John Berger, a British art critic, intellectual and prodigious author whose pioneering 1972 book and the BBC series it spawned, “Ways of Seeing,” redefined the way a generation saw art, died Jan. 2 at his home in the Paris suburb of Antony. He was 90.
Simon McBurney, a British actor and a friend of Berger’s, told the Associated Press that Mr. Berger had been ailing for about a year with an unspecified illness.
The author of criticism, novels, poetry, screenplays and many less classifiable books, Mr. Berger (pronounced BURR-jur) had considerable influence as a late 20th-century thinker. He consistently and provocatively challenged traditional interpretations of art and society and the connections between the two.
He examined the role consumerism played in the rise of Pablo Picasso in 1965’s “The Success and Failure of Picasso.” He claimed that the style of art associated with Picasso, cubism, anticipated the Russian revolution in “The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays.”
When Mr. Berger 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 prize money to the Black Panthers, a group he said more accurately reflected his own politics.
That same year, Mr. Berger — with a head of wavy brown hair and a magnetic authority — captivated the British public with “Ways of Seeing,” a series of four 30-minute films. In the series, he mined imagery for larger cultural discoveries. How women were depicted in art, for example, revealed much about an era’s attitude toward gender.
“It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world,” Mr. Berger wrote in “Ways of Seeing,” which was often taught in college courses. “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.”
John Peter Berger was born Nov. 5, 1926, in London. He was drafted into the British army in 1944 and was dispatched to Northern Ireland.
“I lived among these raw recruits,” he told the Guardian in 2005, “and it was the first time I really met working-class contemporaries. I used to write letters for them, to their parents and occasionally their girlfriends.”
After the army, Mr. Berger joined the Chelsea School of Art, first as a painting student. He later taught drawing and eventually began writing criticism for the New Statesman.
His interests later expanded significantly into other realms. He examined the lives of migrant workers in 1975’s “A Seventh Man: Migrant Workers in Europe.” In “About Looking” (1980), Mr. Berger 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,” he wrote. “Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises.”
Mr. Berger also wrote several screenplays, among them “John Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” a 1976 drama set amid the 1968 protests in Paris.
His marriages to Pat Marriott and Anya Bostock ended in divorce. His third wife, Beverly Bancroft, died in 2013.
Survivors include two children from his second marriage; and a son from his third marriage.
Mr. Berger’s considerable output continued until last year, when he published a collection of essays, “Confabulations.” A documentary on his life, produced by actress Tilda Swinton, was also released in 2016.
In “The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger,” Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
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