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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

"Ways of seeing" by John Berger

This is one of the classic texts of art appreciation suggesting that the oil painting tradition in European post-Renaissance art is an attempt by an elite to maintain the sense that the values established in the early development of capitalism of class power based on monetary wealth should be respected. Thus, he suggests that the development of perspective represents the artist suggesting that the viewer's is the correct perception. The nude, almost always female of course, invariably gazes towards the viewer and this, Berger suggests, is because the viewer possesses both the painting and, in some way, the body of the model.

Berger then argues that the ubiquitous advertising image is often based on oil painting convention and represents an attempt to control the viewer by proposing a future in which the viewer is glamorous and envied.

This is a brilliantly thought provoking book.


  • Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world ... Each evening we see the sun set. we know that the Earth is turning away from it.” (p 7)
  • We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” (p 8)
  • We never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” (p 9)
How paintings differ from photographs and film

  • Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware ... of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.” (p 10)
  • The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless ... The camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual. ... What you saw depended upon where you were when.” (p 18)
  • A film unfolds in time and painting does not.” (p 26)

Berger points out that oil paintings is a form of painting that developed in Europe during the Renaissance and that a series of conventions has developed around it.

  • When an image is presented as a work of art the way people look at it is affected by a whole series of learnt assumptions ... beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, status, taste, etc” (p 11)
  • The art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes.” (p 11)
  • The compositional unity of a painting contributes fundamentally to the power of its image.” (p 13)
  • The convention of perspective, which is unique to European art and which was first established in the early Renaissance ... makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything convergys onto the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God.” (p 16)
  • Reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion ... that art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.” (p 29)

One of the primary conventions is that of the nude (the vast majority being of women):

  • In western art nudes are essentially passive, often reclining, usually submissive and looking at the spectator. (p 52) “In other non European traditions - in Indian art, Persian art, African art, Pre-Columbian art - nakedness is never supine in this way. ... it is likely to show active sexual love as between two people, the woman as active as the man.” (p 53) 
  • The way of seeing ‘a nude’ is not necessarily confined to art: there are also nude photographs, nude poses, new gestures. what is true is that the nude is always conventionalized - and the authority for it's conventions derives from a certain tradition of art.” (p 47)
  • To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognised for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude ... Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display. To be naked is to be without disguise. To be on display is to have the surface of one's own skin, the hairs of one's own body, turned into a disguise which, in that situation, can never be discarded. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress.” (p 54)
  • A nude “is made to appeal to his [the viewer, the ‘owner’ of the painting] sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality ...In the European tradition generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman's body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion.”
  • It is true that sometimes painting include a male lover. But the woman's attention is very really directed towards him. Often she looks away from him or she looks out of the picture towards the one who considers himself her true lover - the spectator-owner.” (p 56)
  • Almost all post-Renaissance European sexual imagery is frontal ... because the sexual protagonist is the spectator-owner looking at it.” (p 56)

In modern life the most ubiquitous images are 'publicity' images. The purpose of publicity is to make us desire a future state; the images shown are those to which we are supposed to aspire. “The interminable present of meaningless working hours is ‘balanced’ by a dreamt future in which ... the passive worker becomes the active consumer.” (p 149)

  • Publicity principally addressed to the working class tends to promise a personal transformation through the function of the particular product it is selling (Cinderella); middle-class publicity promises a transformation of relationships through a general atmosphere created by an ensemble of products (The Enchanted Palace).” (p 145)
  • Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream or that cream ... but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal. It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer - even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.” (p 131)
  • Publicity works by making us envy other people. It makes us wish to be transformed into the envied ones. “Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. ... It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images.” (p 133)
  • The power of the glamorous resides in their supposed happiness” (p 133

Oil paintings and publicity have many similarities including: “The gestures of models ,,, and mythological figures. The romantic use of nature ... to create a place where innocence can be refound. The exotic and nostalgic attraction of the Mediterranean. The poses taken up to denote stereotypes of women: serene mother (madonna), free-wheeling secretary (actress, King’s mistress), perfect hostess (spectator-owner’s wife), sex-object (Venus, nymph surprised) ... The special sexual emphasis given to women’s legs. The gestures and embraces of lovers, arranged frontally for the benefit of the spectator. The sea, offering a new life. The physical stance of men conveying wealth and virility. The treatment of distance by perspective - offering mystery. The equation of drinking and success. The man as knight (horseman) become motorist.” (p 138)

Both oil paintings and publicity tend to distinguish between images of men and women. This is to do with cultural differences in male and female 'presence':

  • A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. I the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual - but its object is always exterior to the man.” (p 45) 
  • A woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste ... presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.” (p 46)
  • To be born of woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. The social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space. But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisioning herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually ... She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance what is normally thought of as the success of their life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another. Men survey women before treating them. Consequently how a woman appears to a man can determine how she will be treated. To acquire some control of this process, women must contain it and interiorize it.” (p 46)
  • Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women that also the relation of women to themselves.” (p 47)

Other interesting  comments:

  • The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past.” (p 11)
  • When metaphysical symbols are introduced ... their symbolism is usually made unconvincing or unnatural by the unequivocal, static materialism of the painting-method.” (p 91)
  • The great artist is a man whose life-time is consumed by struggle: partly against material circumstances, partly against incomprehension, partly against himself. Her is imagined as a kind of Jacob wrestling with an Angel.” (p 110)

What I didn't like about this book was the typeface (mostly bold which I found tiring) and the poor quality of the illustrations.

An extraordinarily interesting book. It was written in 1972 and one suspects the anti-capitalist Berger would be even more appalled or intrigued by the images in our modern rampantly capitalist world. What would he make of the images on the internet, both the stylistic conventions of the selfie and of  those pictures posted on social media and the stylistic conventions of internet pornography. Several doctoral theses available here!

July 2017; 154 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:

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