Berger, who died on January 2 at the age of 90, has had a profound influence on the popular understanding of art and the visual image. He was also a vibrant example of the public intellectual, using his position to speak out against social injustices and to lend his support to artists and activists across the world.
Berger’s approach to art came most directly into the public eye in four-part BBC TV series, Ways of Seeing in 1972, produced by Mike Dibb and which preceded the book. Yet his style of blending Marxist sensibility and art theory with attention to small gestures, scenes and personal stories developed much earlier, in essays for the independent, weekly magazine New Stateman (between 1951 and 1961) and also in his first novel A Painter of Our Time, published in 1958.
The BBC programmes brought to life and democratised scholarly ideas and texts through dramatic, often witty, visual techniques that raised searching questions about how images – from European oil painting to photography and modern advertising – inform and seep into everyday life and help constitute its inequities. What do we see? How are we seen? Might we see differently?
Historical context, scale, and how we see were recurring themes in Berger’s writing, films, performance and in his collaborative photographic essays with Jean Mohr, Anne Michaels, Tereza Stehliková and others.
Reflecting on his written work, Berger wrote in the recent Penguin collection Confabulations:
What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told and that, if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told.
He knew very well that writing has its limitations. By itself, writing cannot rebalance the inequities of the present or establish new ways of seeing. Yet he wrote with hope. He showed us in his work and – by example – other possibilities for living a life that was committed to criticising inequality, while celebrating the beauty in the world, giving attention to its colour, rhythm and joyous surprises. We remain endowed and indebted to him.
How John Berger changed our way of seeing art