By Becca Dye
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John Berger: A Biography

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
Issue 373

Since 1962 when art critic John Berger uprooted himself from the hectic rat race of London he has lived in a renovated old barn in the depths of the Haute-Savoie valley in eastern France. Here he searched for authenticity, to see oppression up close and to live among the migrant workers that became the topic for his book A Seventh Man. His route was a reversal of the normal migratory course of the poor masses to the sprawling urban metropolis.

He wanted to keep in touch with his senses, with humans and animals, and with art. In this book Andy Merrifield leads us through a thematic biography of Berger, capturing his work through an analysis of his texts, photographs and films.

In the true essence of Berger, Merrifield is ever speculating and asking open-ended questions that encourages the reader to think independently. The book teaches us not necessarily to read more, but to listen and look more, in order to discover what has come before us, who we are now and the situation in which we live.

Berger’s take on art is compelling: art as images of human sensuality and destiny, art that needs to be democratised and popularised, art that needs to be universal and accessible. In other words, art for the masses. His groundbreaking documentary Ways of Seeing, from 1972, brought his version of Marxist humanism (a focus on Marx’s early writings) to the British public.

He forces you to climb inside the minds and bodies of artists and to think independently. He demystifies classic art, but never fails to place it in the context of class, race and gender.

He breaks open the grip that elites, experts and a “cultured” minority have on art. His language is free from intellectual lingo, but it never lessens the magic of art or compromises its complexity. His philosophical tangents always comes back round to solid Marxist theory and the revealing of social and political truths.

Merrifield looks at Berger’s work on refugees, the corruption of commerce and the military, walls, prisons, and the “world’s largest open air prison”, the Gaza Strip. We cover important artists and thinkers: Van Gogh, Carravaggio, Lukács, the Zapatistas, Spinoza, as well as Berger’s fictional characters who act as tools of exploration. We pass through countless observations, theories and criticisms. What at first seems like much too wide an angle is all linked and woven together masterfully by Merrifield. His writing is laced with radical politics and he brilliantly echoes Berger’s unbridled fascination with people, animals, natural forces and human expression, hope and endurance.

John Berger: a biography is published by Reaktion Books, £10.95,

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