In Depth

John Berger: Five key works by the late art critic

Novelist, essayist, cultural historian, Berger changed not only the way we look at art but at modern life

British writer John Berger has died at the age of 90.

Famous for his seminal work on western culture Ways of Seeing, Berger wrote novels, poetry, screenplays and books of art criticism and was known as one of the most influential thinkers of the late 20th century. He challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and the connections between the two.

Here are five of his key works:

A Painter of Our Time

London-born Berger served in the army before beginning his career as an artist and drawing teacher while also writing art criticism for the New Statesman. He published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, in 1958, a tale about the disappearance of a fictional exiled Hungarian painter whose diary is discovered by his art critic friend called John. Some of the political musings led to accusations that Berger had totalitarian sympathies and the book was briefly withdrawn from publication. The New Statesman says A Painter of Our Time manages to both challenge generic and ideological conventions while remaining “compulsively readable fiction”.

Ways of Seeing

Originally written as a book of art criticism, Ways of Seeing made Berger a household name after it was turned into a BBC TV series in 1972, arguing that mass media had fundamentally altered our perception of art. Berger also examined imagery to make larger cultural observations, such as how the depiction of women in art revealed that period's attitude towards gender. Ways of Seeing became iconic in the way it challenged convention, the establishment and everyday attitudes.

G

Berger's 1972 novel won the Booker Prize, but also brought more controversy. G is a picaresque tale of a Don Juan-like character who carries out a series of romantic misadventures across Europe while gradually coming to political consciousness. He used the award to speak out against the prize's roots in Caribbean slave labour and pledged to give half his reward to the Black Panthers. "I intend as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean," he said. The move led to Berger being criticised by some as a "literary thug".

A Seventh Man

Avoiding fame and celebrity, Berger moved to Switzerland and then to a remote village in the French Alps while working on a series of books about migrant workers in Europe, the first of which, A Seventh Man, was published in 1975. It is an "impassioned portrait of migrant life", says Aimee Shalan in The Guardian, and although clearly outdated, remains relevant in its depiction of western Europe's continued dependence on millions of migrant workers and the economic and social consequences. In fact, she adds, A Seventh Man is "more relevant than ever as an incisive response to eruptions of anti-immigration rhetoric".

About Looking

Published in 1980, About Looking considers our role as observers to reveal new layers of meaning in what we see. Among his many topics, Berger considers our relationship to animals and says looking at them in zoos reminds us of how we have lost the traditional relationship between man and beast. "This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units," he writes.

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