In 2009, John Berger donated sixty years’ worth of his papers, accumulated in his stables in the French Alps, to the British Library. The exhibition of that archive, Art and Property Now, begins with pieces from the Forties and Fifties by Berger, Leon Kossoff and others, and runs up to the 2009 collaboration with Alan Kane and Artangel, Life Class. To celebrate John Berger’s 86th birthday, openDemocracy is this week inviting you to a daily guided tour of the exhibition, which is divided into five sections, by room, connected by the photographer Jean Mohr’s sequence of portraits of Berger. November 5 also marks the beginning of a week-long series of free activities, discussions, workshops, screenings and collaborations in the exhibition: redrawingthemaps.org.uk.
Room 2 looks at the 40th anniversary of two of his most famous works, the collaborative TV series Ways of Seeing, and the novel G., both of which make powerful arguments about who owns and uses art.
John Berger and his wife Beverly came with their friend Libby Hall to see Art and Property Now on the Monday after the Memory Marathon at the Serpentine Gallery. At the gallery, in the Thomas Schütte show, Faces and Figures, Berger’s 1967 essay ‘The Changing View of the Man in the Portrait’ had been used as a catalogue text. He wrote the essay as he was drafting his novel G. After finishing The Success and Failure of Picasso, Berger had come to the conclusion that Picasso was a version of the archetypal European Don Juan, and that this archetype could be the basis for a revolutionary piece of fiction.
Draft fragment for G.1965–1971 | Ink, sellotape and paper, John Berger Archive, the British Library
Essentially a novel about the moment of Modernism, written at the moment of Postmodernism, G. won the Booker Prize in 1972. As Room 2 explores in more detail, Berger, who by then was living on the continent out of a frustration with the cultural atmosphere of England, gave half of the money to the London-based Black Panthers, in recognition of Booker McConnell’s history of involvement with the colonial exploitation of the Caribbean.
Tacca (1577–1640) and Giovanni Bandini (1540–1599) Monument
to Duke Ferdinand I de’ Medici with Four Slaves,1595–1626, Brass and marble
(Photographed in situ, Piazza Darsena, Livorno)
This is the statue of the ‘four chained Moors’ which Berger’s Booker Prize acceptance speech described as ‘the most important single image’ of G. His acceptance speech, shown in full on the wall of the gallery, can also be read here. It should also be read in the context of Berger’s similarly powerful oratory on the subject of the ongoing war in Vietnam, in which, he argued in 1967,“we have the simple issue around which all the history of the rest of the century will concentrate: are we in the privileged quarter of the world, going to continue to exploit the other three quarters?”
The Booker Prize consistently misrepresented this story up until the re-fit of their website in time for the 2012 Prize: the fortieth anniversary of Berger’s victory. Up until then, they claimed that, by 1972, Booker McConnell no longer had interests in the Caribbean, and the Panthers had disbanded. The former is a very naïve reading of history, and the latter is simply wrong: Robin Bunce and Paul Field’s forthcoming biography of Darcus Howe records the cheque being handed over in the Albany pub on London’s Great Portland Street, and used to secure the mortgage on a house in Finsbury Park. This became an effective base of operations for Panther activities, but Bunce and Field suggest an unforeseen side-effect: the arguments in this house apparently caused the group to break up in June 1973. As explored in Room 3, the other half of the money went to fund Berger’s next project with the photographer Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man (1975).
But Berger also ‘shared’ many of the ideas from G. with Ways of Seeing, the TV series, and later book, made in collaboration with others including the film-maker Mike Dibb. Both works build on ‘The Changing View of the Man in the Portrait’. Originally given the punchier title – which I’ll use from now on for the sake of brevity – ‘No More Portraits’, the essay was first published in New Society, Berger’s regular British publication at that point. The essay in the Schütte catalogue is the same but for a last two sentences, probably removed later on because they are repetitions in the context of the essay, but I’ll insert them into mine because they sum it up: “The reasons that I have given for the decline of the painted portrait have implications which reach further than the portrait. A whole function of painting is in question. And perhaps more than that.”
‘No More Portraits’ starts from the assumption that the tradition of ‘the works now in the National Portrait Gallery’ – is dead, and compares its situation to ‘the crisis of the modern novel’. Berger sees no particular cause for mourning – these talents can be applied to some ‘more urgent, modern function’ – but thinks that a kind of autopsy ‘may help us to understand more clearly our historical situation’. Berger gives three explanations for the death of the portrait, the first of which is the advent of photography. The second is Berger’s feeling that people no longer believe in the social roles portraiture was originally intended to confirm people in – as, famously, Ways of Seeing explains in front of Gainsborough’s Mr & Mrs Andrews; a piece of property commissioned to assert the couple’s ownership of property in the form of land. The third is that, because of the technological, political and artistic change associated with modernity, ‘we can no longer accept that the identity of a man can be adequately established by preserving and fixing what he looks like from a single viewpoint in one place.’ Berger would sum this third point up best in G., with a line that comes between two scenes of our hero seducing a waitress and an aviator trying to fly a plane over the Alps:
‘Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.’
The character G., indeed, is a blank space onto which identities from other places and times, connected only by an initial, are projected: Garibaldi, Gramsci, Gaetano Bresci, Geo Chavez, Giolitti, (Don) Giovanni.
In his first reason he gives for the death of portraiture, Berger refuses to be nostalgic or pessimistic about the consequences of the rise of photography. He argues that 99% of painted portraits do not have the quality of psychological insight into the sitter’s inner life which is claimed for the genre as a whole, and in investigating the personality of a nineteenth-century character he’d never seen, he’d take an album of photos over an average painted likeness. This is phrased as a hypothetical, rhetorical question in the essay, but Berger’s visit to the exhibition brought it to life.
Lady from ‘Don Juan texts for use’ file, John Berger archive, British Library
This photograph was on the top of the drafts for G. in the British Library’s archive; when I scanned it and asked Berger who it was, he couldn’t remember. It had been an imaginative prop for the fin de siècle hairstyles of the women G. seduces, and had probably come from a bric-a-brac stall, we concluded, as another of the photos has a price – 5 F – on the back. In actual fact, the friend who was visiting the exhibition with him had let him borrow a few photographs of her famously beautiful grandmother 45 years ago; when she asked for them back he’d sincerely thought he’d lost them.
As Berger was drafting the novel between 1965 & 1971, the photos show him practicing what he preaches in ‘No More Portraits’. But it variously contradicts and reinforces sections of ‘Art and Property Now’, the 1967 essay from which this exhibition takes its title. Berger writes that:
“Exhibitions, art books, artists carry an urgent message even when the works themselves remain unintelligible. The message is that the work of art is the ideal (and therefore magical, mysterious, incomprehensible) commodity. It is dreamed of as the spiritualized possession. Nobody dreams or thinks of music, the theatre, the cinema or literature in the same way.”
A faded section of canvas-backed photographic paper in one of Room 2’s display cases illustrates this point. This was the section Berger cut out from what appears to be Botticelli’s Venus and Mars in the first episode of Ways of Seeing. Taken from Mike Dibb’s personal archive – he had the entire fake painting on his wall for a while, but threw it away – the impact of Ways of Seeing has given it a potential commodity value. And indeed, we had to pay the BBC £125 to screen the one minute’s footage of it being removed. The series can never be licensed for DVD because of its sheer volume of imagery: the copyright holders could never realistically be tracked down and recompensed for the reproduction of their “commodities.”
But in showing the archive in armoured glass cases – as we were required to, in order to secure the loans – this exhibition is part of a process which contradicts Berger’s assertion in the essay that ‘a painting or a sculpture is a significant form of property – in the sense which a story, a song, a poem is not.’ Hence the logic of Berger’s donation:
“People sell their archives, and well that really didn’t interest me because I don’t like putting prices - money values - on things of heart, or things concerning passion, or even really things concerning the imagination. But I somewhere am perhaps deeply unmercantile and it is market forces as they are now called who at the moment are ruling - both materially and socially, and politically - the planet. Therefore if one can take decisions and do things which have nothing to do with the values behind those market forces, then so much the better.”
As a nice, unexpected side-effect, Libby Hall will now get her ‘things of heart’ – the photographs of her grandmother – back when the exhibition closes and the glass cases can be opened again.
This room’s main text panel ends by referring to Ways of Seeing’s distinction between “information” and what Walter Benjamin, in the essay which inspired it, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936) calls “aura”: an almost sacred quality we are encouraged by market forces to think an “original” has. It asks what blend of these two qualities possessed the visitor to visit. Do you, sat at your computer screen – maybe long after the exhibition has closed – feel content with only the information?
See also Let Vietnam Live!
From 1965-71, John Berger was working on the novel that would win him the Booker Prize, G. (1972); the dateline on the last page lists Geneva, Paris and Bonnieux as the locations. He had left England in the Sixties to become a ‘European writer’, but was in England for Oxford Vietnam Week (Jan. 25 – 31 1967), where he delivered this speech; it was printed, with another by the Reverend Sidney Hinkes (1925-2006) an ex-paratrooper who was also arrested that year for his involvement for an anti-racism protest outside an Oxford hairdresser’s. In 2009, John Berger donated sixty years’ worth of his papers, accumulated in his stables in the French Alps, to the British Library. The pamphlet, Let Vietnam Live! came to the British Library loose as part of the archive.