Earlier this week, on January 2nd 2017, I heard the news that John Berger had died in Paris at the age of 90. There can’t be an art historian anywhere that does not know his work ‘Ways of Seeing’ as, along with Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Berger’s commentary on art and imagery encouraged people to reappraise and rethink the way they looked at the world.
John Berger wasn’t simply an art critic, he had originally trained as an artist at the Chelsea School of Art, but became an influential, intellectual voice through writing criticism, novels (he won the Booker Prize for ‘G’ in 1972) , poetry, screenplays and many non-fiction texts. It was, however, his fascinating BBC television series “Ways of Seeing” that established his presence in the 20th century Western cultural canon. I am too young to have seen this series the first time round, but all four, half-hour episodes are available to watch on YouTube – Ways of Seeing.
The iconic television series spawned the book. I still dip into my copy every now and then when the world of ‘visual media’ and its hysterical commentary feels like its spinning out of control.
In ‘Ways of Seeing’ I am intrigued by the three pictorial essays that are somehow mutable. Each time I return to them different interpretations come to mind.
Our principal aim has been to start a process of questioning.
This quotation, found at the beginning of the book, is the last sentence from ‘Notes to the reader’. Personally, I find the pictorial essays invite questions immediately. Without a guiding text a sequence of images can offer a story which we decode internally, non verbally, generating a response we interpret from our current cultural perspective. Sometimes we might look at these essays, work to extract conscious thoughts, devise a narrative that we then articulate, but not always. For me, periodically I have returned to these compositions aware of changes in my viewpoint. Then, having considered and acknowledged a newly adjusted outlook, I find the process of questioning begins again.
For an excellent overview of John Berger’s extensive and varied achievements please take a moment to read Gerry Cordon’s piece.