John Berger is no more; the first intellectual casualty of 2017. For the Indian art students Berger was a primer and he would remain so for many more years to come. Those who have not even heard about Marxian view of/on art would also read and see Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ without any ideological counter critique. Ernst Fischer obviously was a Marxian art historian but Berger was not openly so. He used the methodologies of Marxian history but was not always pitching on art as an extension of labour. For him it was something more than labour and religion; it was an outcome of the social, emotional and intellectual lives of the human beings. In a way, art was a product of the social milieu for Berger and he definitely thought it was a tool to democracy. A staunch believer in the democratic values of art, Berger stood for a people’s art and if they failed to understand art as art he told them how to see art through a famous BBC serial titled ‘Ways of Seeing’ which later on became a pivotal book with the same title in the modern art historical discourse. His second take ‘About Looking’ though did not get the acclamation that his seminal work on seeing had gained.
Indian art history students even today pass pen drives containing the whole episodes of the Ways of Seeing serial and many of them watch it in youtube where you could see a rather young looking Berger who strangely resembles Alberto Giocometti and an Italian mafia don at once explains away art first by a blasphemous incision made on a print of a Renaissance painting. I do not remember the details of the serial that I had seen much later since reading the book in early 1990s as a student in Baroda. I had graduated from the more ‘Moorish’ Herbert Read who had written a lot on Henry Moore and the story as well as history of art. When I was reading Read I thought it was the ultimate book soon to be disillusioned by a shocking introduction to Berger and Fischer. I was yet to learn art history methodologically but I knew the crux of art history that the way I liked was there in Berger’s book, ‘Ways of Seeing’. When he describes three young but unknown men in their Sunday best going to church, he says that they must be from the working class for their hands showed coarse webbing on the upper skin. Yes, definitely it was a way of seeing art! Later when I was reading Heideggar’s take on Van Gogh’s ‘Shoes’ (peasant shoes), I understood it better because I had already read Berger.
(Berger in Ways of Seeing Series in BBC)
Two books by Berger became important as far as understanding modern art history; one was, ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ and the second one was ‘Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny’. The first was on Pablo Picasso and the second was on a Russian artist who stood against the acclaimed socialist realism supported by the propaganda machine of the Communist Government in the erstwhile USSR. I understood about Picasso through Berger but what I remember today is him talking about the etchings, artist and the model series and the famous Vuillard Suit. I do not remember much from the book now. The second one was more appealing because, Berger spoke of making the works inside out. Neizvestny had externalised the internal things that went into the surface of art and which was quite new. This was literal take of turning things inside out. Neizvestny’s art did not become so famous despite the good efforts of Berger. The other books like the Permanent Red and the Moment of Cubism and Other Essays came and went. He was the undisputed master of a different kind of art history but it was soon discarded by the market orientation of art. The philosophical bend of Berger was no longer needed for the art world to move and shake a work of art; his place was taken over by suited and booted museum directors and high flying curators, art consultants and the representatives of the auction houses. Berger couldn’t stand this onslaught. Personally speaking I was not looking for Berger either these days.
The art critic in Berger was brought forth by the artist in him. He was an artist in 1940s and had several shows in London. But his critical practice soon turned him into a full fledged and popular art historian than an artist. Perhaps this is the same fate of the expatriate Pakistani artist, Rasheed Araeen who migrated from Pakistan to Britain and became one of the pioneers in conceptual art practice. But history was not in favour him; Araeen’s Asian identity problematized by his Muslim identity and his close perusal of the socio-political developments in Britain in the turbulent 70s and 80s made him a controversial figure to begin with and soon he turned to his critical practice by establishing Third Text, one of the highly acclaimed journals for art and culture, which eventually pushed his art behind and Araeen became more of an ideologue for the radical left from a migrant community which stood no chance in the extreme right liberal Britain in 1980s and 90s. Berger’s art gave way to his writing and his art historical contributions have also affected his readership for other works including novels, screenplays, short stories, poems etc at least in India. I had to read his novels but because of my prejudice about him as an art historian, I never succeeded in reading his other works. There is a problem with very famous novels like G by Berger. Take any extremely famous novels which are actually collected but hardly read. For example Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’ and ‘Museum of Innocence’ (while his Black Book, Istanbul, New Life, Strangeness in Mind and so on remain widely read books), Catch 22, Ayan Rand’s Fountain Head, Vikram Seth’s ‘Suitable Boy’, the later novels of ‘Salman Rushdie’; people talk about them but fail in reading them.
(cover of Ways of Seeing)
John Berger belonged to the age of Sartre when the philosophers were art lovers and art writers in their own rights. Novelists were great music lovers. Artists read and followed intellectual discourse. They never discussed real estate, branded clothes, cars and parties. Americans screwed up everything with Warhol and co, later Britain picked it up the degenerating tendencies from the US. Perhaps, Berger’s escape to Paris was a sort of seeking asylum, finding refuge and for leading a hermitage’s life. Berger would remain so long was there art students who would like to see how others saw works of art theoretically. But when art becomes tourism projects, I am not sure whether Berger would last or not. But there will be always a minority who would like to look at things for the beauty of it; I had my first copy of Ways of Seeing as a photocopied and hard bound one, which I still treasure. Those people who create installations with art books and never care to read them rule the art scene but the legacy of people like Berger scare them pretty well forcing them to scream in their sleep. May god bless them and may John Berger rest in peace.