John Peter Berger’s achievements in the arts and criticism defy simple classification. Even the term “man of letters,” which encompasses the work of literary polymaths, is inadequate, for Berger has not only written art, social, and literary criticism but also helped to produce a television series, made films, and published photographic essays. Perhaps he is best described as one of the European Left’s most distinguished “men of culture and politics.”
In fact, opposition to the increased specialization and division of labor which characterized the twentieth century is one of the principal themes that run through Berger’s varied works. With this he combines a commitment to humane art and to the political liberation and cultural recognition of those who suffer from prejudice, oppression, and powerlessness. From his youth, Berger was a Marxist, but his political stance and practice were shaped by an artistic sensibility and a sense of values that have their roots in nineteenth century art and anarcho-socialist theory.
Berger’s childhood was a lonely one. His parents (his father was a director of an accounting firm) sent him to a boarding school at the age of six, and he had little to do with them thereafter. His experiences at school were not happy ones, and eventually he fled to London, where he studied painting at two art schools, before and after two years in the army during World War II. After the war, he was drawn to politics, working closely with, but not joining, the Communist Party. He became interested in writing criticism and was much influenced by the historical art criticism of the Marxist Frederick Antal. For ten years, he wrote criticism of contemporary art for The New Statesman, opposing abstract expressionism and calling for a realism that would express the range and depth of human hopes. His best criticism from this period is collected in Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing. In politics, he considered himself a communist and supported the policies of the Soviet Union until 1956, when it crushed reform movements in Eastern Europe.
In the late 1950’s, Berger turned from critical to creative writing, but his interests remained the same. His first novel, A Painter of Our Time, explores the problems of a Hungarian artist and socialist living in exile in England. The book is typical of Berger’s work in its focus on the...
(The entire section is 986 words.)