Photograph by Ulf Andersen
Artist, visionary and writer - John Berger is undimmed at 90
Ways of Seeing, his book and TV series, taught us how to view the world. He showed us that everything matters, says film director Sally Potter
John Berger is 90. An excellent age. In his presence, however, age seems utterly irrelevant. This is not just because John seems to live in a perpetual present, forever scanning the world around him with as much intensity as he might ever scan the world within – and therefore seems to live without a trace of nostalgia – but also because he is full of excitement and curiosity about the future.
The story of my encounters with him begins before I was born. John taught art to my mother. She was a teenager and he was only a few years older. It was probably for no more than a few months, a temporary job in a school in north London. Yet somehow, throughout my childhood, his name floated in my consciousness, conjuring up the image of a dashing young soul, handsome, charming, militant and dedicated to the making of art. At 21, already an inspiring teacher.
The next moment that he came sharply into focus for me was with his book – and the television series that it emerged from – Ways of Seeing. His way of expressing ideas – pithy, plain language, bold – and, above all, the ideas themselves that he shaped with such clarity, had the startling effect of feeling both brand new and yet obvious, creating a feeling of recognition. Of course, of course, we all thought; that is how it is; it’s just that we hadn’t found the words for it before.
No one had found the words for it before.
Some years later, sitting in Tilda Swinton’s bedroom, surrounded by piles of books and clothes – it may have been in the midst of dissection of part of my screenplay for Orlando – she pulled out her copy of Ways of Seeing in order to read out one particular sentence to me. It was a sentence with which I was familiar but which bore repetition.
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”
I was in the process of looking at her, I was already the eyes of the camera in our collaboration. She was looking at herself being looked at by me. We became conspirators in the conceptual field so neatly laid out by John. Except that I was a woman.
After I had finished my journey through the epic process of making Orlando and found myself, to my surprise, wanting to be looked at, as a woman in motion – dancing – I made The Tango Lesson. After its release in France, somewhere near the beginning of a long run in a cinema in Montparnasse, I received, out of the blue, a handwritten letter from John.
John Berger had written to me saying that he liked my film. But he didn’t use the word “like”. He used long, flowing sentences and short staccato ones expressing with the utmost generosity and precision the experience he had had while watching the film. If I remember correctly, what struck him in particular was its exploration of the nature of relationship; the intimate space existing in the relatedness of all people and all things, the dance of “I and Thou”. The feeling when receiving and reading his letter was exactly that: it was he who was creating a space, the space of relatedness, in which what I had given out to the world, not knowing where it would land, had landed in him. He had received it. He had thought about it. He had made the effort to pick up his pen and write a letter to me. The film had become a conversation.
This was the beginning of a conversation with John that has continued to this day. I still can hardly believe my good fortune that I exist somewhere in his field of vision, among the many who know and admire him, either close or far.
And now? His books keep coming, the essays keep appearing in newspapers and magazines. He reminds us how to think about Charlie Chaplin, how to listen to songs, how to rage about prisons, how to remember that everything matters. Not just big politics, or big ideas, not just paintings or novels, but also the meal put on the table, the glass of wine shared; the sweetness in a bear hug, the complicity in a chuckle, the pleasures of a shared rage against injustice.
John the encourager, John the enthusiast, John the true critic, John the friend. John at 90 or at any ageless age. Are we not blessed?
• A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebration of John Berger, edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Amarjit Chandan, is published by Zed. There are a number of events in November to mark John Berger’s 90th birthday. Details: zedbooks.net