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John Berger, the British art critic, Marxist intellectual and prodigious author whose pioneering 1972 book and the BBC series it spawned, “Ways of Seeing,” ushered in a political perspective to art criticism, died Monday. He was 90. Simon McBurney, the British actor and a friend of Berger’s, told The Associated Press that Berger died at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. Berger had been ill for about a year, McBurney said.
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Berger was the author of art criticism, novels, poetry, screenplays and many less classifiable books. He consistently, provocatively challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and the connections between the two. He examined the role consumerism played in the rise of Picasso in 1965’s “The Success and Failure of Picasso.” He claimed that cubism anticipated the Russian revolution in “The Moment of Cubism, and Other Essays.” When he won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel “G,” he spoke against the prize’s roots in Caribbean slave labor and pledged to give half his reward to the Black Panthers, a group he said more accurately reflected his own politics.
That same year the London-born, Oxford-educated Berger – with a wavy brown head of hair, a beige ’70s shirt and a magnetic authority – captivated the British public with “Ways of Seeing,” a series of four 30-minute films. In it, he mined imagery for larger cultural discoveries. How women were depicted in art, for example, revealed much about a time period’s attitude toward gender.
”It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing,” which became a common curriculum of universities. “We explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”
Though Berger began as a painter and initially focused on art criticism, his studies expanded significantly into other realms. He examined the lives of migrant workers in 2010’s “A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe.” In 1980’s “About Looking,” he considered, among other subjects, how animals exist alongside human lives.
“To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia,” Berger wrote. “Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.”
Berger’s considerable output ran right up until last year, when he published a collection of essays, “Confabulations.” A documentary on Berger, produced by Tilda Swinton, was also released in 2016. In “The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger,” Berger and Swinton, a longtime friend of his, converse in the French Alpine village he lived in for much of his life. Swinton calls him “a radical humanist.”
“If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen,” Berger says in the film. “For me, a storyteller, he’s like a passer, that’s to say like somebody who gets contraband across a frontier.”