phenomenon of millions of peasants migrating from southern Europe and north Africa to work in the cities of north-west Europe. Migrants, refugees, and the disappearing way of life of the peasantry remained key concerns of subsequent essays and fiction.
In 1974, Berger wrote the screenplay for one of my favourite films, the Swiss director Alain Tanner’s Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. The film tells the story of eight people getting by in Switzerland, seven years after the great upheavals of May ’68. All of them trying, in diverse ways, to free themselves from the institutional and societal chains that oppress them. It remains the least caricatured account – deeply serious, warm and witty – of my generation’s hopes and disillusionment, a generation who rebelled against materialism, inequality and corporate greed, who yearned for sexual freedom and, in many different ways, attempted to change politics and society.
In 1974, Berger moved from London to the hamlet of Quincy, in the French Alps where he remained with his son Yves and his American wife (who died in 2013) for more than 40 years, living and working among agricultural labourers, the peasantry whose way of life is the most ancient in the world and the hardest. in the trilogy Into Their Labours – comprising Pig Earth (1979), Once in Europa (1989) and Lilac and Flag (1990), he would craft three volumes of acclaimed stories depicting the vanishing way of life of peasants in the French Alps.
During the 40 years he lived and worked in Quincy he laboured alongside his peasant neighbours and spent a long time listening to their voices. At one point in Pig Earth he lists what he and his family have in common with them: child-bearing and rearing, manual labour and a respect for it, mutual help, household comforts and discomforts, taking part in weddings and funerals, the weather. What sets them apart, he says, is their mother tongue, religion, economic prospects, inheritance of land, a lifetime spent in one place, the degree of physical endurance and kinship.
Berger the novelist writes like an artist who observes his subject closely. With empathy and love he enters into their daily and annual routines, their thoughts, memories, and dreams. Like the village, these books are full of stories within stories. he does not sentimentalise the village or its brutal poverty and hardship. ‘If I’m a storyteller’, says Berger, it’s because I listen.’
It may seem contradictory that Berger, a proclaimed Marxist, has been so deeply committed to the peasant way of life. But, for Berger, the erosion of the peasantry both exemplifies the advance of capitalist modernisation – and the loss of something fundamental in human relations:
At home, in the village, it is you who do everything, and the way you do it gives you a certain authority. There are accidents and many things are beyond your control, but it is you who have to deal with the consequences even of these. When you arrive in the city, where so much is happening and so much is being done and shifted, you realise with astonishment that nothing is in your control. It is like being a bee against a window pane. You see the events, the colours, the lights, yet something, which you can’t see, separates you. With the peasant it is the forced suspension of his habit of handling and doing.
Then there’s the possibility that this life offers the possibility of survival. Written in 1985, these words might well be prescient:
If one looks at the likely future course of world history, envisaging either the further extension and consolidation of corporate capitalism in all its brutalism, or a prolonged, uneven struggle waged against it, a struggle whose victory is not certain, the peasant experience of survival may well be better adapted to this long and harsh perspective than the continually reformed, disappointed, impatient progressive hope of an ultimate victory.
To mark his 90th year, Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Roth have combined to produce a film portrait of John Berger: The Seasons in Quincy. Each of the four films which it comprises takes a different aspect of Berger’s life in the Haute-Savoie, combining ideas and motifs from Berger’s own work with the atmosphere of his mountain home. The film is due for release in the UK soon, and I am really looking forward to seeing it. You can view the trailer below.
Berger was born in London in 1926. His father, of Hungarian origin, had migrated to London via Trieste. He fought in the First World War, and worked for four years for the War Graves Commission. His mother was from a working-class Bermondsey family and had been a suffragette in her youth.
Berger was sent away to boarding school – ‘monstrous and brutal’ in his words – where he found comfort in art. He was a painter before he became a writer, enrolling in London’s Chelsea School of Art in his early twenties. But politics led him to give up painting at the end of the 1940s:
The threat, above all the threat of nuclear war. … This threat was so pressing, that painting pictures – that somebody would go hang up on the wall – seemed… [dimissive hand gestures] But to write, urgently, in the press, anywhere, everywhere, seemed so necessary.
He dropped out of art school and channelled his energies into art criticism and fiction. Explicitly Marxist in his views, particularly at the outset of his career he took on big names in the art world, including Pablo Picasso. He championed painters like Ferdinand Leger and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as older masters like Jean-François Millet and Gustave Courbet, who seemed to offer less cynical, more authentic models for the future.
He has associated himself with many political struggles against oppression including the Mexican Zapatista rebel movement, and the Palestinian resistance. In the words of Geoff Dyer (who edited the indispensable Selected Essays, a 600-page selection of writing on all manner of subjects), his body of work embodies a concern for ‘the enduring mystery of great art and the lived experience of the oppressed.’
The range of subjects explored by Berger’s work is immense. His novels – including Pig Earth, From A to X, and To the Wedding are often exquisite and tender. One – King – does not bear Berger’s name on the cover, since it is ostensibly written by the eponymous dog. Essays in volumes such as The Shape of a Pocket, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, Photocopies or Berger on Drawing range widely and are often illustrated by his own drawings and poems. He always writes about animals with empathy, not least in the essay collection Why Look at Animals?
To conclude this celebration of John Berger’s work, I thought I’d offer one of his pieces. ‘A Load of Shit’ was written in 1989: I’ve chosen it because it evokes the decades he spent living and labouring in the hamlet of Quincy, and because it exemplifies his conversational style – one that will delve deep into philosophical or political questions. Here it is as if you are overhearing Berger as he shovels shit, muttering to himself. Note how his thoughts shift from excrement to the nature of evil, and observations of the natural world – a neighbour’s dog, chaffinches and the scent from a lilac tree.
In one of his books, Milan Kundera dismisses the idea of God because, according to him, no God would have designed a life in which shitting was necessary. The way Kundera asserts this makes one believe it’s more than a joke. He is expressing a deep affront. And such an affront is typically elitist. It transforms a natural repugnance into a moral shock. Elites have a habit of doing this. Courage, for instance, is a quality that all admire. But only elites condemn cowardice as vile. The dispossessed know very well that under certain circumstances everyone is capable of being a coward.
A week ago I cleared out and buried the year’s shit. The shit of my family and of friends who visit us. It has to be done once a year and May is the moment. Earlier it risks to be frozen and later the ﬂies come. There are a lot of ﬂies in the summer because of the cattle. A man, telling me about his solitude not long ago, said, ‘Last winter I got to the point of missing the ﬂies.’
First I dig a hole in the earth — about the size of a grave but not so deep. The edges need to be well cut so the barrow doesn’t slip when I tip it to unload. Whilst I’m standing in the hole, Mick, the neighbour’s dog, comes by. I’ve known him since he was a pup, but he has never before seen me there before him, less tall than a dwarf. His sense of scale is disturbed and he begins to bark.
However calmly I start the operation of removing the shit from the outhouse, transporting it in the barrow, and emptying it into the hole, there always comes a moment when I feel a kind of anger rising in me. Against what or whom? This anger, I think, is atavistic. In all languages ‘Shit!’ is a swear word of exasperation. It is something one wants to be rid of. Cats cover their own by scraping earth over it with one of their paws. Men swear by theirs. Naming the stuff I’m shovelling ﬁnally provokes an irrational anger. Shit!
Cow dung and horse dung, as muck goes, are relatively agreeable. You can even become nostalgic about them. They smell of fermented grain, and on the far side of their smell there is hay and grass. Chicken shit is disagreeable and rasps the throat because of the quantity of ammonia. When you are cleaning out the hen house, you’re glad to go to the door and take a deep breath of fresh air. Pig and human excrement, however, smell the worst, because men and pigs are carnivorous and their appetites are indiscriminate. The smell includes the sickeningly sweet one of decay. And on the far side of it there is death.
Whilst shovelling, images of Paradise come into my mind. Not the angels and heavenly trumpets, but the walled garden, the fountain of pure water, the fresh colours of ﬂowers, the spotless white cloth spread on the grass, ambrosia. The dream of purity and freshness was born from the omnipresence of muck and dust. This polarity is surely one of the deepest in the human imagination, intimately connected with the idea of home as a shelter — shelter against many things, including dirt.
In the world of modern hygiene, purity has become a purely metaphoric or moralistic term. It has lost all sensuous reality. By contrast, in poor homes in Turkey the first act of hospitality is the offer of lemon eau-de-Cologne to apply to the visitors’ hands, arms, neck, face. Which reminds me of a Turkish proverb about elitists: ‘He thinks he is a sprig of parsley in the shit of the world.’
The shit slides out of the barrow when it’s upturned with a slurping dead weight. And the foul sweet stench goads, nags teleologically. The smell of decay, and from this the smell of putrefaction, of corruption. The smell of mortality for sure. But it has nothing to do — as puritanism with its loathing for the body has consistently taught — with shame or sin or evil. Its colours are burnished gold, dark brown, black: the colours of Rembrandt’s painting of Alexander the Great in his helmet.
As I empty the third barrow of shit, a chaffinch is singing in one of the plum trees. Nobody knows exactly why birds sing as much as they do. What is certain is that they don’t sing to deceive themselves or others. They sing to announce themselves as they are. Compared to the transparency of birdsong, our talk is opaque because we are obliged to search for the truth instead of being it.
I think of the people whose shit I’m transporting. So many different people. Shit is what is left behind undifferentiated: the waste from energy received and burnt up. This energy has myriad forms, but for us humans, with our human shit, all energy is partly verbal. I’m talking to myself as I lift the shovel, prudently, so that too much doesn’t fall off onto the ﬂoor. Evil begins not with decomposing matter but with the human capacity to talk oneself into.
The eighteenth-century picture of the noble savage was short-sighted. It confused a distant ancestor with the animals he hunted. All animals live with the law of their species. They know no pity (though they know bereavement) but they are never perverse. This is why hunters dreamt of certain animals as being naturally noble — of having a spiritual grace which matched their physical grace. It was never the case with man.
Nothing in the nature around us is evil. This needs to be repeated since one of the human ways of talking oneself into inhuman acts is to cite the supposed cruelty of nature. The just-hatched cuckoo, still blind and featherless, has a special hollow like a dimple on its back, so that it can hump out of the nest, one by one, its companion ﬂedglings. Cruelty is the result of talking oneself into the inﬂiction of pain or into the conscious ignoring of pain already inﬂicted. The cuckoo doesn’t talk itself into anything. Nor does the wolf.
The story of the Temptation with the apple is well told. ‘. . . the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall surely not die.’ She hasn’t eaten yet. Yet these words of the serpent are either the ﬁrst lie or the ﬁrst play with empty words. (Shit! Half a shovelful has fallen off.) Evil’s mask of innocence.
‘A certain phraseology is obligatory,’ said George Orwell, ‘if one wants to name things without calling up mental images of them.’
Perhaps the insouciance with which cows shit is part of their peacefulness, part of the patience which allows them to be thought of in many cultures as sacred.
Evil hates everything that has been physically created. The ﬁrst act of this hatred is to separate the order of words from the order of what they denote.
Mick the dog follows me as I trundle the barrow to the hole. ‘No more sheep!’ I tell him. Last spring, palled up with another dog, he killed three. His tail goes down. After killing he was chained up for three months. The tone of my half-joking voice, the word ‘sheep’, and the memory of the chain make him cringe a little. But in his head he doesn’t call spilt blood something else, and he stares into my eyes.
Not far from where I dug the hole, a lilac tree is coming into ﬂower. The wind must have changed to the south, for this time I can smell the lilac through the shit. It smells of mint mixed with a lot of honey.
This perfume takes me back to my very early childhood, to the ﬁrst garden I ever knew, and suddenly from that time long ago I remember both smells, from long before either lilac or shit had a name.
About Time: Channel 4, 1980
John Berger interviewed on Face to Face, 1995
Four Seasons in Quincy: trailer
- A letter to Rosa Luxemburg (New Statesman, Sept 2015): ‘Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.’
- “I think the dead are with us”: John Berger at 88 (New Statesman, June 2015)
- Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000: how can we live free and ethically in an unfair society?
- Why Look at Animals?
- Here Is Where We Meet
- Fayum mummy portraits: the earliest painted portraits (inspired by The Shape of a Pocket)