“Every artist’s work changes when he dies,” John Berger wrote in his essay on Alberto Giacometti. “Finally no one remembers what his work was like when he was alive … [His work] will have become evidence from the past, instead of being … a possible preparation for something to come.”
Berger died yesterday at age ninety. A painter who traded his brush for a pen, he became an art critic for the people, telling stories with a revolutionary spirit. The “evidence” of his tireless work will be his published writing, including more than fifty books: criticism, novels, poetry, and screenplays. In his final years, fans and disciples could seek him out in the small French Alpine town of Quincy, where he’d lived since 1974, having left a robust public life to lend his labor to “peasants”—his favored word for the villagers—so he could “write about them in this way—to understand their experience of their world.” From those who made the pilgrimage, we have gotten intimate interviews with the aging writer, full of retrospection. Berger had ample time to prepare his legacy. He donated his archives to the British Library in 2009; Verso Books has recently published two collections of his writing, Landscapes and Portraits; a documentary about his life in France, The Seasons in Quincy, was released last year; and a new book by writers indebted to Berger has now become a posthumous honor.
All the while, he’s remained best known for Ways of Seeing, the 1972 BBC series and book—perhaps the most bold, clear, and widely renowned explanation of art’s entanglement with capitalism. “Ways of Seeing was a collaboration,” Berger said of the project in New Statesman in 2015. “We wanted people to ask questions. It was the opposite of the ivory tower.”
Berger resisted and arguably even vanquished the academic condescension toward artists and the public. Instead, he felt indebted: to the former’s intentions, to the latter’s ability to relate to art through lived experience. In the preface to Portraits, he writes, “Having looked at a work of art, I leave the museum or gallery in which it is on display, and tentatively enter the studio in which it was made … I address the artist whom I maybe know, or who may have died centuries ago … There’s never a conclusion … I’m always in doubt. One thing, however, I’m sure about, and that is my gratitude to all the artists for their hospitality.”
In his preface to Permanent Red, his first published collection, Berger wrote with fervor, “Ever since I was a student, I have been aware of the injustice, hypocrisy, cruelty, wastefulness and alienation of our bourgeois society as reflected and expressed in the field of art. And my aim has been to help, in however small a way, to destroy this society.” Famously, upon discovering that the Booker Prize he had won in 1972 for his novel G was connected historically to the slave trade, he donated half his award to the Black Panther Party, the other half going to his project on migrant labor in Europe, A Seventh Man.
For Berger, every piece, no matter how playful, had high stakes. When he went as far as to connect Hieronymus Bosch with the “economic fascism” of globalization, then, he was not engaging in interpretive theatrics. He saw the horizonless, claustrophobic hell of Bosch’s Millennium Trilogy as a prophesy of our lived reality. “What the painting by Bosch does,” he writes, “is to remind us—if prophecies can be called reminders—that the first step towards building an alternative world has to be a refusal of the world-picture implanted in our minds.” We must find a horizon, he wrote, and the way to do that is to “refind hope.”
This solution, refinding hope, appears again and again throughout his writing, like a series of sturdy knots connecting the bedsheets by which we might escape from prison or descend from the ivory tower. In an essay on Käthe Kollwitz, he wrote, “A sense of belonging to what-has-been and to the yet-to-come is what distinguishes man from other animals. Yet to face History is to face the tragic. Which is why many prefer to look away. To decide to engage oneself in History requires, even when the decision is a desperate one, hope.”
This is Berger’s own prophesy-reminder, the one that says, like he does of Giacometti, that his work is preparing for “something to come.” Berger believed that revelations happen away from museum walls. He brought them back to the art like souvenirs with stories attached, told with giddy intimacy as if to an eager loved one. Politics is one of his often visited destinations. But though Berger treated art as History and History as political struggle, he did not believe in propaganda. In his first novel, 1958’s A Painter of Our Time, the main character—a painter, a socialist, and a Hungarian émigré—writes, “You can’t work for anything under the cover of art … Art does not cover—it reveals.”
In The Shape of a Pocket, there’s a piece on the Fayum portraits, painted in ancient Egypt to identify mummies. Berger puts his finger on what makes these faces different from any other portraits in history: since they weren’t meant for public display but only for the tomb, their painter was “Death’s painter, or perhaps more precisely, Eternity’s painter.” He compares these intimate faces to those in advertising, images of people designed solely to be consumed, our contemporary “proof of being alive.” And then, unexpectedly, he says the Fayum portraits remind him of our time, of
the century of emigration, enforced and voluntary. That is to say, a century of partings without end, and a century haunted by the memories of those partings. The sudden anguish of missing what is no longer there is like suddenly coming upon a jar which has fallen and broken into fragments. Alone you collect the pieces, discover how to fit them together, and then carefully stick them to one another, one by one. Eventually the jar is reassembled, but it is not the same as it was before. It has become both flawed and more precious.
He turns back to the Fayum portraits, which are, he writes, “flawed because very evidently hand-made. More precious because the painted gaze is entirely concentrated on the life it knows it will one day lose.”
Berger, the many pieces of whom we will have to collect and fit together from now on, can be found in a condition as youthful and present as these portraits: he’s on YouTube. He gazes directly at us, urgently but patiently explaining the mediation of media and capital, popping art’s aura with, memorably, a razor blade. He uses it to carve Venus’s face from Botticelli’s canvas in the National Gallery. The hole it leaves behind isn’t far from “the shape of a pocket,” the title he gave the collection containing the Fayum essay. That phrase refers to “all the various pockets of resistance against the new order which are developing across the globe.” It’s a moving image, one that might well describe Berger’s enduring readership. His work survives him to perpetuate the same spirit he found in the Fayum portraits: “Images of men and women … declaring themselves, and anybody who is looking at them, alive! They incarnate, frail as they are, a forgotten self-respect. They confirm, despite everything, that life was and is a gift.”
Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.