Ways of Seeing- John Berger

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

John Berger is an 86 year old art historian/writer/ poet and artist who created the series ‘Ways of seeing’ in 1972. He also calls himself a story teller and a Marxist. The series focuses on the hidden ideologies within Western visual culture .


Fig 12. John Berger “Ways of seeing” documentary, 1972

At the beginning of the documentary, Berger focuses on the impacts of technology. He talks of how everything is connected and that anything you bring into the world can make a difference. He speaks of how we see everything through a lens, which is something i look at within my practice of science and art. He discusses how the invention of the camera changed our perception of artwork and how we now see paintings like never before, whether they be through our own interpretation, or through physically seeing them on a computer screen. He describes the camera as a mechanical eye and how through this new technology paintings have become more accessible to us all over the world creating a constant movement and making them free from boundaries of time and space. Through this, the original context of the artwork can be changed as we begin to see them in our own context of our homes and lives rather than in places such as churches or galleries. Berger also mentions how through the use of a camera, a painting can be changed through zooming in on small areas or moving across the canvas to tell a story, as well as the use of music and how these can both change the atmosphere of the painting. Overall, Berger concludes that once a painting becomes transmittable, it can be manipulated.

Bacchus,Ceres, and Cupid By: Von Aachen (1512-1615)

Fig 13. Bacchus,Ceres, and Cupid By: Von Aachen (1512-1615)

In his series, Berger also looks into women within the art world. He discusses how from a young age, women are taught to continuously survey themselves to others and more specifically men which will lead to the success of her life as a woman. Women are often faced with mirrors, which show us what we look like, or what we should look like. Berger focuses on the female nude, and how it has progressed through time especially through European oil paintings. He mentions the criteria for how women should be represented within a painting of this particular time. Berger feels that to be naked is to be without clothes, yet to be nude, the person becomes an object, stripped of all power. In many of these older painting the women portray someone who is submissive to  men who are not nude. They are also painted as ‘sight’s in which to be judged accordingly by men.  He also discusses how we may view this image of nakedness, whether as a form of sexuality, or as a form of display without disguise.

Berger also touches on oil paintings themselves. We as humans look, buy and collect valuable objects such as oil paintings which have become one of the most valuable treasures of all. He feels that if you buy a painting, you also buy the look in which the painting represents. Because of the increasing prices of paintings, when galleries are closed for the night they are guarded because they technically become a bank rather than a gallery, but where does the value of these paintings come from? Because of the new forms of reproduction of art through photography and TV, people tend to cling onto the old approach, making art sacred. Personally I feel that the originality of the painting as value as it cannot be replicated by any other artist, especially if the artist is no longer around, adding a larger value to the artwork. The painting itself is a moment captured which cannot be repeated and with age the paintings value increases. Berger mentions how oil painting before anything else was a way of celebrating personal possessions and lifestyles which the viewer longs for, which in modern times has perhaps been replaced with publicity as a way of making us desire specific possessions.

Sexuality is used as a mean of successfully marketing this alcohol

Fig 14. Sexuality is used as a mean of successfully marketing this alcohol

Lastly, Berger addresses the theme of advertising. He speaks of how we are constantly surrounded by images which stimulates our imagination and is a form of language which speaks to us. He feels that publicity persuades us to buy more to make us ‘richer’ yet we technically are poorer as a result. Within painting, the goddess has been replaced with the modern model to express glamour, create social envy and status. Berger mentions how publicity and the oil painting have much in common and how in many cases, publicity will impersonate a painting and how even sometimes paintings are used in conjunction to aid advertising. Advertising also shows the owners valuables and objects as well as gestures similar to oil painting as well as the womens nudity and submissiveness to men as well as signs of love. Berger discusses how colour photography is very similar to an oil painting and personally I feel this shows how technology may be slowly taking over painting within the art world. Publicity also represents the same idea shown in oil painting which is ‘you are what you have’ through the representation of possessions which create an appealing lifestyle which we aspire to have yet we have not yet achieved, leaving us to believe that if we buy these products are life will then be great.

Venus (Roger Michell 2007)

Fig 15. Venus (Roger Michell 2007)

Berger also looks into the connection between publicity and our own lives and the promises which advertising brings us in contrast with our own needs. When displaying oil paintings, they were surrounded by gold frames, which represent the wealth of the owner within the painting, however the publicity image is surrounded by us just as we are. They invite us in, yet exclude us for who we really are.


By Kath Howard (2013)