John Berger, critic and author, 1926–2017

John Berger. Image: Jean Mohr

John Berger, the influential British art critic and writer, has died at the age of 90, at his home in Paris. Berger was a key figure in art criticism in Britain during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, bringing an emphatically left-wing perspective to discussions of modern art and art history, in a period dominated by the politics of the Cold War.

Berger wrote prolifically, writing art criticism for the New Statesman throughout the 50s, publishing in the art press – including Arts News and Review, as ArtReview was then known – and wrote and presented for radio and TV. Berger’s seminal TV series Ways of Seeing, commissioned and broadcast by the BBC in 1972, had a lasting impact, introducing TV viewers to sophisticated questions of art’s relationship to political and social issues. Developed in response to the more elitist art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series on Western art history Civilisation, the four episodes of Ways of Seeing explored art’s commodity status, the culture of art collecting, the politics of the advertising industry and the depiction of women in art and mass culture. The series and the accompanying book had a galvanising effect on the emergence of more political and theoretical approaches in art history, feminist art criticism and the new field of cultural studies in the subsequent decade.

From the 1970s onwards Berger turned further to writing fiction, his 1972 novel G winning the Booker Prize. Then, Berger provoked controversy by declaring that he would contribute half the prize to the radical Black Panther movement. Other novels followed, often taking as their subjects the experiences and realities of migrants and peasant workers. Berger continued to write about art, and politics; 2016 saw the publication of the collection of essays Landscapes and Hold Everything Dear, a collection of essays on art as form of political resistance.

3 January 2017