Tilda Swinton Unveils New Film on Legendary Critic John Berger

Berger and Swinton met in the 80s while working on a previous film.

Tilda Swinton at the premiere of The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger at the 66th Berlin Film Festival.Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images.
Tilda Swinton at the premiere of The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger at the 66th Berlin Film Festival.
Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images.

The 66th Berlin Film Festival is still in full swing in the German capital, and amid crass refugee-related publicity stunts courtesy of Ai Weiwei, and star-studded premieres of Hollywood blockbusters, a fantastic program devoted to films made by and about artists is also on offer.

One of the premieres that has garnered most attention in this category is Tilda Swinton’s The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger. In this essay film, the actress and three collaborators—the artist and filmmaker Christopher Roth, academic and film producer Colin MacCabe, and the filmmaker Bartek Dziadosz—have taken turns behind the camera filming the legendary art critic and novelist John Berger in his bucolic house in Quincy, in the French Alps.

Film still from The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.Photo: Courtesy The Derek Jarman Lab.

Film still from The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.
Photo: Courtesy The Derek Jarman Lab.

Berger is widely known for his 1972 BBC series Ways of Seeing (which was subsequently turned into a bestselling book). In it, Berger proposed a new, more critical way of looking at historical European painting, encouraging viewers to challenge the ideologies underpinning some of the masterpieces of the Western art cannon, while pointing to the impact that the development of photography and the rise of an art market have had in our understanding of it.

Since then, Berger, still active at 90, has been a key figure in art and culture criticism, as well as a celebrated fiction writer.

According to the Independent, Swinton met Berger back in the late 1980s when MacCabe, then head of production at the British Film Institute, directed a film adaptation of Berger’s short story Play Me Something, in which the writer appeared and Swinton played a small part.

After discovering they shared the same birthday (both were born on November 5, although more than 30 years apart) the two began an enduring friendship that has culminated in this arthouse documentary and tribute, a five-year project structured around the four seasons of the year, starting with a very snowy winter.

Film still from The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.Photo: Courtesy The Derek Jarman Lab.

Film still from The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger.
Photo: Courtesy The Derek Jarman Lab.

But this is not Swinton’s first foray into directing. In 2008, the striking-looking actress collaborated with MacCabe on the film Derek, about the cult British artist and filmmaker Derek Jarman, who gave Swinton her first big role in the film Caravaggio and then turned her into his muse.

The art-oriented Swinton has also participated in several performance pieces. In 1995, she famously developed and starred in The Maybe at London’s Serpentine Gallery, in which she was displayed in a glass vitrine for a week, seemingly asleep. The piece was recreated in 2013 at New York’s MoMA. Swinton has also collaborated for several years with Olivier Saillard, director of Paris’ Palais Galliera fashion museum, on an annual performance for the city’s Festival d’Automne.

“The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger” is currently screened in Berlin as part of the 66th Berlin Film Festival. The film will be screened at London’s National Portrait Gallery in October, 2016.


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