The death of John Berger at the age of ninety at the beginning of January 2017 suddenly brought back to me the enormous influence he had on me and my generation as viewers of art, readers of literature and as practitioners ourselves. I had not thought very much about him recently, and have to admit I have not read his novels, though I shall certainly now read To the Wedding, especially after seeing Rowan Righelato’s review in The Guardian here
When I first saw Berger’s 1972 BBC programmes, Ways of Seeing, and then read the book I was a secondary school teacher. It blew my mind open. Up till then I had taught English Literature as if it consisted, aka Harold Bloom (The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994), of middle class male writers whose fortress was occasionally threatened by the likes of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, or John Clare. And the same went for my art gallery visits: I accepted unquestioningly the idea that brilliant male painters had the right to paint the female body, clothed and unclothed, and again occasionally someone like Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt or Gwen John were allowed a look-in. As Berger put it: “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” (Ways of Seeing 1972 p.45)
But Berger didn’t only look at the male/female issue in painting. He also analysed the class aspects of the great painters of the eighteenth century. And of course the two were closely linked because the whole question of marriage and property among the English upper classes was based on the idea that the woman was the man’s property. The marriage often depended on the property that a woman could bring to her husband. The example that Berger offered was Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews. They are painted, the wife sitting on a bench in the couple’s parkland, with her husband standing behind her, so he, like her, is able to survey their lands but he can also take in his wife at the same time. Class and gender go hand in hand in this picture. Berger could equally well have referred to the novels of this period, especially those written by women, where place and space were male-dominated.
In effect, the novel became the place where women could enter the public sphere and declare their viewpoints about property and marriage. This is borne out in the novels of Fanny Burney, Mary Robinson, Charlotte Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft for example, all near contemporaries of Jane Austen who herself made it very clear in Pride and Prejudice that her heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, was not going to marry a stupid man like Mr Collins just because that would keep the Bennett property in the family.
There were also some women artists of the time like Angelika Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun who managed to paint pictures of women, often showing them writing, reading or painting themselves, and not just looking pretty for the sake of the male gaze.
More recently in my teaching and writing career I came across the paintings and photographs of the Nigerian/British painter, Yinka Shonibare. He took the Gainsborough painting and re-appropriated it in a startling manner: Mr and Mrs Andrews are set in their familiar landscape but they are headless and instead of wearing eighteenth century costume, they are clothed in coloured cotton fabric, representing Britain’s colonial acquisition of, or trade with, cotton-growing colonies. I don’t know how far Shonibare was indebted to John Berger for this idea.
After Ways of Seeing I then went on to read Berger’s A Fortunate Man (about a country doctor) and The Seventh Man, (about refugees,) both books written in co-operation with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr. Later when I started writing poetry and thought about the use of imagery in words to carry a message, I recognised how close my words-only practice was to the way Berger had used the images of Mohr’s photos to support his message. The one that I have always remembered is a photo of a bend in a river at the point in the narrative in A Fortunate Man, where the course of the doctor’s life changes.
I know I am not doing John Berger justice by leaving out not only his novels and poetry, but also the many books he went on to write about art and artists but I particularly wanted to share here the effect he had on me in my literary critical studies and my writing. It was Berger’s writing that alerted me to so many other writers and critics, for example, David Dabydeen, the British/Guyanan poet who wrote a poem in the voice of the black servant boy shown at the side of an eighteenth century family portrait, Francis Wheatley’s Family Group and Negro Boy (Coolie Odyssey 1988).
Here is the last verse of Dabydeen’s poem:
“Whilst painterman splash, drip, dip, rearrange,
And produce picture marvellously strange
How fair they seem and full of grace
Benevolence and love spread upon each face
And me at the edge typical of my race
Holding back the urine the hurt ad disgrace.”
It is thanks to Berger and poets like Dabydeen, that I have developed my own poetry, often giving a voice to people of the past who were not allowed a voice in their own epoch.
Whatever our specialisms, as writers, visual artists and musicians, we should all be indebted to John Berger for his strong and thought-provoking ideas. I particularly like the way he called himself a listener and a storyteller. Whether you know his work or not, here are two worthwhile programmes from the BBC about John Berger:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082qynq a BBC documentary
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nyd1V0gp37I a BBC world service interview
Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews
Yinka Shonibare, Appropriation of Mr and Mrs Andrews
Francis Wheatley, Family Group and Negro Boy