Faces of John Berger

31st October 2016

Yesterday’s Observer carried a loving profile by Kate Kellaway of the writer John Berger. Berger’s 90th birthday is this coming Saturday, and Kate Kellaway catches something of the achievement and significance of his life when she writes:

Critic, novelist, poet, dramatist, artist, commentator – and, above all, storyteller – Berger was described by Susan Sontag as peerless in his ability to make “attentiveness to the sensual world” meet “imperatives of conscience”. His book Ways of Seeing, and the 1972 BBC television series based on it, changed the way at least two generations responded to art. And his writing since then – especially about migration – has changed the way many of us see the world.

The following weekend, on Friday 11 and Saturday 12 November, Birkbeck, University of London, is hosting a screening and symposium, ‘Faces of John Berger’, at which I’ll be chairing one of the panels. The screening on Friday evening is of the 2015 film The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. Tickets cost £5 for each event, and can be booked here. And to mark all of this, below is a selection of perhaps less well-known material with and about John Berger that can be freely accessed online.

As the film’s website explains:

The Seasons in Quincy is the result of a five-year project by Tilda Swinton, Colin MacCabe and Christopher Roth to produce a portrait of the intellectual and storyteller John Berger. It was produced by the Derek Jarman Lab, an audio-visual hub for graduate filmmaking based at Birkbeck, University of London, in collaboration with the composer Simon Fisher Turner.

This is the trailer:

The Seasons in Quincy: trailer by Walter Stabb from The Derek Jarman Lab on Vimeo.

Tilda Swinton spoke with Geoffrey Macnab for the Independent about the making of the film, and Colin MacCabe has contributed an exceptional essay about Berger to the current issue of Prospect, ‘How John Berger taught us to see’;

The most important thing to say about Berger in intellectual terms is that he is a Marxist. His understanding is rooted in Karl Marx’s analysis of exploitation. Some of his best essays have just been reissued in a collection, Landscapes, and time and again they start with a brilliant sketching of the economic conditions around the ideas or art being examined. But Berger is so important a Marxist because he is perhaps the one who has most thoroughly rid himself of belief in historical progress, a belief that Marx took ready-made from the victorious bourgeoisie who had replaced feudalism with capitalism.

Andrew Quincy reviewed The Seasons in Quincy for the Guardian when it was screened at Berlin earlier this year, describing it as ‘a reverential love letter to a mentor and father figure’. And Glenn Kenny wrote about the film for The New York Times in August, concluding that, ‘For all its shortcomings, The Seasons in Quincy is an essential document of an exemplary intellect, one who has as much to impart to the 21st century as he did to the 20th.’

Other pieces of recent writing about John Berger’s work that I’ve appreciated include a review of his book Portraits, ‘The many faces of John Berger’, by Ratik Asokan for New Republic, and another response to The Seasons in Quincy, ‘John Berger: the human, the artist’, by Anakwa Dwamena for The Nation.

More substantial, and perhaps more specialist, is a terrific scholarly article by Tom Overton, ‘”I tried to push him down the stairs”: John Berger and Henry Moore in parallel’, which was published last year as part of Tate’s mammoth – and in many ways, rather marvellous – research project about Henry Moore. In a lengthy, rigorous exploration, Overton is remarkably successful in achieving the aim that he sets out for himself at the start:

This essay seeks to chart Berger’s varied responses to Moore throughout his long career, setting these within the broader context of their lives and suggesting that their respective achievements should be seen as mutually illuminating rather than antagonistic.

Lead image: a frame-grab from The Seasons in Quincy, copyright Derek Jarman Lab.

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