THE DOYENS of the 1950s art world, gallerists, critics, and artists alike, often flush with the CIA’s anticommunist cash, kept politics at bay by emphasizing the autonomy and neutrality of art. As an art critic for The New Statesman who refused to keep politics out of art, he found himself at the center of controversy after controversy.
Joshua Sperling’s A Writer of Our Time, the first biography of John Berger to appear since his death, begins in the midst of this exciting period. Still in his 20s, Berger was metamorphosing from student at the Chelsea School of Art into a prominent art critic. Sperling’s biography focuses on Berger’s work, keeping his personal life an embroidery at the edge of the narrative.
“The name of his cause,” writes Sperling, “was realism; opposing it was modernism.” Realism was the official aesthetic of the Communist Party in several countries, but though he was sympathetic to the Party, Berger championed realism for his own aesthetic reasons. When he was an art student, Sperling tells us, Berger was influenced by the Euston Road School, “a short-lived prewar academy that had favoured tradition, naturalism and the ‘poetry in the everyday’.” His own art followed that pattern, with a special focus on paintings of people engaged in ordinary work. Then, as an art critic, he promoted a set of young British realists who exhibited similar tendencies. They came to be called the Kitchen Sink painters.
First, A Painter of Our Time, in which an artist grapples with his relationship to leftist politics, and eventually the Booker-winning G
In Berger’s opinion, art communicated to a viewer what seeing had disclosed to an artist. Seeing was the ever-fruitful source of art, and severing art from that source was a dead end. Berger clung to this axiom for his entire life, and it led him in a surprising variety of directions. In his 20s, it meant he preferred artists who portrayed what they saw in the street to artists who indulged in abstraction.
This aesthetic standard also appealed to postwar Britain. Berger was popular beyond the left. He was even invited to curate a show at the Whitechapel Gallery. It was a chance to demonstrate what he had argued in his articles. It proved “one of the most influential [exhibits] of the mers and gallerists were […] won over. For a few years, thickly rendered paintings, full of impasto and brownish-grey in palette, came into vogue: pictures of northern industry, men at work, football, street and domestic scenes.”
But eventually, Berger’s Kitchen Sink painters began to disappoint him, both politically and aesthetically. The movement produced no one of particular note, and its members were not as committed to the left as he had hoped.
John Berger disagreed
In the late 1950s, it became difficult to be a communist-adjacent polemicist. Khrushchev’s “secret speech” had revealed Stalin’s crimes, and then Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, bringing a new era of doubt and ambiguity to the global left. Berger left his berth at The New Statesman to explore those doubts and ambiguities in fiction.
He also left England. From the 1960s onward, his life became more European and his work exploded with variety. He wrote novels. , an experimental narrative in which a Don Juan–like protagonist is onenightfriend a scam comes to political consciousness through his sexual escapades across Europe. He also collaborated with the photographer Jean Mohr to create three documentary photo-essays about, respectively, “rural medicine, migrant labour and mountain peasants.” He collaborated on screenplays with the filmmaker Alain Tanner. He wrote profiles of European leftist intellectuals. Eventually, he returned to writing about art.