Seeing comes before words: John Berger 1926-2017
January 2, 2017 1:04 PM   Subscribe

The march of the distinguished nonagenarians continues: Art critic John Berger, perhaps best known for Ways of Seeing (TV series; book; previously), has died at the age of 90. You can get a glimpse of the man in this recent interview and the documentary The Seasons in Quincy.
posted by maudlin (31 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Reading Ways of Seeing in my late teens profoundly changed how I understood art and art history for which I am very grateful.
Thank you for all the good works you put into the world.

posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:09 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]


My first reaction is, "well, at least he wasn't 50". John Berger was instrumental in how I began to consume art: not as a strictly visual medium, but one imbued with layered meaning.
posted by petrilli at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by interrupt at 1:13 PM on January 2, 2017

My translation of his Why look at animals is waiting publication. I also use the text in seminars sometimes.

That Why look at animals text of his does have an impact. It is very powerful.

posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:18 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Berger on Vincent Van Gogh:
“When he painted a small pear tree in flower, the act of the sap rising, of the bud forming, the bud breaking, the flower opening, the styles thrusting out, the stigmas becoming sticky, these acts were all present for him in the act of painting. When he painted a road, the roadmakers were there in his imagin­ation. When he painted the turned earth of a ploughed field, the gesture of the blade turning the earth was included in his own act. Wherever he looked he saw the labor of existence; and this labor, recognized as such, was what constituted reality for him.”
And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos is one of my favourite books (and my very favourite book title). He thinks and writes in a way that is just full of compassion, you can feel it in every sentence. Will dearly miss his presence in the world.
posted by oulipian at 1:18 PM on January 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

posted by Smart Dalek at 1:42 PM on January 2, 2017

His work changed forever how I understand and interact with art and art history. Rest in peace.
posted by pecanpies at 1:51 PM on January 2, 2017

Berger was a wonderful writer and his art criticism was wide ranging and powerful. He believed in the goodness in humanity to a fault, while never ignoring the cruelty and brutality that could also accompany that goodness when a destructive force of will found favor in the hands of the powerful and wealthy. He was intent on tracing the beauty and majesty of great art to the spirit of its creators, never one to be content with the notion of art for art's sake or to separate the life of the maker from the work produced.

Sometimes that led him to extrapolations or flights of fancy that may not always have been accurate or encompassing for the works and artists he examined, but the higher principle of valuing his fellow man at their most humble or desperate made those reaches of conscience suggest more of the meaning of art in its inspirational aspect than in any more commercial or mundane value.

His training and work as an artist allowed him to see and describe an artwork vividly, capturing it in ways that have only rare duplication from other critics and writers. His fiction matched his writing on art in its compassion and always with a view towards a better world. You won't find any critic more attuned to this match of art to what it means to be human, and there is no writer on art I would suggest reading more than Berger. He had his blind spots as a critic, but they are forgivable in his larger striving for social justice and for his attempts to provide a better way of seeing for all who encountered him.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:01 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Is this the same John Berger who did the web site? That was one awesome stream of links back in the day.
posted by wenestvedt at 2:12 PM on January 2, 2017

Robotwisdom was Jorn Barger.
posted by leonard horner at 2:16 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ah, thank you.
posted by wenestvedt at 2:26 PM on January 2, 2017

There is no underestimating the impact of "Ways of Seeing" on the world of young artists when it first came out in the 1960s. It was one of those books that made the floor drop away from under your feet. I'm pleased to see, from the comments above, that it hasn't lost its power to "reframe" art for succeeding generations.
posted by Modest House at 2:29 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by From Bklyn at 2:41 PM on January 2, 2017

Oh, damn. What a wonderful writer he was. Very sorry to hear this, even if he was ninety.
posted by languagehat at 2:54 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by allthinky at 2:56 PM on January 2, 2017

Instrumental. .
posted by crush-onastick at 2:59 PM on January 2, 2017

By coincidence, a fine summary of Berger's art criticism was published today in LARB: A Smuggling Operation: John Berger’s Theory of Art (by Robert Minto). I have only dipped into his work outside of Ways of Seeing, but now Portraits and Landscapes have jumped up in the queue.

posted by Peter J. Prufrock at 3:20 PM on January 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by Flashman at 3:36 PM on January 2, 2017

Ways of Something Ep. 1
posted by ovvl at 3:39 PM on January 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

posted by etchogon at 4:17 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by ouke at 4:19 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by threecheesetrees at 4:46 PM on January 2, 2017

I'll never forget how Ways of Seeing caused me to see the world with new eyes.

posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 5:35 PM on January 2, 2017

I'm very sorry to hear this. I'm not an artist but I see better for having read him.
posted by MovableBookLady at 5:54 PM on January 2, 2017

Ways of Seeing blew my mind as a teenager and I've taught it many times as a professor. I'm sorry he's gone .

posted by spitbull at 6:05 PM on January 2, 2017

Mod note: Couple comments deleted; corrected the year in the post.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:45 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by lalochezia at 6:59 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by cazoo at 10:25 PM on January 2, 2017

posted by lapolla at 12:11 AM on January 3, 2017

posted by Mister Bijou at 12:21 AM on January 3, 2017

posted by Obscure Reference at 5:49 AM on January 4, 2017

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