John Berger's
Ways of Seeing at 50

In what looks like the UK’s National Gallery, Berger takes a scalpel to Botticelli’s Venus and Mars.  He is wearing a trendy seventies shirt and tight trousers.  The incision is played up on the soundtrack.  ‘He says ‘with these programmes; I want to question some of the assumptions usually made about the tradition of European painting'. So the scene is set for a full-scale demolition of many established art history myths.

"Seeing Comes Before Words"

Key Ideas In Ways of Seeing

Seeing comes before words. A child looks and recognises before it can speak.

 

Seeing is fundamental. But it is not only for looking out. It is for placing oneself in relation to what we see. So seeing is not a neutral thing but always a way of seeing.

 

We never look at just one thing; we always look at the relation between things and ourselves.

 

Nobody has a relationship to images which is uncritical. We cannot help but see the world, which presents us with pictures in return. By seeing, we establish our place within that world. What we see and how we see it affects us and affects our place within that world.

 

What and how we see is mediated by the world around us, the culture. In some circumstances, that culture has an agenda that may obstruct the meaning of these images. As a result, people can see things differently from what is intended or hide their original purpose. Berger calls this Mystification.

 

Berger illustrates his ideas with the art history biography of Frans Hals by Seymour Slive. Regents of the Old Men's Alm House by one of the great 17th century Dutch artists, Frans Hals. Slive discusses the picture solely n terms of the artist's technique, skill and vision. Unfortunately, there is no mention that Hals was eighty years old when he painted the group, impoverished and living off of alms from the same clients who commissioned the painting.​

 

In contrast to Slive's analysis of Frans Hals's last two paintings, Berger argues that Hals was one of the first artists to depict capitalism's social relations, expressions, and characters.

 

Berger asserts that the art historian's language severs the paintings from their historical situation.  This high culture approach prevents people from "seeing" the art of the past and thus situating themselves in history.

 

There is a disconnect between the pretty obvious reality and the story of the painting. Berger describes this as Mystification.

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Regents of the Old Men's Alms House, Frans Hals, 1664

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Regentesses of the Old Men's Alms House, Frans Hals 1664

Mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident.

 

The direct response to paintings, the scenes portrayed is hidden by the cultural layer around it, no doubt it's boldness as social criticism is completely bypassed also.

 

There has been a mystification of the painting, a meaning that only the gatekeepers can decipher, the plain meaning hidden.

 

Berger wanted to demystify art criticism and open up artworks to everyone.  In short the democratisation of art galleries and museums.

About Ways of Seeing

Following the success of the TV series, Berger and his team were asked to translate its ideas into a book. The resulting work is a collection of seven essays, three of which consist only of pictures of artworks and largely without text.

The images in Ways of Seeing are in black and white  as Berger did not want it to  look like  a coffee-table book.

To date, over a million copies of the book have been sold.

 

It has been well received and seen to represent a turning point in the history and analysis of art.

The last page is inscribed with the line. To be continued by the reader....

The TV programme is not available as a DVD.  It is free online, in line with Berger's wishes.

 

About John Berger

John Berger (1926–2017), was a British art critic, novelist, painter, poet, and scriptwriter.

He is best known for his essays on art criticism,  sociological writings, and his controversial opinions on modern art.

As a novelist, Berger won the Booker Prize in1972, donating the prize money to the Black Panthers.

He was among the most important and influential British art critics and writers of the twentieth century.

He defended the rights and dignity of workers, migrants, and the oppressed around the world. 

Berger lived most of his life in France.

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René Magritte. La Clef des songes (The Interpretation of Dreams). Brussels, 1935

Magritte's artwork is on the cover of Ways of Seeing. It is accompanied by the statement 'Seeing comes before words... Margritte commented on this always-present gap between words and seeing'. 

 

This work belongs to a series of paintings in which Magritte paired words and images using the format of a children’s reading primer.

 

Misnaming objects was one of Magritte's key strategies for making familiar things look unfamiliar and, also, for reminding us that pictures of things are not the same as the things themselves. A position Berger closely identifies with.

 

 

Berger draws heavily on the work of Walter Benjamin to explain how reproduction is one possible way to change the meaning of images. Berger argues that reproductions impact images by bringing them into new contexts, opening up new (and often, more democratic) possibilities for their interpretation.

 

Reproduction changes what images mean by circulating them in new ways and alongside new ideas, breaking down the rarified narratives handed down from the elite that often seek to control our understanding of their meanings.

Influences on Berger

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The Virgin on the Rocks, Leonardo Da Vinci 1452- 1519), London

Fifty years after the publication of Ways of Seeing, The Virgin of the Rocks remains one of the National Gallery, London's most popular paintings. 

 

It sells more reproductions in postcards and posters than most other paintings in the National Gallery's collection.

 

It is also among the top six most visited artworks on the  National Gallery's online site. A platform, not developed at the time that Berger wrote Ways of Seeing.

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Click cover (above) to access online version of Ways of Seeing