Before Berger, painterly detail, the development of a style, attributions and authentications, were the tools of an art historian's trade, and those practicing it most successfully in the 20th century — Bernard Berenson in the splendor of his Florentine villa, Kenneth Clark, who bought himself Saltwood Castle in Kent and was knighted for his stately TV series Civilisation — had always been unashamedly elitist in both their work and their lives. Then came Berger, born in Hackney, east London, in 1926, educated not at Harvard or Oxford but at London art schools, hanging out not with collectors and dealers but with the revolutionary Black Panther Party, to which he donated half the money from his 1972 Booker Prize-winning experimental novel G., about a rich Italian's journey to class consciousness.
Berger taught us that oil painting was a celebration of social standing, that landscapes were created for landowners, and that "you paint a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her." The accompanying paperback, with its shrieking bold typeface and hazy black and white reproductions of Old Master nudes placed alongside provocative photographs from contemporary magazines, became a bestseller. I was one of countless students in the 1970s and 1980s, many of us chafing at traditional, male-dominated Oxbridge readings of art and literature, for whom Berger was a blast of truth. He demystified high art, repackaged it in terms that related to everyday life, and proved that a love of great paintings need not be elitist but could co-exist with communitarian values. Today, social and political contexts are so integral to our reading of a picture or story that it is easy to forget how revolutionary Berger's stance was. No commentator on art since — from Robert Hughes to Sister Wendy — has escaped his influence.
Wullschlager then goes on to explain why it's been so difficult to find and watch Ways of Seeing these past four decades. In short, obtaining the rights to images of hundreds of paintings and ads would be far too expensive to make a release on DVD feasible. Starting today, though, BFI Southbank in London presents Ways of Seeing: John Berger on the Small Screen, a series running through April 17 that features screenings of all four 30-minute episodes as well as other work by Berger, a doc on his life and a Q&A.
In today's Guardian, Kate Abbott talks with Berger and Ways of Seeing director Michael Dibb. Berger: "We were a small group: Mike, me, a soundman, an editor called David Gladwell, and the director of the BBC department who commissioned it, Stephen Hearst. Stephen left us alone for six months to get on with it. Those circumstances were really special, even then; now, they are unimaginable. No broadcaster is going to give four crazy guys six months to make four half-hour films." Dibb: "People often think [the book] came first, but it would never have been written the way it was if we hadn't had months of slowly constructing the films."
For Sight & Sound, Jonathan Conlin, author of a book on Civilisation, looks back on the impact of Ways of Seeing on the development of the art documentary: "Though his tousled hair and piercing stare lent him a powerful presence on camera, here Berger let the camera do the talking for him, in a series of sequences seamlessly juxtaposing Old Masters and contemporary advertising to demonstrate their shared emphasis on exclusivity, hierarchy and male potency."
In September, the British Library will be presenting a conference, Ways of Seeing John Berger.