CRITICISM - John Berger: an interview

John Berger:  an interview from fragments

Aspect, 26-27, Winter 1983, pp. 57-65. 

After the Army you went to art school, and then you taught drawing. Which proved the more educational? Being a student or being a teacher?

“Because every tradition has broken down, students are presented with the work from half-a-dozen civilisations and then told to get on with it. Various teachers can pass on various methods or demonstrate their own personal ad hoc solutions, but very seldom is any consistent line of purpose or development established in a school. As a result, students can neither conform nor rebel. The majority simply flounder and their flounderings are called ‘experiments’.”

Where did you learn your art history?

“Before I answer that I should say that I see scholars as the invisible menders of history who, in my opinion, can teach very little about painting as such: for that, go to museums and studios.

            In my own case, I had the good fortune to become an unofficial student of Frederick Antal. He was my teacher, he encouraged me, and a great deal of what I understand by art history I owe to him. His masterpiece remains Florentine Painting and its Social Background. Certain aspects of the hero of my first novel, A Painter of our Time, derived from Antal.

            The other influence was from Max Raphael whose 1933 book, Proudhon, Marx and Picasso, has just been issued in English by Lawrence and Wishart. I dedicated my own book on Picasso to Raphael. His life was austere. He held no official academic post. He was forced several times to emigrate. He earned very little money. He wrote and noted without cease. As he traveled, small groups of friends and unofficial students collected around him.”

By the mid-1950s you were writing art criticism for the “New Statesman” which is where I first saw your name. What was it like to be a Marxist fallen among Fabians?

“Every week after I had written my article, I had to fight for it line by line, adjective by adjective, against constant editorial caviling.

            But precisely because of the pressures – professional, political, ideological, personal pressures – it seems to me that I needed at that time to formulate swift but sharp generalisations and to cultivate certain long-term insights in order to transcend the pressures and escape the confines of the genre.

See also: Marxism