Admitting to not having read this book in its entirety, I decided to discover the book Ways of Seeing by John Berger. This book consists of seven essays jumping between essays with words and images and essays with solely images. The book is described as a follow on to the television series Ways of Seeing and “extends and elaborates” on ideas contained within. Its intention is to raise questions and enhance the process of questioning.
The first chapter explore the basics. Berger states that seeing comes before words and looks in detail about how the ”relationship between what we see and what we know” will never be settled. It leads him on to discussing the difference in meaning of symbols and how something in our world today could have meant something different in the middle ages for example. A quote I found particularly pertinent is “Photographers ways of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject, painters way of seeing is reconstituted by the marks he makes on the canvas or paper.”
Following on from this Berger discusses the idea of a reproduction. An original painting is the unique copy, a reproduction whether in a book or on a television screen will always lack something the original has. He explains the example of the piece The Virgin on the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci which was placed in a room with bullet proof glass when its monetary value went up.
Lastly in the chapter Berger looks at the fact that “Art exists no longer as it did in the past” , it no longer has authority. Reproductions are becoming so popular in the form of postcards or cut outs or books that museums are becoming less and less popular and originals are therefore unseen.
Chapter two is a chapter looking purely at images. All of the images contain women and are all selected from different eras and mediums. The images mainly focus on women as a symbol of beauty but also somewhat secondary to men. The theme of Fame is shown several times as well. Looking at the back of the book, the works reproduced have the word nude repeated in their titles. I would say this chapter focusses on the views towards women throughout several eras and its similarity as we move forward. It does seems stagnant through these images.
The third chapter of the book in fact explores what was shown in the second chapter, to encompass it in a phrase it looks at Seeing Women. Berger starts off by exploring how the social presence of a women differs to that of a man. The presence of a man is on the power he exercises on others and for a women it is her own attitude to herself, her physical emanation. Through a women’s actions we can tell how she would like to be treated.
Berger says that in European oil paintings, women were the main subjects. He goes on to discuss the nude in art and how it started with Adam and Eve, who experienced the idea of nakedness was within the mind of the beholder. The Renaissance period used fig leaves within their nudes. Kenneth Clark explains that naked is to be without clothes but the nude is a form of art. We then start to explore the female as a nude. Painters would place mirrors in their work in order that their painting of a nude women was not for their pleasure but called upon the vanity of a women instead. Males were occasionally present in these paintings but seldom did the woman look at them, she only would have eyes for the painter and even as a viewer this would becoming increasingly clear. The woman would be naked for the painter and not the spectator. In European Art, men would always be the spectator and women always the object. Berger goes on to explain that this unequal relationship is embedded within our culture, the ideal spectator will always be the man.
Chapter four is again a chapter based only on images. The images come from a range of eras and also a range of themes. We jump in quick succession from Religion and well known biblical stories, to death and starvation, then food and feasting, then nude with a narrative followed by portraiture and a final image of surrealism. None of these seem in anyway connection however turning the page to chapter five I understand that all of them are oil paintings. A topic that is explored within the following chapter.
Chapter five explore oil painting as not only a technique but as a tradition. Oil painting depicts buyable object and shows an analogy between processing and ways of seeing. It was an art form that was first used in 15th century Northern Europe but it was not until the 16th century that it established its own way of seeing. This period has no set end date but the tradition of oil painting really ended when photography took over so Berger considers the period of oil painting between 1500 and 1900.
To have an oil painting for the Renaissance artist, according to Levi Strauss, was an instrument of knowledge and power.
The equality of objects, the ability to “ render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidarity of what it depicts” and the quality of illusionism were all factors of oil painting. Berger goes on to discuss in detail the painting The Ambassadors by Holbein. He looks at the symbolism and themes of the painting and the way it was painted in order to get a full perspective of who these men were and what they stood for.
He then goes on to round up the chapter by discussing the different genres of oil. He explained that in the medieval times gold-leaf was used by artists, but the oil painters did not use gold but they aimed to show the value of gold and what money can buy. This was taken on in several ways. Firstly Animals, if they were pedigree they showed value and wealth, objet d’art or paintings of objects and their symbolism, and buildings or land to show property wealth.
The highest genre of painting was mythological, if a painting showed a mythological scene or character it was considered of higher quality to a simple genre painting.
The images depicted in chapter six are split into several themes, Emotions, Colonialism, Everyday Life, Animals ( in particular dogs and horses) and women of the upper class. I can see no link between these paintings or a way in which they are connected. Even the next chapter brings me no closer to finding out their similarities. I will have to watch the television series to be able to fully understand these paintings.
The seventh and final chapter explores publicity. Everywhere we are constantly surrounded by publicity. In social history there has never been a similar form of dense visual message. It always has to be continually updated or renewed and it never speaks of the present. Berger goes on to explain that publicity benefits the consumer and therefore the national economy. It is effective because it feeds the real, it is always looking at a future buyer. Publicity plays on the fact that the buyer will be transformed by the product, it plays on the emotion of envy.
Berger points out the similarities between oil painting and publicity, it brings enjoyment and shows us possessions we desire, it makes us want for more and if we buy these products life can and will become better. Berger states that oil painting is addressed to those who made money out of the market and publicity is addressed to those who constitute the market.
Publicity has an enormous influence on society, it is a political phenomenon of great importance. Without publicity, Capitalism could not survive, publicity is its dream.
John Berger’s book is incredibly thought provoking. It leads us through many different topics and themes, a lot of which are still relevant today. It did question me but it also thoroughly informed me, I have learnt a lot about art history and some of the main players involved in art history. I can see why this is essential reading, it does expand your mind and give ideas on how to go about creating art and what has come before. I would like to watch the television series to further understand some of the topics explained in the book. I feel as though it could give me more digestible information as I found the reading of this book quite a challenge. However I enjoyed exploring this book and I would recommend it for any art student. It has provided me with invaluable information.