The illuminator

different strokes

The illuminator

By all accounts, John Berger was among the leading literary and cultural voices of the 20th century.

He wore many hats —  novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, screenplay writer, and, above all, an incredible illuminator of many centuries of visual art and culture. In all his adult years, he sketched and drew portraits and still life. He carried the practice on very nearly to the end.

When he passed away on January 2, 2017 in Paris aged 90, tributes poured in from every quarter of the art and literary world. Independent scholar, urbanist and writer Andy Merrifield recalled how Berger was “driven to demystify productive and creative processes.” Award-winning author Timothy O’Grady reminisced that Berger was exemplary in many things, not least in not being for sale, whether the inducement was money, fame, a tenured faculty post, or a reputation for agreeableness and collegiality among publishers, literary editors and prize awarders. “He was, so far as I could see, a free man.”

On his part, Berger seemed to prefer the tag of a storyteller rather than a fashionable novelist or literary creator. For him, the storyteller was a guy, often nomadic, who went from place to place, telling stories that he had lived or that he was making up. “And that idea of a traveller, that idea of somebody who is completely free from institutions is something also which is contained for me in this term ‘storyteller’. And which in all modesty I try to be myself.”

Berger’s life story and many achievements are all over the papers, magazines and websites these days. Noted art historians and observers have, in detail, recalled and commented on how he developed a distaste for life in Britain and left London for a pastoral adopted home in the French Alps, where he remained for 40 odd years; how he maintained the essential connection between politics, art and the wider study of culture throughout his life; how his commitment to sharing a new way of looking at the world was informed by Marxism; and how he presented entirely new ways of thinking about a whole range of artists from (among many others) Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, to Henry Moore, Rene Magritte, Picasso and Jackson Pollock. For the sheer variety and depth of literary output, freshness of ideas, and sharpness of thought, Berger is not one to be forgotten easily.

In particular, his four-part BBC TV series, Ways of Seeing, would continue to be remembered as an artistic lamp post for many coming generations. Shot on a very small budget and filmed in an electrical goods warehouse, Ways of Seeing (made in 1972 with Michael Dibb) became a landmark work of British arts broadcasting; and one of the most watched art programmes globally. Released as a book by the BBC and Penguin, it has been an invaluable tome for art students, teachers and aficionados for more than four decades.

Indian connection

Though he did not seem to travel to India often, Berger did have some noteworthy connections with the country’s artists and writers. A few of them come to mind instantly. In the 1950s, when F N Souza (1924-2002), then a young émigré from India, had a solo exhibit in London, Berger enthusiastically reviewed it. “How much Souza’s pictures derive from western art and how much from the hieratic temple traditions of his country, I cannot say,” wrote Berger (The New Statesman/ February 25, 1955). “It is obvious that he is a superb designer and an excellent draughtsman. But I find it quite impossible to assess his work comparatively. Because he straddles several traditions but serves none.”

In the 1960s, Berger became friends with Swiss director Alain Tanner and wrote the script for four of his films. The first of their collaboration resulted in Une Ville a Chandigarh (1966), a documentary about the building of Chandigarh and its emerging social structure. “Berger’s voice on soundtrack takes the viewer beyond the space of the screen and away from the centre of the new city under construction, suggesting another space, that of the builders and the gypsies excluded from the city,” observes Professor Lieve Spaas (Francophone Film: A Struggle For Identity/Manchester University Press). 

Keen observations

In one of his eloquent essays on cinema, Berger observed that “Directors like Satyajit Ray, Rossellini, Bresson, Buñuel, Forman, Scorsese, and Spike Lee have used non-professional actors precisely in  order that the people we see on the screen may be scarcely more explained than reality itself. Professionals, except for the greatest, usually play not just the necessary role, but an explanation of the role.”

In the same piece, he explained, “There is no film that does not partake of dream. And the great films are dreams which reveal. No two moments of revelation are the same. The Gold Rush is very different from Pather Panchali. Nevertheless, I want to ask the question: what is the longing that film expresses and, at its best, satisfies? Or, what is the nature of this filmic revelation?”

In 2010, Berger wrote the preface for Amarjit Chandan’s collection of poems, Sonata for Four Hands. He praised the Nairobi-born London-based bilingual (Punjabi/English) poet “for transporting listeners or readers into an arena of timelessness.”

In 2011, Booker prize-winning author Arundhati Roy told The Independent how Berger had urged her to continue writing her second novel. “About a year and a half ago, I was with John at his home, and he said: ‘You open your computer now and you read to me whatever fiction you are writing’. He is perhaps the only person in the world that could have the guts to say that to me. And I read a bit to him and he said: ‘you just go back to Delhi and you finish that book’.” The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Roy’s new novel after a gap of two decades, is set to be published by Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India later this year.

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