John Berger dead: Booker Prize-winning author and art critic dies aged 90

Adam Withnall
Monday 02 January 2017 21:35
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John Berger pictured with the actress Tilda Swinton. The two were born in the same city on the same day, 34 years apart
John Berger pictured with the actress Tilda Swinton. The two were born in the same city on the same day, 34 years apart

The Man Booker Prize-winning author John Berger, a pioneering Marxist intellectual and art critic, has died aged 90.

Berger was a prodigious author whose pioneering 1972 book and the BBC series it spawned, "Ways of Seeing," ushered in a political perspective to art criticism.

The actor Simon McBurney, a friend of Berger's, said he died on Monday at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. McBurney said Berger had been ill for about a year.

Berger was the author of art criticism, novels, poetry, screenplays and many less classifiable books. He consistently challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and connections between the two. When he won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel "G," he pledged to give half his reward to the Black Panthers.

''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."

Additional reporting by agencies

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