Sunday 21 January 2018

Obituary: John Berger

Art critic, storyteller and winner of the Booker Prize for G, whose early experiences in Ireland shaped his work

MANY TALENTS: Art critic and prize-winning author John Berger pictured by his son Jacob in the living room of his home in Paris in January 2016. Photo: AFP/Jacob Berger
MANY TALENTS: Art critic and prize-winning author John Berger pictured by his son Jacob in the living room of his home in Paris in January 2016. Photo: AFP/Jacob Berger

John Berger, who died last Monday aged 90, was a Booker Prize-winning novelist, art critic, painter, poet, playwright, actor, activist and presenter of television programmes, including the BBC series about art appreciation Ways of Seeing (1972).

From the mid-Seventies on, however, he preferred the term "storyteller", which better suited the Marxist spirit of his work.

John Peter Berger was born at Stoke Newington, London, on November 5, 1926. His mother, Miriam, was a suffragette. His father, Stanley, had left a seminary to become one of the first volunteers in World War I, in which he was promoted to captain. As Berger reflected in the poem Self-Portrait 1914-18, the war marked Stanley deeply, and would become, for his son, a touchstone of the moment at which the Western powers had begun to treat their own populations as they had treated those of their empires.

Stanley stayed on after the Armistice to work on the War Graves Commission, before moving to become the longest-serving secretary of the Institute of Cost and Works Accountants (1925-58).

The family moved to Croydon, where Berger experienced the end of the old music-hall, which - along with the wartime French Resistance - would become the subject of his earliest stories.

Berger attended a prep school and St Edward's, Oxford. He described both as "totally barbaric".

"I wasn't victimised," he remembered, "but they were crazy places, mad and vicious. At 16, I ran away."

Wanting "to draw naked women. All day long", he joined the Central School of Art in London but, in 1944, when he was called up for military service, he was offered a commission, which he refused. Instead, he was appointed to the non-commissioned rank of lance corporal, and sent to Ballykelly, Northern Ireland, to drill men who were mainly working-class, and often illiterate. Later, Berger would date the beginning of his vocation as a storyteller to this period: "They knew lots of things I didn't know; they were tougher than I was. Insofar as they protected me - and they quite often did - in exchange I could at least write letters for them. Love letters, or letters to their parents, or letters making up stories that weren't true."

After returning to Chelsea College of Art in 1946, Berger taught and exhibited as a painter alongside John Latham. Working on-site in forges, and at one point producing a painting of the construction site of the Southbank Centre (now in the Arts Council Collection), he tried to make the type of work he would later advocate in his criticism.

On the strength of radio scripts for the BBC, he gained early journalistic experience at the socialist newspaper Tribune, coinciding with George Orwell's period as literary editor. Then he took a position as art critic of the New Statesman.

A period of combative Marxist cultural criticism and advocacy resulted in an edited anthology of essays, Permanent Red (1960), and a novel, A Painter of Our Time (1958). The novel covers the 1953 "Secret Speech" in which Khrushchev publicly condemned Stalin's crimes, and ends with the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Many British intellectuals left the Communist Party of Great Britain over this crisis, but Berger had never been a member - he claimed to have been rejected initially, and later, when asked, refused to join. He believed that both MI5 and the KGB had files on him owing to the amount of contact he had with Soviet dissidents on various trips to Russia.

After separating from his first wife, the illustrator Pat Marriott, Berger moved to Gloucestershire with Rosemary Guest, the ex-wife of the 6th Lord Kilmarnock, and was acting as a stepfather to her son, Tiger. In 1962, he moved to Geneva with the writer and translator Anna (Anya) Bostock, previously the partner of the painter Peter de Francia, with whom he had a daughter, the writer Katya Berger, and a son, the filmmaker Jacob Berger.

Anya widened Berger's intellectual horizons, and her translation work at the UN supported periods of his work on an increasingly diverse output, including the 1966 biography The Success and Failure of Picasso, and A Fortunate Man (1967), a collaboration with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr about the life of a country GP.

The year 1972 brought what are still Berger's most famous works, including Ways of Seeing. This collaborative television series (directed by Mike Dibb) and book took the German thinker Walter Benjamin's reflections on how works are changed by their mechanical reproduction and applied them to the age of television. But Ways of Seeing was also welcomed as a pluralistic response to Civilisation (1969) by Kenneth Clark, the man who had given Berger his first television appearance on a programme about Picasso. Sections of Ways of Seeing were reproduced in G, the novel which won Berger the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Booker McConnell Prize, as it was then.

On learning of Booker McConnell's historical connections to slave plantations, Berger declared that he would share the prize money between the London chapter of the Black Panthers and his next project. This next project, also in collaboration with Jean Mohr, was A Seventh Man (1975), an account of Europe's dependence on migrant workers. After learning that many of these people had been forced out of peasant communities, Berger sought to capture this "disappearing form of human dignity" in the fictional trilogy Into Their Labours (1979-90).

To write this, Berger moved to the Haute Savoie, in the French Alps, and integrated himself into a subsistence-farming community.

Beverly Bancroft, at the time rights manager at Penguin Books, went with him; the archive of papers Berger donated to the British Library in 2009 is the product of her stewardship. They had a son, the painter and writer Yves Berger. The writing of Into Their Labours was punctuated both by film work with Alain Tanner, writing for New Society, and a fellowship at the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (1984), a slim book on love and exile, began as love letters to the writer and actor Nella Bielski, with whom Berger lived when he was not with Beverly.

In 1989, Berger argued that Salman Rushdie should withdraw The Satanic Verses out of consideration for the people caught in the crossfire.

His article ended, chillingly, with the prediction that if the issue were not resolved, "a unique 20th-century holy war, with terrifying righteousness on both sides, might be on the point of breaking out sporadically but repeatedly - in airports, shopping streets, suburbs, city centres, wherever the unprotected live".

Berger's novel, To the Wedding (1994), engaged with the theme of Aids in a manner which was characteristically woven into his personal circumstances: having begun writing, Berger discovered that his daughter-in-law had been diagnosed as HIV-positive.

The author's royalties were donated to Aids charities.

King: A Street Story (1999) - which may or may not be narrated from the point of view of a dog - was published anonymously at first.

Where Into Their Labours is recognisably contemporary with writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the ruminations on memory and place in the short story collection Here Is Where We Meet moved more into the European context of W G Sebald.

Berger's archive testifies to his lifelong interest in the collaborative possibilities of letter-writing. His book I Send You This Cadmium Red (2000) is composed of letters with the artist and filmmaker John Christie, each responding to a colour the other has sent; Lapwing and Fox (2016) continues the dialogue.

The novel From A to X (2008), shortlisted for the Booker Prize, is based around a fictional correspondence between a political prisoner and his lover, set in an anonymised country which could be Palestine or South America. Bento's Sketchbook (2011) blends writing and drawing around the imagined rediscovery of a sketch book by Marx's favourite philosopher, Benedict Spinoza.

After Beverly's death in 2013, Berger lived largely with Nella Bielski in Paris. He is survived by his children.

©Telegraph

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