An art critic of his time
How artist-writer John Berger performed a balancing act between creativity and compromise. Review by Corinna Lotz
John Berger – painter, writer, Marxist art critic and artistic collaborator – occupies a charismatic place in English cultural history.
He donated his archives to the British Library in 2009. Thanks to dedicated curators, a small part of sixty years’ material is on view at the newly established King’s Cultural Institute.
For those – writers, artists or the wider public – who sought an approach that went deeper than the personal story of an artist or stylistic analysis, Berger was an inspiring as well as controversial figure.
He achieved early notoriety in 1958 with his book A Painter of Our Time. It is about an artist who disappears to Hungary during the uprising against the Soviet invasion. In Berger's "roman à clef", the character standing in for the author hopes that his Hungarian friend is on the side of the Stalinists. Berger's position brought him under fire from poet Stephen Spender and it seems that the book was suppressed.
As the impressive opening room of John Berger: Art and Property Now reveals, Berger was part of a London circle that included some of the most notable English artists of the day. Paintings and sculpture by Leon Kossoff, Peter de Francia, Prunella Clough and Peter Peri – provide a strong flavour of the atmosphere in post-war London.
Berger was active in the Geneva Club, a group of artists and writers, who discussed world affairs from a Marxist point of view. The “Big Beasts” of 1950s British art included the émigré Italian painter de Francia. They hung out in London’s Soho pubs.
The bloody repression of the Hungarian revolution against Stalinist rule in October 1956 caused a crisis within the ranks of Communist Parties throughout the world. Artists like Pablo Picasso and Renato Guttuso, well known for their Marxist sympathies, were deeply shocked.
Newspaper cuttings and pamphlets from Berger’s archive include despatches from Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Budapest, which were censored by the British party. Fryer subsequently joined the Trotskyist movement, as did other Communist Party intellectuals.
But not Berger, according to archivist and collaborative PhD student Tom Overton. Berger was not a CP member, unlike the unreconstructed historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose portrait hangs in Room One. But he nevertheless remained loyal to it despite events in Hungary.
Berger’s writings over the next decades reflected the ambivalence and conscience-searching of a genuinely creative personality. He was influenced by two brilliant Jewish art historians who pioneered new ways of interpreting works of art – the German Max Raphaël and Hungarian Frederic Antal.
Raphaël and Antal’s contributions expanded and refined art history and art criticism into multifaceted disciplines. They were light years away – especially in Raphaël’s case – from the crude determinist views that underpinned the repressive dogmas of Stalin and Zhdanov’s state-imposed “Socialist Realism”. Berger cudgelled his brains over these issues.
In 1962 he left England permanently, to settle on an isolated farm in the French Pyrenees where he still resides. His books from the 1960s, The Success and Failure of Picasso and Art and Revolution about the Soviet sculptor Ernst Neizvestny set their subjects firmly within the artistic and political controversies of their time. He wrote art criticism for New Statesman and New Society, but sadly documents pertaining to this are not on show here.
Manuscripts, documents, video and audio archives from the 1970s record the production of his essays Ways of Seeing. These were made into a series of television broadcasts with the talented left-wing director Mike Digg and others from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (which is about to reopen after 14 years). Berger’s novel G. won the Booker prize in 1972 and he donated half the proceeds to the Black Panther movement, while using the other half for a photographic project with Jean Mohr about immigrant workers in Europe (A Seventh Man). Some of these are displayed along with Mohr’s sequence of portraits of Berger.
The archives are arranged in the semi-subterranean Inigo Rooms, in Somerset House’s labyrinthine spaces, and include a small gallery of contemporary paintings, newspaper cuttings, letters, manuscripts, photographs, books, pamphlets and broadcasts. Their broad scope reflects a diversity of interests and Berger’s ability to work in a range of forms and media.
The display – and the accompanying wall texts – perhaps inevitably raise more questions about art and property than they answer. Not least is a question about the value of literary and artistic archives.
In opening the exhibition, Jamie Andrews of the British Library pointed to the ironies of being an archivist. After retrieving and sorting countless pieces of paper in the chaos of Berger’s barn, they had to be deep-frozen to rid them of insects. Now they are transformed into precious museum specimens, displayed behind reinforced glass under special temperature, light and humidity conditions.
Thirty years ago, poet and librarian Philip Larkin pleaded for such documents to be collected as part of a nation’s literary heritage, and the King’s Cultural Institute is rising to this challenge. But now, with the proliferation of computers and the use of digital technology, the nature of the “literary” object has changed dramatically and presents new issues. Even screening short clips of archive footage from Berger’s BBC broadcasts, for example, has become prohibitively expensive, due to intellectual property rights. The mass appropriation of images and text by big media corporates is even more ominous. Ownership, property and interpretation are even more contested and political today than they were in the 1960s.
14 September 2012