The book in the series was published the same year. This slim paperback was sold more than a million times by the time Berger passed away in 2017. It is sometimes called the art history equivalent of Mao’s Little Red Book. It is in print.
Ways of Seeing aimed to reassess narratives based on the Western European painting tradition from 1400-1900. It was a project that challenged the status quo. Art historian Griselda Pollock wrote it was a challenge to the establishment.
The book and TV screen appeared just as we needed them: a persuasive and ready-made critique of art, advertising, and women’s images.
The first scene in the TV series sets a tone. Berger, a curly-haired Englishman, stands before Botticelli’s Venus & Mars, one of London’s National Gallery’s great treasures. The viewer is expecting the usual drill: an art expert discussing a painting.
He turns his back on the camera, and we can hear his knife cutting the canvas surrounding Venus’s head.
This apparent vandalism on what turned out to be a replica of one of the most famous masterpieces in the gallery is what sparked a discussion about the distortions of mass reproduction. The head of Venus, when separated from Botticelli’s allegoric composition, “becomes an image of a young girl,” a picture that is ripe for mass reproduction.
Context is everything
The first line of the book is so blasé, so naive.
Before words, there is seeing. Before it can talk, the child will look and recognize.
Berger argues that context is crucial to understanding what we see and how. Since the invention of cameras, and especially movie cameras, the context of art has changed.
For example, a film depicting a Breughel crucifixion cannot capture the complexity of the entire image. It is instead presented as a story of details that misrepresents the fundamental truth the painter was trying to communicate.
Modern reproduction methods have destroyed the authority of the art or rather the images that they reproduced.
This was revolutionary in 1972. In 2022, the notion that the context of an artwork changes its meaning is considered orthodoxy.
Oil Painting and Conspicuous Consumption
Ways of Seeing can be called an “anti-artbook”. The illustrations, apart from the colored cover, are of poor quality and are only printed in black and white. The bold sans serif text emphasizes their mediocrity. The medium has been used to convey the message.
Berger’s strongest argument is the corroding effect of money. Even the price of art influences what works will be reproduced.
Berger writes that in the 1960s, photographic prints of Leonardo Da Vinci’s beautiful cartoon, The Virgin and Child With St Anne and the Infant St John the Baptist, became the most sought-after item at the UK’s National Gallery Bookshop. It wasn’t because of the beauty of the work, the artist’s mastery of the line, or the relationship of the figures, but rather because an American wanted the original, which was worth PS2.5 million. Art is put at the service of Mammon.
The book and film both show newspaper clippings with photographs of an important painting but without any commentary. It was not necessary to call the painting Titian’s Death Of Actaeon because it had been so infamous in recent years.
The painting was sold in 1971 to the J. Paul Getty Museum, USA, for a then-record price of PS 1,763,000. The UK’s Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art gave a British buyer one year to match the price. The money was eventually raised through a combination of government funds, a charitable trust, and an appeal made to the public.
Berger claimed that greed is at the very core of the Western tradition of oil painting – this is the medium that before photography could effectively imitate reality. It thus became a device for celebrating conspicuous consumption.
Oil paintings are still the most popular form of art for speculative investments today. Oil paintings are particularly attractive because they can create the illusion of wealth.
Berger’s argument was directed at British art critic Kenneth Clark, whose 1949 book Landscape into Art praised Gainsborough for Mr. and Mrs. Andrews and the “love and mastery” with which the landscape had been painted. Berger saw it differently.
The portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews gave them the satisfaction of being portrayed as landowners. This pleasure was enhanced because oil paint was able to depict their land with all its grandeur.
Men look at women.
Ways of Seeing was the chapter that had the most impact on women art historians, curators, and critics of my generation. Berger examined how Western tradition panders to male voyeurism by depicting women naked as passive objects of sexual desire.
He writes, “Men are looking at women.” “Women are aware of being watched.”
Renaissance artists were fond of painting religious themes with supposed moral undertones. Tintoretto’s Susannah with the Elders, now renamed Susanna Bathing, was a perennial favorite. Berger wrote, “We join with the Elders to spy on Susannah bathing. She turns to us and looks at us.”
Berger says that the intention is the same, whether the image is reproduced as soft-porn photography or painted as an artwork:
Women are always portrayed in a different light than men. This is not because women are feminine and men masculine, but because we assume that the ‘ideal spectator’ is male. The image of a woman is meant to flatter this man.
Read more: Explainer: what does the ‘male gaze’ mean, and what about a female gaze?
As with his critique of the landscape tradition, Berger takes direct aim at Clark, whose 1956 book, The Nude, was devoted to the subject. For Clark, while naked bodies are without clothes, the nude is “a form of art.”
Nudity is being naked in the eyes of others, but not recognizing yourself.
Berger, in the television series, discusses the problems that this treatment of the female body poses with five women. However, they are not identified. They are named, however, at the end of this program: Anya Bostock (the host), Eva Figes (the producer), Jane Kenrick (the executive producer), Barbara Niven, and Carola Moon. The book does not acknowledge their contribution.
Bostock is the most articulate speaker. She was a woman of great intellect, a professional translator, and a second-wave feminism leader. She was John’s companion from 1958 to 1974. At that time, she went by the name Anya Berger.
Life and Influences
Ways of Seeing goes beyond an attack on the privileged classes. Berger can capture the essence of an artist’s intent at times. He writes the following when he talks about a Rembrandt self-portrait.
Everything has disappeared except the sense of existence and existence as a problem.
Berger is a critic who can be mocking. He dismisses, for example, Seymour Slive’s description by the art historian of Frans Hals’s late painting The Regentesses at the Old Men’s Alms House.