In an interview with Jeremy Isaacs from 1995, John Berger is asked how he would like to be remembered. As is so often the case, there’s a long pause while he thinks. Then he finds the right words, and he answers, smiling: “By what I’ve brought back.” I love this answer because it epitomises what makes Berger such an extraordinary communicator: his ability to delve passionately into something, and then to return with extraordinarily insightful and beautifully expressed responses. His life and works were celebrated by a study day of discussion and film at the National Gallery in London.
The day began with an extract from Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’, from 1969, which was followed by Berger’s short film on the Russian artist Ernst Neizvestny from the same year. It was fascinating to have these two films juxtaposed because the approaches of the two art historians are so different. Clark, discussing history in terms of barbarism versus civilisation, has a condescending and dogmatic approach. Berger, far from being dogmatic, gives the impression that everything he says has been thought over with the utmost care. He seems to be acutely aware of his responsibility as a communicator, which gives the film a striking immediacy.
It is this depth of thought, present in all of Berger’s work that I have come across, which means that what he ‘brings back’ is so valuable. In the case of Neizvestny, Berger takes the confusion and chaos of the drawings and distills them into powerfully succinct interpretations, such as “What is imagined is more real than actual experiences.” There is enough abstraction in his points for the viewer to be able to use their own personal perspective to make sense of them. At the same time, Berger is emphatic and direct; he wants his viewers to understand exactly what he is saying.
This directness and respect for the intelligence of the viewer also come across vividly in the first episode of ‘Ways of Seeing’ and an extract from ‘Should Every Picture Tell a Story’ from 1958, which were both shown afterwards. The episode of ‘Ways of Seeing’ ends with Berger saying, “with this programme, as with all programmes, you [he points at the camera] receive meanings and images which are arranged. I hope you consider what I arrange. But be sceptical of it.” Again, there is an awareness of his own responsibility, and a desire to give the audience the freedom to take his words- what he has brought back- and to interpret them according to their own inclination.
The ‘Should Every Picture Tell a Story’ extract has Berger and Clark together, discussing Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. Clark says that the distortions in the painting mean that it is inaccessible to the ordinary man on the street. Berger never directly challenges this, but he indicates with beautiful clarity the sheer forcefulness and potency of these distortions. He says that every part of this painting is an expression of pain and fear- a response to the bombing of Guernica. In a photograph, he says, emotion is never this explicit. A person’s foot, for example, cannot express pain. But because of the use of distortion, in this painting Picasso can express pain in every part of the body. I saw this as a subversion of Clark’s view.
The second part of the screenings focused on Berger’s definition of himself as a storyteller. One extraordinary film, made for the Open University in 1972, explores Zola’s ‘Germinal’, a novel about a miners’ strike. In the film, Berger visits a mining community in Derbyshire, in the same way that Zola spent time in a mining district in the north of France. He comments that, like with Zola, there is an abyss between him and the miners. As an observer, even as a compassionate observer, there will always be a gap between him and them. The only thing that can bridge that gap is continuous shared experience.
Even though he is describing the limitations of empathy, the film itself is an expression of empathy. Berger is an deeply empathetic observer, and from my point of view, his leftwing politics emerge from this empathy. In 1972, he was awarded the Booker prize for his novel G, and an extract from ‘Midweek’ shows him explaining how he was going to spend his prize money. Half would go to the Black Panthers, the other half to fund a project on contemporary European migration. He passionately states that this is because Booker’s holdings in sugar plantations amount to “exploitation” and are one of the causes of “the modern poverty of the Caribbean”. Similarly, his condemnation of the injustice of society in the film ‘A Fortunate Man’ is of a distinctly Marxist persuasion, but one which remains rooted in direct human empathy. Society, Berger says, does not value human potential anywhere near enough.
The discussion which followed the screenings was with Matthew Morgan from the National Gallery; Esther Leslie, a professor of political aesthetics; and Mike Dibb, the producer and director of ‘Ways of Seeing.’ This was a fascinating discussion, exploring the importance of Berger’s work and his legacy. The speakers all referred to Berger’s desire to deconstruct the hypocrisy in culture, society and politics, and therefore to expose truth. This is evident in the second episode of ‘Ways of Seeing’, which comments so powerfully on the hypocritical portrayal of the female body in art. It also made me think of his writing on Van Gogh, which refers to reality being a construction, a ‘screen of clichés’, that Van Gogh broke down.
It was also fascinating to hear Mike Dibb’s perspective of the television industry today. There was fervent indignation in his voice as he said how a series like ‘Ways of Seeing’ would never be made today, where programmes are “micromanaged from the centre”. He referred to the fact that the BBC are planning a re-make of ‘Civilisation’, saying that this retrospective attitude is in many ways typical of a backward industry that makes insufficient room for forward-thinking and provocative ideas. To some extent, I agree with him. Television is, I feel, becoming decreasingly raw and organic, and it is these qualities which allow for interesting and exciting new ideas to come to the fore. I have certainly never seen an arts programme as bold and challenging as ‘Ways of Seeing’.
As someone who only encountered the work of Berger earlier this year, this event highlighted to me how much I have yet to explore. It has also made me conscious of the importance of his legacy, especially as we live in a world where images are more prevalent than ever before. It seems so important today that we take up John Berger’s perceptive, critical approach to visual culture and his awareness of how this relates to society.
The 1995 interview- a really interesting watch
All four episodes of ‘Ways of Seeing’ are also on YouTube