Ways of Seeing – four part BBC film: John Berger

Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (BBC (You Tube) 1975), Berger, John (dir.).

(Berger 1975a)

Preliminary notes (EEA202 Cloud site https://d2l.deakin.edu.au/d2l/le/content/342480/Home )

States that John Berger differentiates ways of seeing women and men . Men are potent creatures who are seen as doing, women, passive with the purpose of caring for men. Berger believes women’s self-worth is measured by how others see her – ‘through the manner in which she is portrayed, in her own eyes, and in men’s eyes.’

Berger analyses nude depictions of women in the European artistic tradition.

Episode 1

Image – cutting part of an ‘old master’ painting from the canvas – a female portrait.

Says we now see paintings differently from how other before saw them.

Seeing depends on habit and perspective

Perspective centres everything on the eye of the beholder – makes the eye the centre of the visible world

Cameras changed this – we could see things from the perspective of someone else –

Historical footage – of a film camera (Black and white) – multiple film images with text. (Manifesto 1923 by Dzigo Vertov (Russian film director) – spoken over his 1928 film A man with a movie camera, film)

We can now see images of paintings via photography – can be seen ‘in a million places at the same time’ – e.g. on the computer screen.

We now see images in the context of our own lives (rather than having to go to the gallery to view them).

History – paintings were originally painted for a specific place – were an integral part of the building for which they were commissioned.

Extreme example of this is the icon – a place of meaning – symbol of their god. – in a specific place with pilgrims travelling to see it. Now – can be seen anywhere, including our own home

Discussion of the reproduction in comparison with the original – we cannot see the whole painting in its original state – uses The Virgin of the Rocks Da Vinci – as an example. National Gallery – London

Talks about authenticity and research to verify that authenticity

Market value (which depends on authenticity of the unique image) gives a new sense of mystique to art work.

Need to strip the false religiosity (cash value) may be a substitute for what was lost when the camera allowed images to be reproduced. How are the differences between the

replica and original different in meaning.

Talks about the silence and stillness of a painting – which ‘can be very striking’. – 2 old masters shown

There is a conduit from the silent, still painting to the viewer –

Paintings can be used for manipulation – e.g. with movement and sound – e.g. camera – zoom on part of an image. Or with film – zooming in selectively can give completely different meanings – uses a crucifixion image of Christ carrying the cross – ‘in paintings there is no unfolding time’

Music – can also change music subtly and without the viewer being aware of it. Opera extract over a Caravaggio painting – secular meaning gleam, then with a Bach chorale (St Mathew Passion) over the same image – gives the work a religious overtone

Paintings, on reproduction, become a form of information, competing with other information.

Images’ meaning can be changed by context – what is around the image, what it portrays in relation to something else – Showed a Goya confrontation/shooting image after a TV dance song, and then in context of prisoners being tied up to face a firing squad.

  • We need to be aware of manipulation
  • Worries about the ‘false mystification’ of art – text e.g. of an art textbook may be further mystified in art wank language.
  • Discusses in context of a painting of a group of charitable people, who gave peat to the destitute artist – (Hans Hals?) – the book about Hals talks about the composition of the work, rather than the people it depicts and its meaning. Re-mystifying the painting, rather than revealing it to viewers and readers. Berger says that the works are very moving for the viewer, because of Hals ability to render faces and expression. Basically the book text is mystification.
  • Berger notes that children are very direct in how they look at images, and are ready to give their own interpretation of meaning.

Concludes that one must be aware of Berger’s manipulation and editing the images he shows for his own purposes. He preconceives of the interactivity of the internet.

Ways of Seeing, Episode 2 (BBC (You Tube) 1975b), — (dir.).

(Berger 1975b)

Premise is that men watch women, but ‘women watch themselves being looked at’ –’ constantly use the glances of others as mirrors, reminding themselves of how they look’ 0:57

Images of women of all ages – and a couple of portraits, or paintings including women.

‘A woman is always accompanied except when alone, by her own image of herself, and perhaps even then’

‘How she appears to others, and, particularly, how she appears to men, is crucially important to the success of her life.’

Notes that women are depicted as nudes, whereas this is rare for men.

Kenneth Clarke – book on the nude – discriminates being naked (without clothes) from being nude – (a form of art)

Berger says being nude is to be seen naked by others and not seen as oneself but as an object (whereas being naked is to be oneself).

Story of the nude begins with Genesis (Adam and Eve). The woman is blamed and is made subservient to the man. The concept of shame.  (The male point of view)

The nude implies and awareness of being seen by a spectator.

Cites the story of Susannah and the old men. Mirror is a symbol of female vanity. Points up to hypocrisy of this – it’s ok for men to paint pictures of nudes and look at them, but they blame the woman (in whose hand they have placed a mirror) as being vain.

Berger says almost all European nudes make the woman into an object other than herself – he uses a Rubens painting as one of the few which doesn’t – the models gaze looks directly at the artist – she is partially covered by a cloak. Also a Rembrandt, and a George de la Tour.

Others have been deliberately rendered as objects by the act of the painter dressing them in nakedness – they are no longer themselves but objects of ‘beauty’ or ‘ugliness’ rather than people. They are ‘available’ – almost rendered as prostitutes by the very act of being used as models.

As one which is about sexual availability he uses a portrait on Nell Gwyn commissioned by Charles II. When the king showed this to his friends, it demonstrated his ‘ownership’ of Nell Gwyn as a sexual object, not an equal partner or lover.

Contrasts this with some Indian paintings of man and woman in sexual congress – without one being subservient to the other, and without their being seen as posing – rather wrapped up in each other.

Berger says that Western nudes are painted with the viewer as important as either artist or subjects.

Says the women in these portraits have a gaze directed towards the spectator (or to appeal to the viewer). The woman’s body is placed to show her to the male viewer.

Says the lack of body hair on the female nude is to render her a weak passive sexual object – body hair associated with dominance and active participation.

Cupid was depicted as the object of passion

Women are shown languid – ‘to feed an appetite, not to have any passion of their own’.

Nudes are usually ideals – ‘European humanist ideals’ – Durer believed in the ideal nude – made up by cherry picking perfect body parts from several subjects – further distancing the image from any real person.

The paintings do not celebrate the female form, but rather pander to the spectator’s voyeurism.

Women discuss the program to this point.

‘I cannot identify with them … enormous breasts… whereas with photographs you can feel that – nearly all the paintings are ‘idealised’ so very unreal with any deep down image that I might have of myself or of any deep down pleasure … I can admire them as paintings but they mean human beings to me’

Woman 2 – ‘The image that I identify with is the photograph – advertising’ –

‘The nude in painting is no guide to reality’

Woman 4 – discusses the Manet Dejeuner sur l’herbe –

Woman 1 – discusses the nudity as disguise Berger postulates – we are always dressing up for a part (women more than men) to show the kind of character they want to present – nudity is a uniform ‘I am ready now for sexual pleasure’ – you can’t identify the nude with being free.

2 – has just read The Story of O – comments that the woman could not touch own breasts, must always have mouth and legs open – available. Availability implies passivity.

2 – men and women are narcissistic and cut off from each other by their self-images. A man acts in the world and the world gives him back his image, women gain their image from how the other person sees her – is much more passive.

3 – The painful part of the narcissistic thing is the feeling of inadequacy.

Woman 1 – talks about a very old (Renaissance) image of a woman in t loose shift – who appears quite at ease – comfortable with herself as she is not as others see her.

Ways of Seeing, Episode 3 (BBC (You Tube) 1975c), — (dir.).

(Berger 1975c) Ways of Seeing, Episode 3 (BBC (You Tube) 1975c), — (dir.). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7wi8jd7aC4


  • Oil paintings have become the most valuable objects.
  • Paintings depict things – may appear as tangible as thouse outside of it. – Images – mainly Renaissance works – some portraits, some still lifes.
  • May show treasures and paintings are treasures themselves.
  • Paintings have become very valuable commodities.
  • Where does the value come from?
  • Recap of programs 1&2 – about how we can now use reproduction to make multiple copies.
  • Film clips – a clip of a Myra Hess concert & a Berlin concert by fertfanger.   Both also show audiences – and Nazi symbol behind the second.
  • Is art sublime? Is is mystical? It can’t be explained by ‘a love of art’
  • Paintings can surround one in the way music or literature cannot – this engenders a kind of pride
  • The show sights – and are all painted in oils (till 20th century)
  • The trad of oil painting is 100,000s of paintings – rather than just the few which are now famous
  • Paintings are real – can be looked at, touch, are solid (part of an early scientific concept) – but this led to a concept of ownership
  • Harks back to colonial expansion of Europeans to the rest of the world – and sublimation of peoples, appropriation of country and resources and slavery.
  • Conversion to Christianity
  • Holbein picture about Magellan voyage – around the world – (20% of profits and the right to run government of any countries ‘discovered’) – science, imagination, diplomacy, power – but what it’s most about wealth – money – riches – affluence – all surfaces are rich – tapestries. Belief that the rich are entitled to their wealth
  • Implicit in the rise of the European Christian Culture was the destruction of other cultures.
  • Image – an African kneels to show his master a painting.
  • Earlier (non-European) works were static, ritualistic, celebrated a social or divine order
  • The European oil paintings are all about richness and entitlement
  • Prior to oil painting artists sometimes enhanced their images with gold leaf.
  • After oil painting – there was a celebration of merchandise – e.g. exotic, expensive foods, goods etc. Merchandise was the principal subject – demonstrate the artist’s virtuosity, then the owner’s wealth – still lifes, livestock pictures (of pedigree animals – and their owners), objects (object d’arte), landed property, portraits (of owners and their familities) – records ot the confidence of those who considered themselves entitled by who they were to their position of power
  • Portraits not of the poor
  • Portraits – style – reveals the dignity of the sitter – ‘painted like livestock, furniture or tailor’s dummies’ – a record of the sitter’s existence and power – their worth to society – e.g. the dressing and jewels of women are more important than their faces, showing their richness – for show
  • History paintings from classical literature – the priveliged minority had read these works (unknown to the plebs) – the owners could put themselves into these portraits and imagine themselves as players in these classical stories.
  • Series of portraits – all of Mary Magdelane – The method of painting contradicts the story – they all show ‘availability’ – Mary is elligible – even though ‘redeemed’ by Jesus – the analogy is that women are chattels – to be legitimised as wives, or made into whores as prostitutes and mistresses.
  • Less to landscape – although some (e.g. von Guerrard) are of
  • Gainsborough – quote from Kenneth Clarke – then says that the background in the portrait of a man and his wife – on their own land – shows the rich (Mr and Mrs Andrews) – who owned this land to the exclusion of all others.
  • Magritte – comments on this
  • Some painters contradict Berger’s argument – Rubens – picture of a chateau and fields in which the plebs can poach and reap with their master’s away. Hunting is free – is about great plenty – for all, not just the rich – a world that contradicts the entire history of landed property
  • Vermeer – portrait of a woman – weighing gold on a pair of scales – Dutch middle class home – as one looks further the painting becomes mysterious – a moment of face, scales, pearls preserved, unrepeatable – she is holding the moment. Is about the mystery of light and time, not affluence
  • We should not confuse exceptional works with the general purpose of paintings – to show and create affluence
  • Two portraits of Rembrandt – when young (prestige, wealth) and old (no sign of wealth) but a sense of existence. But the later painting, devoid as it is of vestiges of wealth, is now fabulously valuable.
  • Sums up – we are studying European painting from inside (not outside like other cultures) – but if we try to study it anthropologically) we see it was about possessions.
  • ‘The tradition of the oil painting has now been broken, for once and for all’
  • Publicity has taken its place – e.g. using the rich images, or alluding to old works for advertising.

Ways of Seeing, Episode 4 (BBC (You Tube) 1975d), — (dir.).

Advertising – is all around us – billboards, signs on buses, posters etc. Ads on screen and paper.

  • A language of words and images (and music)
  • Present a utopian (non-real) world – but are all pervasive – ‘we take them away in our minds, we see them in our dreams’
  • Publicity – ‘proposes to each of us that we change ourselves by buying something more’
  • Persuades us people who have been transformed – glamorised by the product they are trying to sell (i.e. the beautiful people) – glamour is more than skin deep (According to Berger) – Glamour is for everyone who believes they need to be glamorous
  • g. a large country house (affluence) as the backdrop for an ad, in the same way as the idealised castles and landscapes in oil paintings showed affluence.
  • ‘Now the model has taken the place of the goddess’
  • Glamour is a new idea – without social envy, glamour would not exist
  • In a culture (as of old) were there is a defined, class system with little or no movement between strata, there is little envy as the belief in ‘upward mobility’ does not exist. A place for everyone and everyone in her place.
  • Comments that we fail to see the similarity between painting of old and publicity of today.
  • Ads also appropriate old masters – also music.
  • Classical works give prestige – e.g. to luxury items like fine wine, or expensive clothing/underwear etc.
  • Atmosphere is evoked like the atmosphere once evoked in oil painting – e.g. horses in a paddock become luxury cars. Objects may be placed like a still life, people posed to emulate poses and gestures from painting or statuary.
  • Many images and the pictures they appropriate shown.
  • g. poses for love – but advertising, e.g. hosiery
  • Colour photography performs the same role that oil paint once did – we can photograph in glorious technicolour.
  • ‘Publicity and oil painting use many of the same references and celebrate the same qualities in things.’
  • Purpose and effects are different –
    • The painting was a demonstration of affluence and the reality of the rich person’s lifestyle – demonstration of facts (albeit idealised) – but didn’t take into account the exploitation on which that wealth was built
    • Publicity/advertising – appeals to a dream – an aspired life that we do not have but wish to achieve (or a told we should do so). Purchasing these possessions will transform the entirety of our lives –
    • Publicity works on our anxieties about money –’ making money appear as if it were itself magical’
    • Links affluence to sexual virility – no glamour, no desirability, inadequacy – suggestion that one is inadequate as one is – need the products to become so
  • The reality still includes the back story – those who work to manufacture these luxury goods – low paid, often women (or in third world sweat shops) – the mindless assembly line, with the ever-present threat of mechanisation
  • Image of women working on a perfume assembly line.
  • The present – work – is overshadowed by an imaginary future – conjured by publicity – intimate dreams
  • The dream of becoming admirable – famous – desirable – and that this will continue
  • Often linked to female sexuality – e.g. hosiery abandoned on a chair, nude women, or partially clad nudes.
  • The dream of a faraway place – to travel elsewhere – without taking all the emotional baggage with us. To be in two worlds at once (our western world, but voyeurs in other worlds through world travel) – or to travel to the world of antiquities –
  • Publicity works on the imagination but also gives a philosophical system – publicity sells glamorised objects – may use negative images – e.g. danger from weapon images etc. – shoes posed on a machine gun – danger, exoticism – but in a safe way.
  • Images of refugees from Pakistan who need help – an ad to get donations – over the page is an ad for alcohol – both are ads – but there is a disconnect –
  • Historic events are used as publicity ploys – a magazine juxtaposes poverty and ads for food, alcohol, – there is no communication between the two worlds. One wizened with poverty, the other obese with over consumption.
  • Photos of large and small billboards in cities and along roads. Juxtaposed with the poverty of council flats.
  • Oil paintings show the real lifestyle of those they depict, ads are surrounded by us as we are – with the dream of a utopian place where the target of the publicity is glamorous and desirable.

Summing up the series

  • We look at images (reproductions or the original) and judge them against our own experience.

(Berger 1975d) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhOVdoMxYxU

Ways of Seeing, Episode 1 (BBC (You Tube) 1975a), Berger, John (dir.).

Ways of Seeing, Episode 2 (BBC (You Tube) 1975b), — (dir.).

Ways of Seeing, Episode 3 (BBC (You Tube) 1975c), — (dir.).

Ways of Seeing, Episode 4 (BBC (You Tube) 1975d), — (dir.).



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