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Should every picture tell a story? John Berger on film

Art critic John Berger, who died this year aged 90, is best known today for his 1972 book and BBC television series Ways of Seeing, but in fact he achieved much more. To celebrate Berger’s life and work and reflect on his legacy, the National Gallery is hosting a one-off screening and discussion day, featuring rare films from the collection of the BFI National Archive, which showcase the breadth of his broadcasting career, including films that have not been publicly screened since they first aired, as well as more recent works from the latter years of his career.

Should every picture tell a story? John Berger on film has been organised in collaboration with British Film Institute and Verso Books and guest curated by film historians William Fowler, Curator of Artist’s Moving Image, BFI National Archive and Matthew Harle, Research Fellow and Archive Curator, Barbican Centre. They will lead discussions on Berger’s interpretations of visual culture, alongside filmmaker Mike Dibb, Director of Ways of Seeing and Berger’s biographer Tom Overton as well as Esther Leslie, Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck College. The National Gallery will be represented by art historian, Matthew Morgan.

We hope for a lively discussion about what it means to hold a celebration of Berger’s pioneering film-making at The National Gallery, given that Ways of Seeing was a direct challenge to Kenneth Clark’s pioneering but stately Civilisation series of 1969. While Clark, former Director of The National Gallery presented a ‘personal view’ reverential of the Western artistic and cultural canon, Berger, exposed in his radical, provocative fashion, the hidden ideologies of art and visual culture. He invited his audiences to consider the power of images to condition viewers, and prompted them to be alert to questions about how art is constructed for different ‘gazes’. The two programmes, so different in approach and style, are in dialogue with one another. Clark’s Civilisation, shot on colour 35mm film is cinematic and big budget and is a history of Western culture populated by ‘great men’ saving Europe from moral and artistic decline. Berger’s Ways of Seeing, self-conscious of its storytelling medium, is compelling, playful, comparatively low-budget (filmed in a temporary building in Ealing) and imbued with an awareness that art and culture is constructed and experienced through rapid technological change and exploitative social relations. Penguin’s book of the television series has never gone out of print since its first publication.

In the morning, Ways of Seeing and Civilisation will go head-to-head, as we compare Clark’s celebration of classicism and its historical forces with Berger’s exploration of the impact of photographic reproduction on the status and politics of high art. We will also have the opportunity to watch the dynamics of the two art historians together in 1958, discussing Picasso’s Guernica and the political potential of art in Should Every Picture Tell a Story.

In the afternoon we will watch some lesser known films and consider Berger’s storytelling techniques. We will consider the ways in which he blurred the lines between his role as critic and artist filmmaker, for example in films such as Germinal Discussed by John Berger of 1972, in which Berger revisits Zola’s 1872 novel Germinal by visiting a Nottinghamshire mining community, and A Fortunate Man, in which Berger follows the life of a country doctor and his relationships within the community. The day will conclude with a discussion of Berger’s legacy to art history and his enduring contribution to the ways that we interpret fine art and its relationship to society today. Berger’s filmmaking and storytelling will tell us two stories: the progression of Berger in the public imagination, charting his rise from radical critic to one of Britain’s most eminent writers and thinkers, while tracing the story of the arts on television, reclaiming much of British television’s arts filmmaking as serious art in its own right.

Co-written by:
William Fowler, Curator of Artist’s Moving Image, BFI National Archive
Matthew Harle, Research Fellow and Archive Curator, Barbican Centre
Christina Bradstreet, Courses and Events Programmer, The National Gallery

Should every picture tell a story? John Berger on film
Saturday 28 October, 11am–4pm
Sainsbury Wing Theatre
The National Gallery, London
nationalgallery.org.uk