British writer and broadcaster, well known both as a left-wing art critic and as a novelist. He was born in London, where he studied at the Central School of Art and Chelsea School of Art, and began his career as a painter and teacher of drawing. From 1952 to 1961 he wrote regularly for The New Statesman, and this was the period of his greatest influence as a critic of contemporary art. His support for realist painters, notably *Bratby and the other members of the *Kitchen Sink School, was combined with political sympathies for the Communist Party.
Although he never slavishly followed the party line in uncritical praise for *Socialist Realism, he attacked contemporary art in the West as being over-concerned with *formalism. In 1958 he published his first novel, A Painter of Our Time, in which he explored the dilemma of the Communist artist in the West, particularly after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the book was loosely inspired by László (or Peter) Peri (1899–1967), a Hungarian-born sculptor and painter who emigrated from Germany to England in 1933. A collection of Berger's criticism appeared in book form in 1960 as Permanent Red: Essays in Seeing (in the USA it was given the significantly less politicized title Toward Reality), but he stopped writing regular criticism the following year. By this time, many of those he had supported had turned away from realism and the success of *Abstract Expressionism represented a defeat for his values. Subsequently Berger achieved fame as a novelist (he won the Booker Prize for G in 1972), but he continued to write on art, producing several controversial books, including Success and Failure of *Picasso (1965), which emphasized the artist's anarchist roots and examined the failure of the Communists to make real use of one of their most celebrated adherents. His most famous book is Ways of Seeing (1972, originating in a television series of the same name, 1969), in which he challenged the whole tradition of Western art, linking it to political, economic, and sexual exploitation, particularly through advertising. The views he expressed were initially strongly contested (Lawrence *Gowing said that Berger was managing to ‘interpose himself…between us and the visible meaning of a good picture’), but the book's arguments at one time became a complacently accepted orthodoxy in art colleges. Berger's other books include monographs on *Guttuso (1957) and *Léger (1966) and Art and Revolution: Ernst *Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the USSR (1969). In the 1970s Berger moved to France, living in a peasant farming community in the Jura. Introducing a 1979 reprint of Permanent Red, he concluded that ‘I now believe that there is an absolute incompatibility between art and private property, or between art and state property—unless the state is a plebeian democracy.’ See also Fuller.
Text Source: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (Oxford University Press)