When we last see John Berger, in The Seasons in Quincy, he is hunched over his black Honda CBR 1100 motorcycle riding off into the Parisian sunset, with Honor Swinton, daughter of an evidently nervous Tilda Swinton (a prominent character in the film), sitting behind him with her arms wrapped around his waist. In the scene just before that, John offers to teach the teenager, 72 years his junior, how to ride when she turns 17 the next year.
As John Berger himself has explained in the past, his passion for the motorbike comes from the fact that on the bike “the relation between a decision and its consequences is so close. And since you are so vulnerable, it demands a quality of observation that is extremely intense. This observation is not only of what is happening but also of what may happen in the very next instant.”
Indeed, John Berger has spent the majority of his life observing, intently, what is happening, what may happen, and also what has happened in the past. In the decades since Ways of Seeing, his 1972 television series on art and photography, he remained prolific as well as diverse in the capacity of a storyteller, producing novels, plays, poetry, screenplays, paintings, photographs, and works that combine some, if not all, of the above. And yet for a man who has spent his whole life telling us about the lives of others, he has told us very little about his own life. In essence, there are two John Bergers: John the Artist who will always be with us, and John the Human who lives among us but is growing older. In The Seasons in Quincy, we learn little about the latter and attempts to celebrate the former collapse into the elegiac.
John Berger, the man, was born in London in 1926 to a father of Hungarian descent, and a working-class mother who had been a suffragette in her youth. Sent off to boarding school, a young John found refuge and companions in artists from decades past. At age 16, he dropped out to enroll in art school. A two-year stint in the army would follow, after which he returned to teaching art. He would go on to write for the Tribune, become an art critic for the New Statesman, and transition away from art criticism to work on his novels and essays, eventually moving to the village of Quincy in the French Alps.
John Berger, the artist, is made of stories, instead of bones and flesh. He was formed in the company of Piero della Francesca, Giacometti, Frank Auerbach, Caravaggio, Velázquez Leger, and of course, Goya. According to him, a storyteller is “death’s secretary.” Thus he walks in the world of the dead, for instance delivering letters from the sculptor Juan Muñoz to the poet Nazim Hikmet, and buying and sending presents to the philosopher Rosa Luxemburg.